May 2018
Clergy and Lay Transitions

Invite the Holy Spirit

Pop quiz – The leading success factor in a church‘s rector transition is:
A. The congregation’s transition committee includes accomplished professionals, including some with experience in executive searches.
B. The bishop has a track record of other parishes in the diocese flourishing since their last rector transitions.
C. The parish is highly attractive to a wide range of priests.

“A” is not the answer. A pastoral transition involves a spiritual call. In the Anglican tradition and experience, the congregation’s search committee feels led by God to a particular priest, who, in turn, feels led by God to the parish. This mutual call is the beginning of a partnership in ministry between the congregation and the priest. A few administrative steps in a rector transition have features in common with a search in secular professions, but expertise in those may be as likely to take lay leaders off-track as to help them in the process.

“B” is not the answer. A bishop‘s support and guidance can be highly valuable, but he or she is sensitive that each parish is unique, and the partnership between a congregation and its next rector needs to begin with mutual spiritual discernment.

“C” is not the answer. A church may have desirable demographics, a history of dynamic outreach ministry, the best music program in Christendom or a rectory two blocks from the beach. However, these factors do not determine the comprehensive fit between the opportunities of the church at this time in your history and its next rector at this particular stage in his or her vocational life.

I am not sure what answer I would have given before I co-chaired our church’s rector transition committee in 2015-16. In fact, the leading factor in a successful rector transition is the invitation of the Holy Spirit into all three stages of the process.

In the first stage, the congregation concludes its time with the outgoing rector, aiming for closure that sets the best possible foundation for the church‘s next years in ministry as well as for the outgoing rector‘s next stage in ordained ministry. During the in-between stage, lay leaders take larger roles in the church, and some of those leaders conduct a search process on behalf of the congregation. In addition, some church transitions call for leadership from an interim rector. The final stage is the integration of the new rector into the church and the growth of a partnership between him or her and the congregation.

Three stages, three ways to invite the Spirit into your church’s transition

I’d like to share three practical ways to invite the Holy Spirit into a rector transition that may spark ideas that will fit your church. Incidentally, I came to our transition with my experience as a business executive, and I confess that when I first sought advice in Vestry Papers and other sources, I was seeking practical rather than spiritual advice. Through our transition we realized that, in this process, practical and spiritual are the same.

First, develop a parish prayer for your transition. Seek ideas from favorite prayers and from pages 816-18 and page 832 of the Book of Common Prayer. We wrote our own prayer, and the congregation prayed it in every worship service during the in-between time of our transition. We established a transition prayer station in our small side chapel where parishioners could light a candle, pray for the transition and take a card printed with our transition prayer. Members of our church prayed and lit candles there every day from the outgoing rector’s retirement to the arrival of our new rector.
Second, the search or discernment committee (or whatever you call your committee) should go on retreat together as early as possible in the transition. On our retreat, we opened up to each other and shared who we are as children of God; we did not just share our church volunteer resumes. We bonded in a way that prepared us for a challenging journey of group discernment.

Finally, open and close every meeting of the search committee with spiritual grounding. We invited a different parishioner to lead a devotion at the start of every other meeting, and we had a private Eucharist together before the alternate meetings. We ended every meeting by praying aloud our parish’s transition prayer. Early in our work together, we agreed that any committee member could call for a prayer break at any time. As we progressed through the last weeks of group discernment, we hit hard emotional moments. The prayer breaks were sustaining and led us to a Spirit-filled conclusion.

Your rector transition will set the trajectory of your church for years to come. Let the Holy Spirit guide you, and your church’s potential is greater than you can imagine.

Van Sheets is the author of Rector Transition Handbook, a comprehensive guide for lay leaders that will be published by Virginia Theological Seminary Press in the fall of 2018. He has been an active Episcopal parishioner in four US time zones, including as senior warden of churches in Dallas and San Francisco.


This article is part of the May 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Clergy and Lay Transitions