For the past five years that I’ve served on the Bishop’s Executive Staff, I’ve attended the Transition Ministry Conference that gathers twice a year: in September and in March. Roughly 45 Transition Officers from the eastern third of the United States gather in what I’ve sometimes compared to the NFL draft. We come with names of clergy who have told us they are looking for a new call, and with congregations seeking new clergy. And we have two minutes to present them and then to see if there are any potential connections.
There are a couple of big differences from the NFL draft, however. The first is that we don’t draft anyone. Nor do we deploy anyone – although some older clergy still refer to this work as deployment. The shift to calling this transition ministry is not about avoiding military jargon. It’s that, unlike the military (or United Methodists and Roman Catholics) we really don’t send clergy. We facilitate a “call process.” We help congregations, and clergy, move through a season of transition.
Being together with folks who do the same work that I do in other dioceses allows one to step back and see the larger picture, which is always helpful. Right now, for example, there are 18,299 living Episcopal clergy. Of that number, however, only 7648 are UNDER the age of 65.
Our diocese reflects this reality. Of the dozens of transitions I’ve worked on over the past five years, only a few involved clergy moving on to new congregations. Some involved clergy moving on to diocesan staffs. But most have been retirements. One big challenge we face is that often when a priest retires, their successor can be 30-35 years younger than the previous incumbent. While congregations often say they are looking for a young priest, when it happens there are new transitions to navigate and usually one can count on some conflict along the way.
As I do the math (and defining clergy transitions from the time a priest announces that she or he is leaving until two years into the new priest’s tenure) roughly a third of our congregations fall into that category right now. My colleague, Canon Pam Mott and I lead a group of new clergy for two years called “Fresh Start” that meets monthly. The reason for this is that the time of transition doesn’t end when a new priest unpacks her bags and moves into the church office. It takes some time to navigate through the changes.
We are currently experiencing a clergy shortage. At the most recent TMC, for example, from those 45 Transition Officers, less than sixty full-time positions were presented alongside less than sixty clergy seeking new calls. In the “good old days” (as recently as twenty years ago) there were often a whole bunch more clergy looking than there were new positions. But a lot has changed.
The first is the issue noted above: Baby Boomer clergy are retiring and have been for a while. Sometimes they are willing to do supply and even interim work but a lot of times they are ready to be done. And the rate at which we’ve ordained new clergy compared to retirements has been, across the Church, significantly lower. Even in bigger parishes (which usually pay bigger salaries) it is harder and harder to find clergy willing to move for a new call. Among other factors, these clergy are very often married to someone who likely also works outside of the home. Navigating calls for two people – whether both or ordained or only one is – can be a real challenge. If a priest is in their fifties or early sixties, as many are, they are likely to want to “stay put” to retirement rather than make a move.
It means that we are finding ways to be creative. I hope the tone of this report is not discouraging; I am not discouraged. But it does mean that we have to find new and creative ways to do this work. We have to be even more intentional and even more prayerful. Sometimes it takes some time.
I try to always tell the truth to vestries and search committees and those who have worked with me know that I am hopeful about the future of the church. But we must also be realistic. In most circumstances for full-time positions I recommend that vestries consider seeking a qualified interim. I still think that a good interim is helpful in most cases. The challenge, however, is that a poor interim is worse than not at all. And in less than full time calls this is even harder to find. So often we are filling positions with priests-in-charge who can be called as rector after a period of two or three years. This works well in most cases but it also means, very often, that these priests are doing the interim work that didn’t get done.
When a priest announces that she is leaving a parish, the first thing I do is meet with the vestry and the next thing I do is schedule a time to come and preach soon after the priest’s last Sunday. I encourage the congregation with the song of the angels: do not be afraid. I see transitions as opportunities. But they require strong lay leadership and honesty. The most frustrating part of the work is when people who served on a Search Committee twenty years ago assume they know what will happen next. We are living in new times, and facing new challenges. But in these days and every day we put our trust in God, and we remember that the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. Clergy come and go. We pray that the mark they leave is more good than bad, but either way the mission and dream of God remain.
If you are a congregation in the midst of a clergy transition, I hope you see and trust that it is an opportunity. Often I begin the process by discussing the Parable of the Trapeze with the vestry – which you can find
Whether or not your congregation is currently in the midst of a clergy transition, eventually you will be. I commend the wisdom of this parable to you, and to help write a new narrative about Episcopalians.
We love change.
Or even when we don’t love it, we embrace it, knowing that God is with us, always – and to the end of the ages.