Rethinking the transition process

by

 

by George Clifford

  

The search processes for diocesan bishops, rectors, and vicars are broken. Little evidence exists, beyond anecdotes, to demonstrate that the current processes efficaciously select clerics who succeed in their new posts, regardless of one’s definition of success. Indeed, numerous anecdotes suggest that the processes result in calling unsuccessful leaders at least as often as the processes result in calling successful leaders. Furthermore, the current processes entail excessive and unnecessary delays and costs.

 

Significant improvements are easily identified and implemented.

 

First, eliminate the frequently intentional long interim periods in congregations (parishes and missions) and dioceses. Accumulating research on the effects of long interim periods between permanent congregational leaders generally shows that congregations decline or at best subsist in a holding pattern until the new leader arrives. The same is likely true for dioceses.

 

Other types of organizations generally avoid intentionally long interim periods between top leaders, e.g., businesses, non-profits, and governments. In The Episcopal Church (TEC) we already have no interim periods between Presiding Bishops and in dioceses that select a coadjutor who will become the diocesan bishop upon the retirement or departure of the current incumbent.

 

Second, dioceses and congregations should commence transition planning immediately upon an incumbent announcing her/his departure. Some dioceses already do this when the diocesan bishop calls for the election of a coadjutor. A bishop, rector, or vicar who announces her/his upcoming departure becomes in the eyes of many a lame duck. Members frequently adopt a wait and see attitude to determine their level of support for new initiatives and sometimes for existing programs. Visitors may opt to go elsewhere or, if they stay, similarly hesitate to commit, uncertain of the congregation’s future tone and direction. Commencing the search process as soon as possible minimizes this period of uncertainty.

 

A good leader inevitably shapes the organization s/he leads. Postponing the start of the search process for a new leader until the current leader has departed will not prevent controlling leaders from attempting to meddle in the process. Instead, organizations should insist that current leaders and search process participants maintain good boundaries.

 

The rationale that a trained interim can best assist a congregation or diocese in resolving serious problems (entrenched conflict, abusive relationships, etc.) is wrong. A newly called bishop, rector, or vicar may already have the skills to assist the diocese or congregation in working through its problems. Alternatively, the person may easily acquire those skills by attending training for interims, seminary courses, receiving mentoring or coaching, or through other means. An incumbent’s advantages compared to an interim include the stability and length of tenure that s/he brings to the diocese or congregation. Lastly, well-trained interims know that in spite of their best efforts, resolving many of a diocese’s or congregation’s most serious problems will require many years of consistent efforts by the new leader. People too often see an interim as just temporary help.

 

Occasionally, a diocese or congregation will require an interim. For example, an interim’s services are temporarily unavoidable when the incumbent dies in office, departs unexpectedly, or is precipitously fired. I have served as an interim in all three situations (one incumbent literally died in his office, another had a stroke, and a third was abruptly dismissed after the congregation discovered the married leader’s affair with a prominent choir member). Regardless of an interim’s best efforts, the pain, distrust, and other problems caused by the previous incumbent inevitably persist into the first few years of the next incumbent’s tenure. Interims unfortunately have no magic tools with which to make problems disappear.

 

Third, eliminate the preparation and distribution of diocesan and congregational profiles. Most of the information in those profiles is now available online from diocesan and congregational websites. Carefully perusing newsletters, photos, and other information reveals who attends (race, age, gender, etc.), what the congregation or diocese does in ministry and mission, and the organization’s self-identity. Supplemental information not on the website (e.g., not all dioceses and congregations have finances and membership statistics available on their websites) can be added to the website or sent to clergy who express an interest in applying for the position. Almost all of this information conveniently exists in digital format.

 

Instead, diocesan and congregational search committees should focus their efforts on preparing a short (optimally one page but no more than two pages) statement of the organization’s expectations and goals for the next chapter in its life and the gifts and skills they hope the next incumbent will have.

 

Fourth, dioceses and congregations should rely on the cadre of professional headhunters that TEC already employs to winnow through potential candidates expeditiously. These professional headhunters consist of diocesan staff responsible for the deployment process and the staff of the Church Deployment Office (CDO). The CDO, using its database, can identify clergy who want to move and whose profile seems to fit what a congregation what in its next leader. Diocesan deployment staff can supplement that list. Some dioceses, at least part of the time, presently utilize this approach, providing congregations the names of a handful of candidates that the deployment staff deem represent the best match of clergy skills and personality with the congregation’s aspirations, goals, and characteristics.

