In March of 2020, as businesses, churches, and schools began to close, and we started to grasp the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, our former Rector answered the call to become a Bishop in another diocese.
The grand celebration that we had planned to thank him for his 11 years of service to our parish was scrapped. On his final Sunday, after the 11 AM Mass, there were elbow bumps instead of hugs, tears of sorrow and fear instead of joy, and a sense that something ominous was descending on us.
When is the right time to hand over responsibilities in our congregations and ministries and how to do so effectively are important questions to consider? Whether it is the Vestry, Altar Guild, Diocesan Council or ECW, we need a plan.
In determining when to handoff, for some, term limits are the necessary guardrails to ensure that we do not keep the same responsibilities indefinitely. For others, the term “over my dead body” was created, with a staunch refusal to handoff, threatening instead to leave the ministry or withhold their tithes.
The obvious advantage for letting go is that it allows new ideas and perspectives to be introduced and it makes room for the gifts of others to be exercised. This is especially important as we strive to allow young adults to have meaningful responsibilities and also welcome those who are newcomers to the church or to our faith or existing members who feel left out of church life.
A few years back, the Episcopal Church made an intentional change in its language: “Clergy Deployment” became “Transition Ministry.” The shift was generally a good one and it led to an impressive amount of reflection on lay leadership, congregational life cycles, and the strategies that can support healthy arrivals and departures.
Yet, we still need to be talking about clergy deployment. We still need to be talking about how we get the right people into the right chairs. (Or, to use a more sacred version of that same metaphor: The right people behind the right altars.)
My first challenge as a new rector was a common one: How do I make this team into my team?
I would have plenty of opportunities to recruit new staff in subsequent years, but I had to begin my ministry with a team that had been assembled by someone else. My first step was to establish core values: teamwork, dedication, and excellence.
I wish I could say that my new colleagues and I discerned these principles together, but we didn’t. This was my way of letting the existing staff know the new rector’s style, of establishing baseline expectations that would apply equally to all of us, and of reshaping an existing system to achieve new outcomes.
As anyone who has been around during a transition to a new pastor or judicatory leader knows, looking for a new leader can be a lengthy and expensive process. So many things to be done and processes to go through. Surveying members, interviewing current and past clergy and lay leaders to gain an understanding of corporate history, holding listening sessions, working with consultants, developing a profile, and more. All these things and more may be part of your discernment process. Juggling all of them can feel overwhelming at times.
All these things may be necessary parts to finding a new leader.
But they may not be sufficient.
They may help us find A leader.
But they may not help us find the leader we need.
Searching for a new Rector for your parish is a significant undertaking. Searching for a new Rector during a global pandemic amplifies the significance exponentially.
Our previous Rector’s final Sunday was our last in-person gathering for worship in March of 2020. No one knew how long that closure would last; most of us – myself included – assumed we’d be through the worst of the pandemic by last summer. How wrong we were.
Given video conferencing technology, the challenge we faced was not how we, as a Rector Search Committee would meet, but rather how we would define who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become.
This month we offer five resources on transitions and how to tackle them. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1. In No Time to Hibernate, Victor Conrado and Louisa McKellaston suggest that a transition is an opportunity to develop and grow the whole church - not a time to stay the course. Having strong lay leadership during such an interim is essential.
As far as blogging goes, I’ve been quiet. I haven’t submitted a post to ECF Vital Practices since March of this year, which (not ironically) was around the time I accepted a new call as rector of a new congregation – Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland. While that, in itself, would be good reason to be quiet(er) and focus more intentionally on the new community to which I’ve been called, I also didn’t leave my other job – rector of St. George’s, Valley Lee.
At a clergy conference a friend noticed my name tag gained an extra congregation. “Is this like a game of Monopoly?” he asked, wondering how many other ‘properties’ I could pick up along my way. That’s not at all my goal, but at the time I am curious how far we can push things in our church’s fairly outmoded business model. I’m not at all convinced we, the Episcopal Church, have arrived at a truly gospel-centered, ministry-first understanding of how and why we operate institutionally in the ways we do. Nor am I convinced that we really want to engage a prolonged and serious conversation about some of these fundamental ‘business’ assumptions.
So, she turned to me. What do you do at the church?
Pardon me? I didn't quite understand her question.
At my last church, the priest's wife was always there, organizing things and cleaning up. What do you do at the church?
