Transitions – Old Ways, New Ways, Right Ways, Wrong Ways


We are continuing the conversation begun earlier by George Clifford in his piece Rethinking the Transition Process.  In this piece we hear from someone deeply involved in the transition process, Mary Brennan Thorpe, Transition Minister for the diocese of Virginia


by Mary Brennan Thorpe


Is the current process of clergy transition in the Episcopal Church an effective way to bring new clergy leadership to parishes or is it irredeemably broken? As is often the case in the Episcopal Church, it is somewhere in the middle.


The general belief among some in the church, based upon anecdotal evidence, is that we do things in a way that does not respect a changing world and changing ministry. Transitions take too long, the quality of the fit between new clergy and calling parishes is uneven at best, parishes flounder without stable leadership, and interim ministry is a waste of time. Although there is some truth in these beliefs, broad-brush generalizations are unhelpful.


In the Diocese of Virginia, we introduced a new methodology for transitions three years ago, based upon research done as part of my doctoral work in congregational studies. This methodology was based on what our parishes told us, what we saw in the metrics, what we learned of creative approaches in other dioceses, and what we knew from the secular world that might apply in the admittedly different world of calling priests to parishes.


We also applied this methodology to “nonstandard searches” where parishes requested unusual approaches, such as doing the search work while the incumbent was still in place. These were limited to healthy parishes with incumbents whose ability to keep good boundaries were well-established.[1]


Since the implementation of the methodology, almost fifty priests have received calls to serve as rectors, priest-in-charge, and vicars in this diocese. Only one call did not yield a good and lasting relationship, and in that case there were mitigating factors that could not have been predicted.

Here are the guiding principles for the methodology:

  • God expects the parish to evolve in its next chapter; mission and ministry responds to the parish’s context and it changes as that context changes. Part of the work is to discern where God may be directing the parish next.
  • The focus should be on the gifts and graces that the parish needs in that next chapter of its existence, rather than the externals (i.e., “we need a priest with a young family to attract other young families,” or “we couldn’t consider a candidate who is gay or a person of color or divorced because we would lose members.”)
  • There is a presumption that there are already gifts and graces present in each parish; the idea is to build on what is already present, to augment those gifts by calling a priest that can lead the parish to where God is calling it to go and grow.
  • The relationship between priest and parish is not simply the hiring of an employee. It is work of mutual discernment. This means the parish must be clear on who it is, where it is headed, and what gifts are needed. If those things cannot be articulated, how are candidates to determine if they are a fit?
  • There are tools that can be brought to bear in this work that derive from a variety of disciplines: technology and social media, formal discernment processes, traditional tools of interim ministry, well-validated methods of congregational study work, secular hiring practices and networking strategies.
  • The process must be flexible enough to respect the unique circumstances of each parish.
  • The process must give parishes a sense of their own agency by giving them strategic choices.


What does this look like in practice?


We meet with vestries once a priest has announced they are departing. We talk about the options of Rector versus Priest-in-Charge, of using an interim as opposed to letting the diocese suggest several candidates, as well as the benefits and pitfalls of those approaches. We carefully match interims’ gifts with the parish’s needs; we pay attention to needs for particular specializations in conflict transformation, being a “hospice chaplain” to fragile parishes discerning their future, managing large and complex multi-staff parishes, and the ability to serve ethnic and multi-ethnic congregations. In this time of many retirements and increasing demand for interims, this can be particularly challenging. Do all parishes need an interim? In our experience, most parishes do need an interim. Interims are not mere place-holders; they are an integral part of preparing the parish for the future.  The work of preparing the parish for its next rector is broad-ranging. In several of those nonstandard searches where there was no interim, the newly called rector needed to attend to some matters (personnel, liturgical practices, best practices in parish finance) that an interim would normally have taken care of during the transition time; these new rectors had to expend relational capital that might have been better used elsewhere in the parish.


Assuming a Search/Discernment Committee will be commissioned, we work with them closely. Sometimes they have a consultant, sometimes it is me or my deputy. We stress the importance of periodic sharing of where they are in the process, while respecting the need for confidentiality of some data and candidate information.  Transparency to the congregation leads to less anxiety in the system.


We give them a toolbox of ways to determine who they are now, who they’ve been, and what they think God’s next big idea for them might be. Some tools – the Congregational Timeline, for example – are better suited to smaller parishes. Some others, such as surveys of various kinds, can be used creatively and well in almost any sized parish. We talk about focus groups, about observational work, about archival work looking at old Vestry minutes. The idea is that the Committee should know the DNA of the parish as well as the hopes and dreams of the parish going forward. The Committee picks which tools will work best in their context.


The end result of this phase of the work is the material that will be used to announce and describe the position: an updated web presence and a completed Community Ministry Portfolio. Why no profile? We believe profiles served a useful purpose in a pre-Internet age. Now, the bulk of the material that was in the profile is (or should be) on the parish website. It is a dynamic tool for showing who the parish is and serves as a medium for evangelism. The material that is not on the website goes into the Community Ministry Portfolio on the OTM database. This covers the metrics such as average Sunday Attendance and numbers of people attending formation programs as well as some general information about the compensation package. It also provides answers to a number of questions that explain how the parish operates as a faith community, both in happy times and in challenging ones. Lastly, it gives a brief summary of what the parish is looking for. The elimination of the parish profile shortens the time period between the self-study process and the announcement of the position considerably, usually by 4-6 months.


