As many of you know, we’ve been through an unusual number of clergy transitions over the past eighteen months or so. What a Lutheran colleague has dubbed “the gray tsunami” (a reference to Baby Boomer retirements) has come to pass. Yet we seem to be (more or less) on the other side of it. Well over one third of our congregations are now being led by clergy who have been serving them for less than two years.
When a search process begins, I tell vestries and congregations that a search process is about something more than finding a new priest. It’s about navigating a much longer season of transition that begins when the previous incumbent announces that they will be leaving and it does not end until the “new” priest is simply referred to as our priest. The greatest challenge in this lengthy process is very often the year or so that follows the arrival of the moving company to deliver the furniture. In the time that follows, both the priest and congregation are invited to move through whatever honeymoon phase there may be into a more authentic partnership in ministry. It’s a rich and exciting time that is also fraught with many challenges. There is no “road map” as there is in developing a profile or interviewing candidates.
All of our new clergy are asked to participate in Fresh Start for two years. It is not always clear to congregations why their new priest has this diocesan commitment ten days a year, once a month during the program year. After all, they could be visiting shut-ins, right? But this time of transition helps clergy who are often brand new to our diocese to build a support network. The Rev. Jenny Gregg and I lead this group and many of the issues that come up are predictable: staff issues (especially around music) are common. Expressed and implicit expectations – on all sides – are often not being met, or at least not being met in the same ways as had been anticipated. There is so much excitement at Celebrations of New Ministries, but then there are often failures and disappointments to be navigated.
All of this is a part of life in community. There is a prayer in The Book of Common Prayer, a General Thanksgiving that thanks God “for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.” This is not easy, but we Christians are called to forgive one another (and ourselves) as God forgives. Failure and disappointment do not get the last word, unless we refuse to say (or hear) the words that all people must learn one way or another: “I’m sorry.”
When I was a new rector at St. Francis, Holden, I had a parishioner tell me that I talked too fast and needed to slow down, especially when presiding at the Table. My Bishop at the time, the Rt. Rev. Gordon Scruton, had served that parish for fifteen years prior to my arrival. It didn’t take long to realize that even though no one had ever before told me I spoke too fast, that what was really being communicated was that I spoke faster than they were used to with +Gordon.
I share this story not to suggest that +Gordon spoke too slowly or that I spoke “just right.” Rather, I share the story because while there are sometimes real conflicts that emerge over challenges that a congregation faces, the harder stuff to “get a handle on” is the stuff that is more subconscious or even unconscious. I do not think that the solution to the “problem” for this parishioner was for me to slow down my cadences so that they missed +Gordon less! Rather, the challenge for me and for that person was to give it some time and to be patient and gentle and kind with each other until I could walk in my own shoes and speak with my own voice. And until they could grieve the departure of a beloved rector.
I need to add that while my predecessor was around the same age as my father, we were both straight white men. St. Francis' congregation had to deal with generational change and my fast-talking but there was also a fair amount of continuity. Gender and sexual orientation add a lot more complexity to the mix.
Why am I sharing all of this with you at the start of a new year of grace? Because all of those transitions have led us to a time when this difficult part of transition is now rippling across our diocese. From east to west, newish clergy and their lay leaders are trying to figure things out together at a time when the stakes are high, and people are weary. Being aware that navigating the early years of a new ministry can be challenging at least helps us to be realistic and not naïve. I find that sometimes new clergy come with new ideas they would like to try out. Usually (not always) those are discussed and people prepare for them, and sometimes they go well and sometimes we are back to failure and disappointment that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God alone.
But sometimes it’s the “oops” stuff that is far more problematic: the things we do not choose consciously, the assumptions that get made about whether or not there is incense on Epiphany to celebrate the arrival of the magi or how Ash Wednesday is “supposed” to be done. Again, in Holden, I remember celebrating Eucharistic Prayer “C” during Epiphany. There is no rubric inviting the congregation to kneel, which suggests they are supposed to remain standing. (Check out the rubrics in that prayer if you don’t believe me!) Yet when I kept on going and didn’t create a rubrical place for them to kneel, the choir began in a confused manner to start kneeling and the sheep in the congregation followed them. It was a bit of a train wreck! During the Holy Communion the kneeling became the thing – and I was a young rector who made the mistake of telling the choir after church: “you aren’t supposed to do that.”
Liturgically I was right. I was also a little confused and embarrassed. But I wouldn’t fall into that ditch today and this is my point: I fell into that ditch not because I wanted to have a fight with the choir and the choir director but because I thought everyone knew you remain standing for Eucharistic Prayer C!
I think if we can see moments like this as “teachable moments” for conversation and for listening (and by God’s grace sometimes even laughing together) we stand a much better chance of navigating these challenges. I realize that our social norms feel more brittle and unforgiving in 2022 than they did in 1998. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I think the new clergy “honeymoons” are shorter than ever or maybe even non-existent. People tend to get mad and leave more than they are willing to come by the office and talk through it.
So my prayer for all of our congregations in that space between having a “new” rector and just “our” rector is for love. Love covers a multitude of sins! Love is patient and kind; it is not arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful. Love bears all things and endures all things… you know this. But this season in a congregation’s life is an invitation to remember it, and to live into it.
Sometime between six months to a year into a new ministry, our Letters of Agreement ask that a Mutual Ministry Review be set up for conversation either with me or with the Rev. Mary Rosendale. This is not mediation, nor is it a performance review of the clergy. Rather, it’s almost always a “well visit.” How are things going? What are you learning? What is leading you to remember that God is God and you are not, helping you to forgive as you’ve been forgiven, helping you to love one another for the sake of this broken world? Always with God’s help.