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The Magazine: A pastoral response to Mark Osler and the withering of church between pastors

The Magazine: A pastoral response to Mark Osler and the withering of church between pastors

By the Rev. Mary Brennan Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry, Diocese of Virginia

Journeys to a new place are usually marked by a sense of disorientation, worry, hopeful nervousness and questions. Not surprisingly, the foremost question is often, “Are we there yet?”

I hear that question, as well as the fear that a beloved church home is dying, in a recent article in the Huffington Post by lawyer Mark Osler. His concern is legitimate and his pain is real. The interim period in his home parish feels long to him, and members are leaving. His diagnosis of the problem? Having an interim rector and taking time to do the work of transition. He sees the loss of parishioners and lack of enthusiasm in the pews as a sign that the church is limping along using a process that is out of touch with the way that the world now works. Osler identifies the interim process, being the most recent and most visible variable introduced into the system, as the cause of the parish’s ill health.

But what is happening in his parish is more complicated than that.

Note that Osler describes the departure of the prior rector as “messy,” and that the other clergy on staff departed shortly thereafter. Some sort of conflict occurred which is not described further. He points to the rapidity of transition in the secular world, in politics and in business, and describes the interim process as woefully slug-like and out of touch.

Is a traditional interim process to blame for the problems Osler senses in his parish? Is it all too slow, too like navel-gazing?

Maybe. Maybe not. Without more detail as to what happened in this particular parish, we can’t know for sure.

But here’s what I do know, as a priest who helps parishes in transition.

Calling a new rector is not like hiring a new associate for your law firm. Calling a new rector is not like voting for a new senator or mayor.

It’s more like preparing to enter into the covenant of marriage. To do it right means you need to be thoughtful and prayerful, and that usually takes some time. God tells us, “My time(table) is not your time(table)” for a reason.

And particularly after there has been a divorce (that messy departure of the prior incumbent and the swift parting of the assisting clergy), it’s not smart to remarry quickly without some reflection on what caused the prior failure in relationship.

That’s also the case with transitions in clergy after a “messy” departure. It takes some time to figure out what happened – not to assign blame, but to learn the lesso­­­ns of history so to avoid repeating them.

So is Osler’s parish falling apart because the interim phase is taking too long? I’d suspect not. My guess, and it’s just that, is that there are other problems that predate the departure of the prior rector. My hope, and it’s just that, is that it is taking long because the vestry and the search committee are wrestling with difficult systemic issues which is necessary work. As can often be the case with many of the “people in the pews,” much of this work is likely invisible. And so, frightened by the decline in numbers, Osler understandably asks, “Are we there yet?” because he wants the hemorrhaging of people and dollars to stop.

It seems to me that the greater misstep of Osler’s church, one that is unfortunately too common, might be that the leadership of the church hasn’t shared the rationale for this long journey with the rest of the congregation. The Episcopal Church is blessed by many successful, talented people in its ranks, and we can’t expect those people to accept without question a process that runs so contrary to their professional instincts.

That’s why as Virginia’s transition minister I preside and preach at parishes on the first Sunday after a rector departs and the last Sunday before a new rector arrives. I weave the transition process into the reflection on the Scripture passages and teach at adult forums so as to answer questions and provide responses that will put parishioners more at ease. Every member of a congregation has a role to play during a transition, whether it’s responding to a survey or chairing the search committee, and church leadership has to convey how much folks are needed during this process – in the pews and outside the church doors. Otherwise, the church might wither as the vestry and search committee do their work and the congregation looks on skeptically.

Good interim practice takes as long as it needs to take. Sometimes it’s less than a year. Sometimes it’s a multi-year process. Interim work is flexible, because parishes are different, but it does offer the chance for a parish to catch its breath, figure out where it has been, discern where God is leading it next, and see what gifts the parish needs from its next rector to augment what the parish already has (the “animating spirit” that Osler’s friend so beautifully described). While some of that work can be done on a business-model timetable, some cannot. It takes time to quiet down enough to hear the Spirit of God, particularly in the hectic world that Osler correctly identifies as “the way the world works today.”

So is Osler right? Are the shrinking numbers in his parish the fault of an outdated or ineffective process?