 

TEC’s Office of Pastoral Development in collaboration with the Presiding Bishop (PB) and CDO can provide the same assistance for episcopal search processes. The Office of Pastoral Development and PB know dioceses, their contexts, and their current situations. The CDO using its database can easily identify potential candidates whose self-identified goals, skills, and qualifications appear to meet a diocese’s expressed aspirations.

 

Once a position is adequately advertised, selecting and forwarding several names to a congregation or diocese will often require only a week instead of the months that congregations and dioceses now typically expend winnowing through possible candidates. Search committees after reviewing profiles/resumes and conducting phone interviews, as well as any personal interviews, may reject all of the candidates. In that case, the diocese or Office of Pastoral Development should use search committee feedback to refine their selection process and then forward the search committee a fresh set of candidate names and information.

 

Fifth and finally, teach the revised search process and transition management to clergy and lay leaders in diocesan forums. Initially, the training should emphasize changes to the process as well as how the changes will benefit both clergy and the Church’s ministry and mission. Subsequent training sessions can constructively focus on teaching dioceses, congregations, and clergy to identify their gifts, skills, relevant personality characteristics, as well as goals for the next chapter of their life. Training sessions can also teach transition management, a skill that I had to acquire as a Navy chaplain who received a new assignment every two to three years.

 

The changes to the search process outlined above obviously presume that we Episcopalians trust those who work in the deployment process. This trust is fundamental to Jesus’ command that we love one another. Demonstrating that we trust one another will also improve our witness to the world and the efficiency of clergy transitions, thus both saving money and enhancing organizational effectiveness. Our current process, centered around trusting a well-meaning but inexperienced search committee to weed through a stack of clergy profiles and resumes, seems much less likely to discern God’s will than does a process constructed around committed Christian leaders whose calling includes faithfully assisting other clergy to hear and to answer God’s call.

 

I am not so naïve as to believe that all bishops, clergy, and church employees are worthy of that trust. However, the preponderance of these individuals has chosen to serve Christ by working for TEC. While they, you, and I may assess clergy and job openings differently, I have rarely found a reason to question their motives. In the twenty-first century, few persons choose to work for the Church because it pays well, gives them significant power, or offers so much prestige.

 

TEC, struggling for institutional survival, badly needs to reduce the time and money expended in clergy transition processes. This requires a culture of mutual trust and respect. Arguably, the most important step that TEC can take to avoid perpetuating whatever culture of distrust now exists in its transition processes is to deal courageously, appropriately, and openly with those few persons who are untrustworthy. Ending distrust entails refusing to tolerate unacceptable behavior, breaking unhealthy cycles of co-dependence, strongly encouraging the mentally ill to seek treatment, etc. In other words, ending distrust means emulating Jesus’ tough love to bring healing to the broken.

 

 

 

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of Hawai’i, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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Jamie McMahon
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Jamie McMahon

"Little evidence exists, beyond anecdotes, to demonstrate that the current processes efficaciously select clerics who succeed in their new posts, regardless of one’s definition of success."

These may indeed be good ideas, but the author provides little evidence of his own to back them up. Is there actual research or data that we can use to weigh various processes and options?

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Ann Fontaine
Editor

My whole career in the church was as an Interim (often after a breakdown of leadership - sexual, financial, bullying) and now supply. These are pretty much my observations as well. As an Interim I could get them talking to each other again but changing a church culture is mostly doomed. I could bring some stability and a listening ear (interesting that each person had different view of what had happened - like they had not been in the same place). The current expense of a bishop or rector search is crazy -- for bishop we could just do what the Lutherans do - anyone who wants the job- buts there name in - -we vote until one emerges. Finding clergy for rural or isolated congregations - better to go to mutual ministry and call from within.

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George Werner
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George Werner

Strongly suggested this basic argument (not all the excellent parts of this) when I was leaving a parish in NH. One of the reasons I was told it was impossible was that my feelings would be hurt by some negative feedback. Trust me, I could have told them what negativesthey would hear & most clergy already know them. Hope this goes somewhere. Hard to think of a healthy organization or institution that keeps a major role on the organization chart for such a long period as we do.

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George Werner
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George Werner

PS That 1979!

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Elizabeth Habecker
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Elizabeth Habecker

Great insights. Another way surely is needed. Good people and good clergy deserve a process that makes it far more likely that they will find each other!

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marianne wilburn
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marianne wilburn

I think this article is brilliant. The current search process is akin to trying to drive on the Interstate in a car with square wheels.

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