Since January 2020 – just twenty months ago – we have gone through twenty clergy transitions across our diocese. Most of these were calls, in the midst of a pandemic, to new clergy. Some included new collaborative opportunities for clergy already serving here. Each of those transitions was unique. Each presented both opportunity and challenge. No two searches are identical and there is no “cookie cutter” approach.
I am now well into my ninth year of doing transition ministry. The world and the church have changed during that time. In broad strokes, however, we are in the midst of (and perhaps, I pray, on the other side of) what one colleague has called a “gray tsunami.” What he means by that is , that across denominational lines, as baby-boomer clergy retire we are in the midst of a major generational shift.
I am decidedly not the main player in a clergy transition process. The star of the show is, of course, the Holy Spirit. I often tell people that my trust in the amazing work of the Holy Spirit has increased in the time I’ve served in diocesan ministry, and I learn over and over again that I’m not in charge. I sometimes tell the bishop that I occasionally get too much credit (and on occasion more blame) than deserved, depending on how it all comes out. But in truth, my role is to mind the process.
The key to success in this work is lay leadership at the parish level: particularly among wardens, vestry, chairs of and members of profile and search committees. Parishes need a “deep bench” to do this work that cannot be navigated by one or two “little red hens.” It is hard work but often it’s the kind of work that energizes people and reinvigorates congregations. It’s a bonus when we are able to find a strong capable interim who understands the possibilities that are inherent in that work. In places where there is a capable interim and dedicated laity, my work is easy and fun. Honestly. It is true that we have more positions open than clergy available across the country. But we only need the right candidate to accept a call; and there are no bonus points for having lots of candidates.
During the summer I revised the Transition Manual. I think this is around version 3.2 or so. I did not do it alone and I’m especially grateful this time around for the wisdom of the Rev. Libby Wade and the Rev. Judith Lee who have done multiple interims for us in various contexts. They get the process “on the ground” in different kinds of congregations, large and small. I am also grateful to Ms. Karen Warren, who is my admin, for patiently making all the most recent changes. We are all still learning – and the context is still changing. But this manual is a guide. You can find it here.
Even if your parish is not currently in the midst of a clergy transition (and right now there are not that many that are, after such a flurry of activity) it’s good for ordained and lay leaders to know this exists and to familiarize yourself with what is there. It can look like a daunting document but most of the pages are appendices. It’s part theology, part how-to, part encouragement.
What I hope it is not is “aspirational.” I tell both clergy and congregations to be real – to be authentic – to be honest. Life is too short and the stakes are too high for anything less than the truth. When profiles are “aspirational” (by which I mean what we wish we were like) the first year or so of a new ministry can be disastrous. The first year is meant to be hard, just like the first year of marriage can be. But it should not be an experience of wondering where the priest or parish in the interview process has gone now…
To say this another way: the clearer we can be on the work that lies ahead, the better for everyone. We don’t need priests who think they are messiahs. We need priests who are able to use their gifts at a particular time and in a particular place, with God’s help. We need congregations that know who they are, and have some sense of where God is calling them to go next, with God’s help. When we are willing to engage in that challenging but holy work, I’ve found that the Holy Spirit shows up every time.