Maybe yes, maybe no. To get to the answer, we’d need more information and – dare I say it? – some more time. I’d urge him to look a little deeper than “are we there yet?” and get a sense of what is actually happening in his parish’s transition process. I hope the church leadership is available to walk with him in this. I’d pray that he spends some time, that precious commodity, in prayerful discernment as to what his parish needs. He may discover some interesting things if he does, things that might be invaluable to the process. But know this: discovery, in the courtroom, in the parish, or in our own broken hearts, takes time.


This article originally appeared on the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s website and is reprinted here with permission


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Marshall Scott

I am not an interim priest, but I have worked with a number over the years. As a chaplain, I have had many opportunities to do supply in congregations between clerics, some using interims and some simply covering with supply. I would note first that the primary reason that our vacancies take a long time to fill is that most of the work is done by members of the congregation on their own time. Surveying members; putting together descriptions of the congregation as it is; putting together visions of the congregation as it might be; the various stages of interviewing for the multiple skills required in any congregational cleric; and time in committee to discuss the outcomes at each stage – all these take time that lay people generously give for the good of the congregation as a whole. Even meeting as intensively as weekly (and few can manage that in light of the rest of their lives), it simply takes time.

I’ve heard statements over the years that the results aren’t better than when bishops assigned formally, or when through the “old boys’ network” (and in those days it was almost always “old boys”) assigned informally or winnowed the list. With Brother Rod I would be interested in research. But I don’t know that using or not using an interim cleric really slows down the process more than having an empowered and engaged laity – and having an empowered and engaged laity seems to me well worth the trouble.

I do know that there have been studies of the costs and benefits of long pastorates, including in the Episcopal Church. I was Associate to a priest who had been Rector in the parish 32 years successfully. I have witnessed clerics who have burned out or bogged down in five. Too, I spend a great deal of my time hearing about statistics at the population level, knowing that each individual patient is unique, making the statistics suggestive but not compelling.

Over my years as a supply priest I have heard the question often, “Why does it take so long?” As my observation is that it takes so long because good people are volunteering their time to do carefully an important function for the congregation and the whole church, I’m not all that eager to hasten it.

Chris Harwood

Kenneth, I thought I read that the average priest only lasts 3-5 years in a church. Then you get a year or so interim, then the next leaves in 3 -5 years…. Lots of turnover. Meanwhile the larger protestant churches in town have pastors who’ve been their for 20-25 years. We do have a few very dedicated priests who have been in the same parishes for many years and who take care of multiple parishes. Without those priests, I don’t think the diocese would survive. And those who move often are often labeled as being focused on moving up the ladder to a bishopric rather than being a priest.

This diocese, MT, has a lot of very small churches, ASA 20 or less, about 35 percent of the diocese, and when people like Osler start complaining about long interim times, what they’re really asking is, “Are we really going to get a new priest or is the interim here to shut us down?” And the worry is real as Lutheran and other priests are often brought in to cover during the interim. Should people just go to their church instead? It’s also great to try and get laymen involved in the church, but if the church only has a monthly Eucharist because they can’t get a priest more often, is the church really going to grow considering the importance TEC puts on the Eucharist?

Ann Fontaine

That statistic takes in all clergy — including those who are in an “intern” situation – like curates. So is skews the average. Installed rectors have longer terms — you would have to check with CPG for stats.

Kenneth Knapp

Maybe 20 years is too long for a rector to serve. Perhaps a 5 year term with an 6 month process for calling a new rector would serve the church better.

Rod Gillis

Sometimes these things tend to create their own reality. Rather than an aggregate of anecdotal evidence, I’d be interested in looking at hard data with regard to “outcomes”. As the saying goes, if you are not part of the problem then you can make a lot of money being part of the solution.

Susan Sommr

All else being equal, it seems to me that a good interim can better lead to a good transition. A bad interim (or no interim) is more likely to lead to the next rector being the defacto interim. Some dioceses approve a speedier process (jokingly referred to as rent-to-own) for a variety of reasons. But in my limited experience, I’m not aware of that option being generally available to churches that had a messy departure of their former rector, or for that matter, churches that had a rector for 20 years or more. For all the reasons mentioned above.

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