May 2016
Transition and Change

Expectations Matter: Have Faith

In 1971, during my preparation for confirmation, I experienced my first clergy transition. The rector of the congregation that I attended received a call to another diocese. In an instant I lost my priest, teacher, and one of the people that modeled Christ's love in my life. Even though I was in my early teens, the memories of that experience centered on loss and grief. The church home that I had known for the past seven years no longer felt the same. Shortly after a new priest was called my family left the congregation to join a church with a vibrant youth ministry. While the decision to depart from our congregation wasn't an easy one, the decision to leave was not about what the other church offered.

As I revisit that experience as a transition officer within The Episcopal Church, I am acutely aware that the decision to leave our home congregation was centered on the rector's departure and not the community of faith to which we belonged. Our family's feelings of loss eventually separated us from the community we had grown to love. The grief from that experience was evident in my own spiritual journey and stayed with me for a long time.

As I work with congregations in transition, the emotions I felt in my teens are at times also quite palpable for members of vestries and search committees. Lay leaders will express, "If we don't get a priest soon our attendance and giving will decline." My response to such observations is always the same, "What the leadership believes will happen after the departure of a rector or vicar will happen. If it is the expectation that attendance and giving will decline, it will. If the expectation that attendance and giving will increase, it will." Whether or not a congregation will engage in effective mission and ministry during a clergy transition rests primarily in the hands of its lay leadership.

Any transitional experience can be a catalyst for undue stress and strain in our otherwise normal lives. Seeking new careers, moving into a new home, children leaving for college, the death of a loved one are all examples of changes that can cause our day-to-day existence to become unpredictable. In such situations we are moved from places of routine and comfort to an existence that seems unfamiliar.

At the same time, it is within periods of transition that individuals have the greatest opportunity to proactively seek change that provides a better quality of life for ourselves, families, and the communities in which we exist. The key is to work through any grief or stress that transition brings and focus on the new opportunities, the new life that awaits. When lay leadership embrace periods of transition as opportunities for new life and strengthened vitality, congregations will flourish.

In the secular world athletes provide an example of the commitment needed for healthy transitions. Olympic gold medalist cyclist Kristen Armstrong views transition in this way:

"Times of transition are strenuous, but I love them. They are an opportunity to purge, rethink priorities, and be intentional about new habits. We can make our new normal any way we want."

Athletes understand that in the midst of training and competition, when efforts seem too great to bear, they push through the pain and struggle while remaining focused on the goals that need to be accomplished. Lay leaders have that same ability in times of transition and the seeking of new clergy leadership. Below are some tools to help lay leadership on the transition journey:

Embrace your faith perspective: In scripture there are countless examples of God’s people in the wilderness. Revisit those stories and embrace the reality that, with God’s help, the Promised Land will be realized.

Work through the pain and grief: Take time to celebrate the life and tenure of the departing clergy person and all that has been accomplished together within the worshipping community. Grieve the departure if needed and rejoice in the new life and leadership that awaits.

Journey through transition in partnership with your diocesan bishop: Seek assistance from your diocesan bishop's office and communicate regularly with the diocesan transition officer. Inquire about resources that are available to your congregation. Have honest conversation with your bishop or transition officer regarding the gifts and skills you are seeking in new clergy leadership. Discover what leadership qualities the bishop values for your congregation. If there is unresolved conflict between the congregation and the bishop, seek reconciliation.

Prayer: Involve the entire community in prayer as new clergy leadership is sought. Utilize the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Provide prayer cards for families to pray at home. Invite families to write and share prayers about the congregation’s journey in seeking a new priest. Provide a prayer related to the transition for the congregation to pray together during corporate worship.

Identify your congregation’s vocational purpose/mission: If the congregation does not have an active strategic plan, make time to evaluate the vocational purpose and/or mission of the community. Determine what gifts and skills your congregation will need to support its mission.

Examine ministry priorities and objectives: Evaluate what ministry initiatives will further your congregation's purpose. Strengthen what is working well and feel free to let go of things that may not be important.

Focus on the development of leadership: Know there will be periods of anxiety and stress during a clergy transition. Seek resources that will enable the lay leadership to provide a non-anxious presence to the wider community. Recruit people outside of the vestry and search committee to actively engage in ministry initiatives that further the mission of the congregation.

Communication: Identify three venues that leaders will utilize in communicating during the transition. Remind parishioners to check those communications regularly. Use the congregation's website to tell the story of your parish or mission. Ensure materials are updated and pictures are inviting. Websites are the first place candidates will visit to learn more about the position offered.

Try This
In “Big Blue Skies and Transition” Rosa Lindahl Mallow offers this exercise to help individuals or vestries transcend the limits of everyday thinking by imaging the vastness of the open sky above the mountains of the western United States:

“Against that horizon of eternity, what in our work is essential? How big, important and meaningful is any one decision, action, or situation? Looking at the immensity of the sky, I have to ask if I, or if my faith community, set goals that are too small, too safe, too limited, and too limiting? A time of transition brings with it a lot of anxiety and a desire to ‘get things right’ for the next part of the story. We try to manage as many aspects of change as possible and can get swamped in the details. Whether a group of leaders in your community has been asked to steward a process of transition or you yourself are in that situation, you might want to take some time to go out where your line of vision extends towards infinity, to a place that reminds you that Earth, our wonderful island home, is a sacrament of God’s spaciousness. It’s amazing what we are able to see as possibility in the spaciousness of God love.”

Dorothy "d'Rue" Massey Hazel, deacon, serves as canon for congregational development and administration in the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina. Prior to her placement on the bishop's staff she served as dean of the Diocesan School for Ministry as as associate for Christian formation and administration at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Columbia, South Carolina. d'Rue was ordained to the vocational diaconate in 2002. She is married to Tony Hazel, a civil engineer and together they have three daughters.


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Diocese of Upper South Carolina Strategic Visioning Resource

This article is part of the May 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Transition and Change