21st Century Congregations

For Everything There Is A Season

JULY/2016 -- Canon Rich Simpson

By now you have no doubt heard that my colleague Pam Mott and I have juggled our portfolios a bit, allowing me to focus more on congregations that are working on clergy transitions, while Pam focuses more on helping to support and develop collaborative communities of practice across our diocese.

What you may or may not know is that Pam and I will continue to co-facilitate a two-year program for clergy who are new to our diocese called “Fresh Start.” Last year we had fifteen persons in that group. Two of those members “graduated” in May, but the new rectors of Trinity, Ware and Nativity, Northborough and the new priest-in-charge at Christ Church, Rochdale will be joining us this fall, taking us to a group of sixteen. To put this another way – roughly one third of our congregations have “new” clergy over the past three years. And I’m in the process of working with another five congregations right now that are searching for clergy.

There has not been a mass exodus of clergy leaving the diocese for other parishes; in fact I can’t think of any priest who has left for another congregation in the past three years that I’ve been in this position. The cause of these vacancies has mostly been retirements, and also the election of a bishop (from Grace, Amherst) and moves to diocesan ministry for a couple of folks (St. Stephen’s, Pittsfield and St. Francis, Holden.) In any event, a LOT of transition, with a few more retirements probably on the horizon.

Now, please take a minute to depart from this post and ponder this a few moments. Let it sink in.  Seriously. Twenty-three of our parishes have recently been through or will be going through clergy transitions. And then read this article by Thom Rainer. I’ll wait…

Rainer proposes that there are five stages of a pastor’s ministry. It bears out with my experience as the rector of St. Francis, Holden (from 1998-2013.) Like the author, I’ll make the caveat that this plays out differently in different places, of course. But the overall arc of a clergy person’s tenure seems pretty accurate to me.

In Holden, I had a nice short honeymoon that lasted about a year, or maybe a little bit longer. But the second and third stages ( conflicts/challenges and crossroads, part one)   lasted much longer, as the parish worked through the same challenges the Anglican Communion, Episcopal Church, and Diocese faced in 2003 around human sexuality. In fact, I’d say we went back and forth a bit from about 1999-2004 between these two stages. It was VERY hard work.

And then somehow, we broke through to a season that lasted a good long while – what Rainer calls fruit and harvest. We found our groove and had some really great years together, allowing the Holy Spirit to work in and through us for the sake of God’s world. We had some clarity around our mission and vision.

In hindsight I realize that we were coming to crossroads (part two) right around the time Bishop Fisher asked me to join his staff as Canon to the Ordinary. At the time I was preparing for a sabbatical and very much asking the questions of myself about how to avoid complacency – about what the next challenges were for that parish and how I might be reinvigorated to face them. The Holy Spirit seems to have addressed that in Her own inimitable way by opening the door for me to move to diocesan work, and also for St. Francis to make the wise decision to call Pat Perkins as their sixth rector.

Now the goal here is not meant to inflict my own vocational autobiography on the diocese, nor to universalize my own experience. My hope is that it is offered as a kind of “case study” that fleshes out a bit what the article proposes. (Which I do hope you have clicked on to read!)

For me there are two big takeaways here. First, pastoral ministries have seasons , as marriages do and as life itself does. You may know that pastoral tenures are shorter than they once were. There are two primary reasons for this. One is money; too often if congregations can’t keep pace with inflation, clergy find it necessary to explore a larger parish which can pay them enough money to live on. But even more common, in my experience, is that clergy leave because they are unable to navigate stages two and three. Things can ‘blow up” in those third and fourth years and when congregations are unable to work though this together (two or three rectors in a row) a pattern emerges. And very little fruit is born. This is a tragedy for both the clergy and for congregations.

This leads to my second takeaway: if we mean to support longer rectorates, then we must learn to more successfully and creatively navigate conflict . This is very challenging when our default is to avoid conflict at all costs. Yet the paschal mystery we proclaim each week, that shapes our life together in Christ, suggests that this is the only path toward “bearing fruit” is on this road. Things must die before there is new life. We wish it would be otherwise; fruit all year long through all seasons, until the Kingdom comes.  

Only it doesn’t work that way.

So this is a bit of a long reflective piece, and if you’ve been a diocesan leader for a while now you’ve probably come to expect this of me. But let me get concrete now. A third or so of you reading this are in places that have recently come through a honeymoon with a new priest and are now in the midst of, or on the verge of, facing some challenges and conflicts. You have loved your new priest so much; they are just so wonderful and the bishop and his staff are so awesome for helping this process along and bringing this cleric to you!

But now things will get harder. Now the priest knows (no matter how honest you were in your profile) that you are not a perfect congregation. And now you know (no matter how honest the priest was in their profile) that s/he isn’t perfect either. Now things can get real. Or they can blow up.  

If things get really messy, call Pam. (Just kidding…and just making sure you are still reading!)

The question isn’t if things will get hard, but only when. They most definitely will as you begin to move from pseudo-relationships toward more authentic ones. The question becomes “how will you face this conflict when it comes your way, and can you work through it successfully (with God’s help) to come to a cross roads that potentially leads to growth and much fruit?”  These next years – for all of you in these congregations with new clergy and for all of us in this diocese who share this work together – are critical.

We can’t force fruit to ripen before it’s time. It’s just not how it works. Sit down and read one of the gospels this summer from beginning to end and pay attention to all of Jesus’ agricultural metaphors. Or go out on a warm day, if you are the kind of person who likes to grow tomatoes and try to will them into ripening before their time. You can’t do it! They will ripen when they ripen. What an amazing gift when they do! They will be so delicious that you’ll long for vine-ripe tomatoes in January. But don’t believe the signs in the market then. They won’t be the same; not even close. And even if you can some of them, you’ll have a taste of summer this winter. But not exactly the same…

So if any of this is right (or even mostly right) then what lies ahead for us in this diocese and in many of our congregations is conflict and challenge. Perhaps you saw a piece I wrote for Vital Congregations about overcoming our aversion to conflict, based on a workshop I offered at the last leadership day. If not, you can find it here. Maybe my canon colleagues and I can continue to reflect with you some more on how to navigate those waters together in future posts. I encourage you to ask for help when you need it.

Serving congregations is very challenging work, for clergy and for lay leaders. Longer tenures generally need to be encouraged and we can share in the work that allows them to unfold, and so that we might bear fruit together. In a few places things may be stuck at a second crossroads, but perhaps that is another article for another time.

For now, here is the challenge I make to clergy and their vestries across this diocese: if you have one quiet summer vestry meeting with some lemonade and not a lot of new business, use it to reflect on where you have been together in your ministry and where you are right now. And wherever you are, give God thanks. And then reflect a bit on what you have learned, and on what you need right now to face the challenges that are before you, to grow further together in love, always with God’s help, toward the next season of opportunity.  

The Rev. Dr. Richard Simpson
Canon to the Ordinary
The Episcopal DIocese of Western Massachusetts
37 Chestnut Street
Springfield, MA 01103
(413) 737 - 4786