January 2010

“I could fill this job in about a week!”

“Why should we spend a year trying to get a new minister? I could fill this job in about a week!” the vestry member proclaimed. “Yes,” I replied, “but it’s not a good idea.”

Experience consistently shows that calling a new rector too soon may result in a shorter, and often unhappy, tenure for the priest, and a focus on immediate needs rather than a long term strategy for the congregation. While choosing leadership for a church is similar to secular search processes in some ways, it is also vastly different.

It is a spiritual process. It is a prime time for renewal in the congregation. It is a time when new leadership comes forth and new connections are made with the bishop and the wider diocesan community. It is also a time to review and restate the hopes and dreams of the parish. That doesn’t happen in a week.

When a rector or priest leaves, reactions are varied. Some are glad and can’t wait to see the moving van pull out of town. Some are outraged that the vestry didn’t do more to keep the priest happy and in place. Others are shocked because the only person they have ever experienced as their pastor is gone. Still others think they now have the opportunity to fix what needs fixing. And sometimes ghosts from the past swoop in with unresolved issues and hurts from years ago.

Healing unresolved hurts
One diocesan search consultant and former senior warden in Minnesota, who started out strongly against the idea of an interim, became a convert after he saw what happened in his own parish. “We had lived with the negative image of our priest who, back in 1982, was removed under a cloud. During the search process, our interim rector helped us understand how that episode was still defining our image as a parish family. Now that we have faced into that and have a new rector, we are making progress in ways we never did for twenty-five years!”

It is important to discuss the varying viewpoints about the previous rector, because a parish’s experience and reaction to the departing rector is instructive about what to seek in a new priest. However tempting it is to overlook this — “It’s in the past, it’s over with, let’s just move on” — such an approach leaves unresolved issues.

Sharing collective wisdom
In dealing with all of this, the bishop or a diocesan representative can be helpful to a congregation. They have recent experience assisting other congregations and can share that collective wisdom with the vestry or search committee. With the assistance of an interim rector, the parish community develops a clear vision and a sense of spiritual leadership needed for the future — while helping the regular and ongoing work of the congregation to continue so that an intentional, deliberate, search process will identify the next rector.

The Spirit is at work
During the interim the congregation is asked to help the vestry and search committee describe itself, often by means of a questionnaire or small group discussions. This discernment helps create a parish profile describing priestly skills the congregation needs. It also helps potential candidates understand the parish, its hopes and desires.

Sometimes parishioners feel like nothing is happening or that “it is taking too long to get a new priest,” but this is when the Spirit is at work. Confidential interviewing, background and references checks occur, and the search committee narrows the field of candidates. Details and specifics are not appropriate to share, yet the search committee and vestry must insure that communication with the congregation happens during this time.

In the end the search committee (usually) recommends to the vestry the candidate selected to become the next rector. The vestry then issues the call and preparations begin for welcoming the new rector and continuing the good ministry underway in the congregation. When the vestry issues a call to the next rector, new leaders have come forth. There
is a new understanding of being a parish of the diocese, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. An interim rector has helped make some adjustments in daily rhythm of parish life, allowing a new rector to hit the ground running. The congregation has clarity about how the new priest is well qualified and has been prayerfully selected.
The new rector can commit to this new trust and responsibility and the congregation can agree to support and uphold the new priest in this ministry.

Could that happen in a week? No way.

Gary Gleason, former Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Minnesota, works with bishops and dioceses of the Episcopal Church through the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

This article is part of the January 2010 Vestry Papers issue on Transition