I swallowed hard. I didn't want to mention that at her last church, the priest's spouse was actually the full-time Christian formation director who had a master's degree in theology. Nor did I inquire whether she asks doctor's spouses what they do at the hospital or lawyer's spouses how they pitch in at the courthouse.
So I smiled. I love our church. And my job is managing editor of a publishing house.
We're working with Richard Schori, spouse of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, on a lovely book about life with Katharine and ministry across The Episcopal Church. In an essay, he includes a section on clergy spouses. How we're often seen as appendages to our collared half. The assumptions about our role in the congregation (seen a lot, rarely heard).
As congregations continue to welcome new vestry members and begin the process of forming new leadership teams, ECF Vital Practices’ continues to share the wisdom and experience of congregational leaders from across our church.
Here are their stories:
I hate to garden. But I really like the results.
A house seems so much warmer with an entry flanked by vibrant flowers. A backyard feels lived in with the turn of a red tomato or the wandering vine of a pumpkin.
Not only is gardening a chore for me, but also I’m not very good at it either. Nearly every plant we receive meets a lonely, thirsty end (or in some cases, death by drowning). Our best intentions are thwarted by lack of skill and attention.
That’s why I appreciate the parable of the wheat and the weeds from Sunday’s gospel reading (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). I thank God that I don’t have to know the difference, to separate the good from the bad. I’d be forever plucking off flower buds while the dandelions take over.
In the corner of our yard are a small flowerbed and a lamppost. Some ivy has been working hard to overcome our green-thumb deficits but there’s still a lot of uncovered clay and soil. Last year the spot played host to our fall spray of gourds and pumpkins. Our son and his friends enjoyed the end of the season with a gourd fight, smashing them on driveway and ground.
Sometimes it’s shaving your head. Volunteering for the dunking booth. Or staying to clean up after the women’s tea.
In all of our congregations, there’s been a moment when things shift. It’s almost imperceptible but like finally breaking in a pair of heels, suddenly things seem to fit better.
This blog is for both priests (and their families) and people in the congregation. For priests, it’s a promise that most of the time, the shift will happen, and people will see you in a new light, still as preacher and pastor but also a member of the community. For people in the pews, I write this to say that it’s hard waiting for the shift, feeling of-but-not-in the community. I hope you’ll work to make the wait easier by including the priest in your end-of-summer soiree and the neighborhood block party.
I'm sure this raises the ire of some, who perhaps rightfully claim priests should stand apart. Priests can’t be friends with parishioners, they say. Fraternizing only leads to blurred lines of authority, accountability, and respect.
But I’m not talking about cozying up, the priest and parishioners becoming BFF’s. Rather, when this shift happens, the priest is seen as part of the community. You’re no longer surprised if you run into him or her at the grocery store (priests eat?) or in the park (priests walk their dogs?). It’s when you’re thinking about the guest list for a Christmas party, and the priest makes it on there not of obligation but because the omission would seem weird.
We received the keys to our new house last night.
The kids ran from room to empty room, claiming their space and plotting design elements. We brought the champagne to pop open after the old owners left.
But a funny thing happened. Like most moves, it took longer to clean out the last bit of stuff than they anticipated. The previous owners were still loading and sweeping, and by this time, forgoing boxes and instead, throwing their belongings in trash bags to sort out later.
You’ve probably seen the posts by now about the pay-it-forward movement on Facebook.
“The first five people to comment on this status will receive from me, sometime in the next year, a gift - perhaps a handmade item, some baked goods, a candle or some other surprise. There will be no warning; it will happen when the mood strikes me. Inbox me your address if I don't already have it! The catch is the first five to respond must post this message on their Facebook page and make the same offer.”
Social media is a strange creature, telling us far more sometimes than we want to know (I really don’t care about the color, texture or velocity of a child’s vomit). Sometimes it creates rifts: my husband’s great-uncle recently unfriended both of us. Facebook is not a good medium for him – he comes across spiteful, angry and bigoted, so perhaps the unfriending is a blessing.
But there is also a real power in the way it connects people. Birthday blessings are fun, but it’s also a privilege to offer prayers for the high school friend whose 18-year-old niece died unexpectedly.
I found it hard to imagine St. Mary’s going on without its rector - or rather, its former rector - and yet that’s exactly what was happening. Vibrant worship was taking place, new vegetables were being planted in the garden, a summer concert was planned, and there were even a few new visitors.
