There are currently seventeen congregations in our diocese that are in the midst of a season of clergy transition.
This number represents almost exactly one third of our parishes. People audibly gasp when I say this and yes, it has definitely been keeping my life busy. It includes a couple of parishes that currently have a priest-in-charge who has not yet been called as rector; so the transition is almost completed, but not yet finished. Most of them, however, are congregations with an interim in place or congregations that are just learning (or soon will learn) that their rector will be retiring. About half are full-time positions and about half are less-than-full-time. Put into a larger context, only seven clergy across the diocese are in the same positions they were in when Bishop Fisher was elected seven years ago. So it’s been happening for a while now. And yes, it’s a lot of change!
What is driving this change? There is a fairly simple question to answer. While a couple of our clergy have left for new positions in other dioceses, the vast majority of openings are due to a major generational shift: baby-boomers are retiring. Clergy who were in positions for decades (from Williamstown to Leominster) are turning the page to the next chapter in their lives.
Some old-timer priests still refer to my work as “deployment.” In fact, in our polity, I don’t deploy anyone and only very, very rarely does the bishop do that. Rather, I work with congregations more as a consultant, to help them to identify strengths and challenges and to help them learn to tell their story, so that they can find a priest who will help them to do the work they are called to do. Next. Not to repeat the last decade. This work is made even more interesting since, just as we have fewer Gen X and Millennial lay persons in our pews, so also we have fewer clergy from those next generations as well. Finding the right priest for this new time is challenging in and of itself. But the work continues after the new rector unpacks her bags, as the congregation begins to experience a generational shift in leadership styles that is also a part of the transition work. Put simply: a 35 year-old priest with a couple of kids isn’t going to do things the same way a 67 year old whose grandchildren live in another time zone does.
I’ve been revising our Transition Manual (I’m now at something like version 2.2) to help this process. It can be found on our diocesan website
by clicking here.
At first glance, it may seem like a technical fix to an adaptive challenge. But in truth, at least as I see it, it is more like a map than a how-to book. Even if your parish is not among the seventeen going through a transition now, it can be helpful to be aware of how things work in our diocese, because eventually that time will come for you, too. And also because even in the midst of long-term ministries, there is any number of transitions that congregations may be navigating along the way: clergy transitions are in fact a subset of congregational transitions which occur when there are staff changes, or the neighborhood changes.
I used to think my job description was to find clergy to work in our diocese. I’ve come to understand that my real work is to help congregations embrace and navigate change, so that when a new priest is called they are ready to embark on an adventure. So when I first meet with vestries about to enter a season of transition, I share with them
The Parable of the Trapeze: Turning the Fear of Transformation into the Transformation of Fear
. It’s a good place to begin to counter some myths about transition ministry, including the notion that things will fall apart if the rector is not replaced as quickly as possible. In fact there is evidence, across this diocese, that this period can be a fruitful (even if challenging) time in the life of a congregation. It can be a time for gaining clarity and wisdom. Trying to skip that step is a recipe for disaster, because life will most definitely change, one way or another. (I had one senior warden, in his desire to reassure the congregation, once say “don’t worry, nothing will change.” I offered an alternative narrative: “everything will change. And God will still be God.”)
We begin this work by using something called the Congregational Assessment Tool (CAT) which is offered by Holy Cow Consulting. I have been trained to interpret the CAT with congregations, which makes it quite affordable since this is part of my “day job” and parishes do not need to incur that cost. I like the CAT because it isn’t based on hunches or listening to the loudest voices; it offers
from which better decisions can be made. It doesn’t answer all the questions that a congregation faces, or even offer a diagnosis to fix them. It just takes an accurate snapshot of where the congregation is, which is pretty helpful to know before asking, “Where are we going?”
One of the key insights from the work that Holy Cow has done with literally thousands of congregations is this: congregations that are rigid about “the way we do things” are failing, and will be especially vulnerable in seasons of transition. They will try to “hold on” to what is, rather than trusting the Holy Spirit to guide them toward what will be. There is no immunity from this danger based on theological perspectives; or to put it another way, there are both progressive and conservative versions of this rigidity, but they look remarkably similar.
In contrast, one key measure of a congregation’s ability to navigate a transition is their flexibility. This plays out in many different ways, but includes worship and mission. Needs change. Neighborhoods change. People change. It’s great if the octogenarian women of the parish still like to gather at 10 a.m. on Wednesday mornings to knit and drink coffee. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to answer the question of why the women under sixty aren’t showing up: they are at work!
Sometimes ministries need to die so others can be born.
Sometimes they need to adapt. It takes some wisdom and discernment to figure that out; and there is no formula. But holding on for dear life to what is “tried and true” is actually a recipe for disaster. And this much is certain: no parish can just keep adding ministries without learning to let some things go. If we keep on keeping on the same way, we won’t have the energy to try new things. This is true in large and small ways. If the people in the parish are all driving past three other Episcopal congregations to get to the “old neighborhood” they moved out of decades ago for worship, and the folks who now live in the neighborhood now all speak Spanish, it might be important to invite our diocesan Latino missioner in to have a conversation
trying to find a new rector with exactly the same gifts the previous one had.
Being flexible doesn’t mean that we sacrifice core values. In fact, learning to bend with the Holy Spirit may well be a core value worth embracing. It’s called “letting go, and letting God.” Jesus Christ may well be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But the world isn’t, and the Church is called to serve the world. Being flexible may mean creating space for diverse opinions, including theological perspectives. No parish can be all things to all people. But all of our parishes can work at being truly welcoming to all, not just those who look like we already look. And, of course, radical hospitality will change us more and more into the likeness of Christ.
Last month at our annual clergy conference, I challenged our clergy who are “settled in” to be thinking about the fact that one day they will leave: either for a new call or to retire. I suggested that in truth, no matter how long our tenures may be, we are all interims. So I asked them to think about what can they be doing now to help their congregations be more resilient? The answer is actually simple and supported by the evidence, even if it is sometimes hard work. They can do two things, at least: (1) they can work at being more flexible and (2) they can let go, by empowering lay ministries. Sometimes it is easier for clergy to become like
the little red hen
and do it themselves. (Lay people who lead altar guilds, or vestries, or Sunday morning hospitality are not immune from this temptation either!) But ministry is a team sport.
So this month as we post a newly revised transition manual I want to say the same thing to our lay leaders. Be more flexible. And learn to let go and empower others. It may be easier to do things by ourselves some days. But always (always, always) we need to be looking at mentoring our successors and then letting them do the work in new ways. (Making them do the work exactly as we did it for twenty-five years is NOT empowering, by the way.) We need to let go of the language of “my” ministry and learn to pray John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer together, with a focus on the ministry part and not the “me” part:
Let me be employed by thee, or laid aside for thee;
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
This is hard work and it requires spiritual maturity. But learning to pray and think this way when congregational life is relatively “stable” is a good way to prepare for the day that will surely come when your congregation will also be in the midst of a clergy transition, and I’ll show up at your vestry meeting with the parable of the trapeze! (I eagerly await the day when I show up with that parable and every person on the vestry says, yeah, we love this – we’ve been reading it every month for a year now to get ready for you to show up!) Knowing that times of transition are more real than the illusion of stability, even in long-term ministries, is worth noticing, so that we really can put our whole trust in God’s providential care.
Peace and all good,