January 2015
Vestry Leadership

Leading Through Transition

This article is also available in Spanish aquí

St. John’s Episcopal Church [Jackson Hole, Wyoming] is posed for the “next big thing.” Why do I feel this way? As a congregation, we are engaged and have the heart, talent, and courage to make a big difference in our community by following Jesus’ teachings.

What’s in front of us now is the challenge –and opportunity – of calling a new rector. An important preface to this article is acknowledging how wonderful our vestry is. We were a cohesive and respectful group before the process of transition began; we have now grown into a truly loving family of faithful servants.

Sharing leadership

This process has given us the ability to share leadership and benefit from the various talents each vestry member brings – experience in recruiting/hiring practices, skill at logistics, a grounded perspective, spiritual gifts, to name a few. Like a family, we have differences, but know that that is healthy, and the very reason each of us has grown. No, this is not utopia – indeed, we are of many minds - but we are intentional about being of one heart. I, for instance, am very much the Martha in the Biblical story of Mary and Martha, and am blessed to have several Mary’s on the vestry who nurture me.

Being a part of this talented team has helped me be an effective leader during transition – one who can maintain a nonanxious presence by fostering leadership in others. In my experience in management, I have often used the metaphor of what lifts and keeps a kite in the air; the kite by itself will topple and fall without the ballast of the tail, and the tail by itself cannot become airborne. Soaring requires both.

We are also blessed to have a bishop and diocesan staff who are indispensable, smoothing our steps all along the way. I have never hesitated calling the diocese to speak with our Canon for Congregational Enrichment, nor have I missed an opportunity to publicly and privately express our appreciation.

The process and rules

Following our dioceses' basic guidelines, very early in the process we outlined each step, identified desired outcomes, and established a set of rules. The process, expectations, and rules were developed collaboratively, and therefore accepted by all members.

We shared the process with parishioners through our weekly newsletter, and encouraged them to contact any one of us with questions or concerns. Except for confidential candidate information, we communicated, communicated, communicated. Anxiety is a natural consequence of change, so occasionally impatience was expressed, to which my response was and is a (Mary-inspired) constant; “I am living into my faith in God’s divine providence, and my prayer is that you will also.” This has been a valuable reminder to practice what I preach.

Due to our initial candidate’s change of circumstances, we were challenged to accelerate the timeline for calling an interim rector. Accepting that, we agreed that in order to cast a vote, a vestry member had to be physically present during every candidate’s interview, which required an extraordinary commitment of time from vestry members. This was tough, but essential. Also important was determining early on when a super-majority, and when a simple-majority vote was required.

We read through the ministry portfolios, met twice for thorough and prayerful discussion, drafted standard and individualized questions, conducted Skype interviews, met to determine who to invite for onsite interviews, and again drafted final, individualized questions, and some relevant scenarios. The ‘Martha’ in me then took over the logistics – the easy part.

Full-day interviews included a get-acquainted lunch; a facilities tour with me; a meeting with the junior warden and me about budget, organization, and long-range planning; and a Eucharist for the vestry in which the candidate preached and presided, followed by dinner during which we conducted the ‘formal’ interview. Hosting three candidates in one week was incredibly demanding, particularly since everyone’s attendance was required for the Eucharist and dinner. Whew.

Make room for sadness

There is one consideration that is not included in any guidelines or rules or planning steps; that is the need to make room for sadness. By its nature, the role of senior warden creates a bond, and for me, affection for the departing rector and his family. In a leadership role during this time of transition, holding onto that could easily be sacrificed in the busyness. There is work to do, and there is excitement and anxiety about the future, but there also is a deep sense of loss that should not be ignored. It is important to be vigilant in remaining sensitive to the needs and feelings of the departing rector, and sensitive to your own sorrow. Fortunately I have several sources of pastoral care, and wholeheartedly embrace it.

Along with other vestry members, I have and continue to grow spiritually through this process. While we are in the early phases of transition, still honoring our retiring rector and having just called an interim rector, my opinion is that continuing to mindfully cultivate and support every member of the vestry will be essential to realizing a successful end of transition and being open to greet a new purpose to which God may call our church and its leaders.

Try This: Transitions in ordained leadership usually produce great anxiety in congregations. There are suddenly many new questions: What will change? Who will replace the departing individual in both the short and long term? How long will it take to find a replacement? What kind of alterations will the new persons (including the interim) want to initiate?

Vestries leading in times of transition can take a few tips from Moses. Their first responsibility is to stay calm in the midst of change, keeping the congregation focused on its mission. After all, the church is still there even though the rector has departed.

There are some specific things vestries can do to ease the transition:

  • Pray without ceasing for strength and guidance, and encourage the congregation to do the same.
  • Help the departing rector make a good “exit,” acknowledging the joint ministry that has taken place.
  • Provide time to share the history of the congregation, identifying those things the congregation wants to carry forward into the future and those that can be left behind.
  • Share their understanding of the differences between “change” and “transition” and prepare the congregation for the time it will take for things to seem “normal” again.
  • Allow for experimentation — it will help the congregation prepare for the changes any new leader brings and may spark new ideas about ways of being “church.”
  • At the same time, avoid unnecessary changes — too many changes raise the anxiety level.
  • When the new rector arrives, plan time to mutually clarify roles and expectations and agree to a Mutual Ministry Review at the end of the first year.

Above all, LISTEN — just as Moses spent time walking among the campfires and sitting down with the people, vestries need to be especially available at this time.

Much like Moses needed advice from his father-in-law, Jethro, search committees, transition teams, diocesan staff members and/or consultants can provide vestries help and advice during the transitional time. (Excerpted from “Reaching for that Trapeze Bar” by Mike Ehmer, Vestry Papers, January 2010.)

Jan Henderson has been in senior management positions for several decades. She holds a Master’s degree from the Denver University’s College of Law, was employed as Division Manager for the U.S. District Court in Tucson, AZ, and retired in 2009 from the position of Teton County Executive in Jackson Hole, WY, with 350 employees and 14 department heads reporting to her. Jan has been on the vestry of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson Hole for 5 years, the last 2 as senior warden.


Agenda for candidate’s visit and interview

Interview questions

Proposed selection process

Voting protocol

This article is part of the January 2015 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Leadership