Two Sundays ago, I headed up to West Harlem to preach at St. Mary’s Manhattanville church, my former parish. It was the first time I’d been there in a long while, and it was the first opportunity I’d had to see the full impact of the recent departure of its beloved rector, the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp. I was one of the many people who’ve since been invited to preach in Fr. Earl’s absence.
I was excited to be back at St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s was the church that first welcomed me into the Episcopal Church; it was also where I made my go at the ordination process. Throughout these ups-and-downs, Fr. Earl was a constant, larger-than-life presence who challenged me, the neighborhood, and wider Church to “Be Not Afraid.” (How larger-than-life? Check out this New York Times profile of him and other Harlem clergy, his recent arrest at Duarte Square, and his outspoken witness against the New York Police Department’s “Stop and Frisk” policy and criminal profiling of Muslims.)
Lutheran Pastor Keith Anderson recently posted this blog advocating that all clergy maintain a personal blog or website. He says:
Tip: if you don’t already have personal blog or website, start one. Share some sermons, video, your ideas, reflections, and pictures. Give people a way to get to know you and your work. Just as we expect churches to have website, we increasingly expect leaders themselves to have some kind of online platform. Tumblr.com or WordPress.com are both good options.
Is anyone else concerned about our church’s impassioned embrace of depression as we look toward General Convention and a challenging future? The Episcopal blogosphere is full of articles underscoring our grim institutional trajectory. A couple of the best are from Episcopal Journey of Hope – Where Have All the Rectors Gone? – a stark appraisal of declining job opportunities in the Midwest, and from The Crusty Old Dean – Guns, Germs and the Episcopal Church, a challenge to the church to radically restructure or collapse.
A few observations:
I don’t want to share my friend with church.
In January my family moved to a new community and church. The parishioners have been wonderful, and the community has embraced our children. It has been a good transition.
But let’s be honest: Making friends as an adult isn’t nearly as easy as it was as a child or even as in college and the young adult years. You don’t have the easy access to sharing a lunch table or playing at recess. There’s not the relaxed comraderie of dorm life or the work-all-day, play-all-night pattern from my early 20s. Consumed by responsibilities of family, work, and community, It’s harder to find someone with whom you connect.
As we were moving in to our new home, I made a friend. She’s funny and kind, a great storyteller, and a good mom. We clicked.
So here’s the problem. We’ve talk about faith, and I sense a curiosity. Burned by some church folks throughout her life, she doesn’t attend anywhere now. I think the Episcopal Church would be a great fit.
But I don’t want to share.
This morning I received the letter from my Rector saying he was leaving our parish in New York City and going to a congregation in Vermont. We knew it was coming…he’d always said he’d serve at St. Mary’s for about 10 years. At last year’s annual meeting he reminded us the time was coming.
But now it’s real. He delivered his resignation letter to the wardens and vestry. The announcement to the congregation has been made. A date for his last Sunday is set.
The transition process begins.
I’ve been feeling and thinking a lot about transition because I, too, am leaving. I’ll be leaving this beloved parish after 18 years and moving out of NYC. I’ll also be leaving my job with the Episcopal Church Foundation after 14 years of wonderful work. Like my rector leaving our congregation, there comes a time for a healthy change – the Holy Spirit calls us to go and grow in new ways, even though it means leaving many of the people and places we love.
In the last two weeks of the emotional rollercoaster with my own transition, I’ve taken time to remind myself about best practices for moving gracefully through change. I’ve read articles by William Bridges, including his wonderful retelling of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness. I’ve taken time to touch base with my colleagues about what they are feeling and thinking, in addition to drafting the action plan that will guide us for the next six weeks. I’ve been journaling and praying each morning, trying to get enough sleep every night.
St. Nicholas greeted us at the door.
This evening is one of my favorites leading up to Christmas. The children giggle, laugh, and point. Some hide behind their mothers’ legs, peeking one eye out at the jolly ole soul. We combine the delight of Santa with the telling of the story of the saint, and it connects – at least a little – the giving and receiving of gifts.
Kid after kid climbed on his lap, posed for pictures and then shared their list. Electric scooters. Harry Potter movies. iPods and iPhones (the last was my daughter. I caught St. Nicholas’ eye and shook my head a slight no. He steered her quickly into another direction).