Support the Café

Search our Site

Rethinking the transition process

Rethinking the transition process


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.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Michael W. Murphy

In reply to Marianne Wilburn’s question:

Please understand, I am not being critical of your questions. Your questions are common questions both for new Episcopalians and for those who have been members of this church for many years. The following is the best way I know to answer your questions.

If you will look on page 313 of the Book of Common Prayer you will see rubrics for Emergency Baptism. Note that any baptized person may in an emergency administer baptism.

If you will look at page 861 of the Book of Common Prayer, under Other Sacramental Rites, “Unction of the Sick” is defined as a sacrament. Next, on page 453 it states that Part I of the Ministration to the Sick may be lead by a lay person. Further, on page 456 the rubric states: “In cases of necessity, a deacon or lay person may perform the anointing using oil blessed by a bishop or priest.” Under the national canons, Eucharistic Visitors may be licensed to take communion from a celebration of the Eucharist to a person or persons who is unable to come to the celebration of the Eucharist and the Visitor administers communion to that person or persons.

Under the national canons, lay persons maybe licensed by the bishop (or ecclesiastical authority in the absence of a bishop) as a “Pastoral Leader, Worship Leader, Preacher, Eucharistic Minister, Eucharistic Visitor, or Catechist.” Obviously these ministries require training. Not everyone has the gifts required of these ministries, even with training.

I believe that this church needs persons, both lay and ordained. who are trained to train persons for these ministries. Also, parishes need to be trained to accept these ministries from lay persons and deacons.

Linda Baker Pineo

As an intentional interim priest, also trained through the Interim Ministry Network, my experience in 8 parishes echoes Ron’s. My interims have lasted from 11 months to 3 years – each situation a bit different. Of the rectors called, 5 are in place, two retired after more than 10 years, and one moved to another position after 6 years. All parishes experienced growth in membership and giving during the interim.

Becky Robbins-Penniman

Well, I’m not sure that the Rector SHOULD be hands off. That seems artificial, and it certainly isn’t how it’s done in a functioning, viable corporation. Why would keeping out the one person who can answer some of the potential candidates’ questions NECESSARILY make the search process better? Again, I get that a “Mini-Me” scenario must be avoided, but in a healthy parish, where the rector and people are doing this intentionally and together, I think proper facilitation would take care of that.

Grant Barber

What’s the old saw about democracy being terrible, except for all the others? (Churchill I think, or at least attributed.) First response…to the title…yes, the search process causes pain and potentially confusion, and ultimately some bad decisions. 2. there are no problems identified first that the process would fix; rather they are implied in the text of each ‘fix,’ and the problems I discern are not those I’d raise up. From a clergy standpoint I’d say that the process is bruising, and of the past three calls I responded to, one was a mismatch more than the right fit. having said that, I’m not sure what a good fit would have looked like 3. the solutions are business world oriented, with a bit of spiritual thrown in at the end with the interesting application of loving one another. In none of the comments or article (which I’ll admit I didn’t read with a fine tooth comb, so I might have missed something here) do I find reference to Jesus or the Spirit, which is par for a business model. Last, often rectors can not change the DNA of a parish, let alone expecting interims of any length to do so…see first observation of problems/challenges not readily identified at outset; I believe this is a faulty identification of what the current model intends to address. To that end, one keen unstated and ‘sliding’ standard for all the challenges of the process, identified here or not, is the role of clergy and that of laity in a parish.We are in an extended period of asking, empowering laity, to take on more of the leadership, claim baptismal role as we often refer to in short hand, at the exact same time their lives are becoming exponentially more complicated, with greater time demands, and every other organization tugging at attention of an increasingly shrinking pool of possible people. Until we sort out those implications we’ll remain in a muddle regardless of how we structure a calling process. My biggest take away from previous comments is that ‘results may vary,’ or resorting to another cliche, all politics are local.

marianne wilburn

I’m a bit confused. As a person recently received in to TEC, I was under the impression that one can only preach if one is licensed to do so. We have recently come through a transition and, in the process, learned how to minister to each other. Can the laity administer sacraments? Is unction a sacrament? We certainly can lead prayer services. Also, Sunday School teachers should be able to prepare candidates for confirmation. Any clarification you could share would be appreciated.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café