Positions are advertised on the diocesan website, through the Transition Ministry Conference, and/ or through the Episcopal News Service. We also reach out to transition officers in dioceses around the country seeking qualified candidates.


We provide guidance to the Committee on screening for qualifications, on the interviewing process, and on due diligence. We nurture them through the process of selecting whom they will recommend to their vestry and then work with the vestry as they decide if this is the candidate that should be called.


The end result?


A process that has taken, on average, a year from the departure of one rector to the calling of another, and has yielded calls that were embraced and which are yielding good fruit in the vineyards.


That one-year timeframe was not necessarily our goal. God’s time is not our time, and discernment cannot be conducted with a stopwatch in hand. But in a time when priests’ average tenure is a little over five years, we cannot expect parishes to spend two years in search for a priest who will not stay for more than a decade.


There are exceptions in how long it will take and how it is done: parishes that have experienced trauma, conflict, or grief require healing. You cannot look to the future while your eyes are still blinded by tears. Yet even in those circumstances, elements of this program have led to expeditious (not rushed) processes with healthy calls.


Is the clergy transition process broken?  No but it is in need of revision. We think that there are good lessons to be learned from our experience of introducing this methodology. We see creativity abounding in other dioceses as well. We look forward to continuing to improve it in the years to come.


The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry, Diocese of Virginia and President of the Transition Ministry Conference


[1] At the direction of our Diocesan Bishop, the Rt. Rev.  Shannon Johnston, we are currently observing a moratorium on nonstandard practices while we assess the efficacy of the approach and what factors need to be present to choose whether or not such a nonstandard practice can be used in a particular parish.



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13 Responses to "Transitions – Old Ways, New Ways, Right Ways, Wrong Ways"
  1. Critical are/is the Vestry and/or Search Committee. If all, or nearly all, of the members are from the same demographic, the promise of reaching a healthy vision for the future is bleak. Unfortunately, my experience is that for most congregations there is little diversity and the transition process does not take the congregation to a wider, more engaging view but to a narrower, less inclusive place. Note that the talk is of diversity but no one on the Vestry/Search Committee knows how to bring it about, thus it does not occur.

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  2. I agree that DioVA's transition process works better than most. It's interesting too--for all the noise about declining participation in mainstream churches, here in Northern VA we have a number of parishes experiencing strong growth, including the Falls Church, St. Peter's in the Woods, and Epiphany Herndon. In each case, there is a long-term vision and strategy, as well as a commitment to growth--not growth as defined by the numbers, but rather as in building a welcoming community that embraces the world around it. Each appears to be very intentional in building a loving, caring environment.

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  3. Thanks, Jon, for your comments. You're right - the composition of the search committee is critical and is one of the things we focus on with the vestry. As for training for diversity, there are some dioceses that specifically train SCs for diversity awareness - we talk about it in terms of looking for the right gifts and graces rather than a particular demographic. Here's one example of how that played out:

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  4. Yes, Eric, part of the work that we encourage parishes to do in transition is to see where God is leading them in the next chapter of the parish's existence. Clarity about mission leads to clarity about what is necessary in the next call.

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  5. Thank you for commenting; we ask all commenters to please use their real first and last names -thx, Editor

    Though I uphold everything else that you state, based on what I have seen - the alteration of the parish profile - serves as a negative. The searches I have looked into, sans classic profile, causes the seeking priests to engage in even more digging and detective work and frankly sometimes the history is not on the website.
    For instance a profile used to have the list of rectors. This information is helpful in discernment. One may not want to put ones name in a church that appears to have a rector turnover every threee years, or at the best that presents a question which can be asked early in the process. Previous rector history is not a norm for a website and not usually on OTM.
    With that in mind, the parish that has to put together and look at their profile is also educated to their own history (as parishes add new folks who may not know their church story.
    Sadly, in recently looking I found the Dio of VA parishes lacking due to the profile change while other Diocesan parish's in search were made richer because of the same.

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    • MP, you raise some legitimate concerns. An observation first, and then some specifics about how we share the information you seek:

      First, when I was a priest seeking a call - and this was not that long ago - every profile said pretty much the same thing: "We're a warm and welcoming congregation who loves each other and loves Jesus, and we are seeking a priest to help us grow." The only distinguishing characteristics were the faces in the pictures and possibly the financials in the back.There was rarely a mention of any issues of conflict or grief, there was rarely mention of specific goals, there was rarely mention of specific attributes that parishes were seeking. In my more cynical moments, I would venture that these profiles were more like marketing brochures for a product than a statement of their hopes and dreams from a missional standpoint. None that I read ever had a list of former rectors.

      Now, the specifics. The immediate prior rectors (the last three) are listed in the Community Ministry Portfolio. It is not as comprehensive as ones I have seen in some parish histories, but it's a start. You're right - seeing if there has been frequent turnover in ordained leadership is something you want to be aware of. Most of our parishes have a fairly extensive history section on their website, since we have so many history buffs in the Commonwealth of Virginia and so many historic churches, but not all of them

      Reading a parish website is the technological/parochial equivalent of what Anton Boisen, the father of Clinical Pastoral Education, called "reading the living human document." Just as we have to dig a bit when we engage in pastoral care with a parishioner - the presenting problem may not be the true issue at hand, it isn't always apparent all the "stuff" that's going on in a parish by looking at the website, but it's a start.

      You may consider this too little, too late, but we ask all departing rectors to fill out a document which details all sorts of necessary information for the next rector, including nuts and bolts stuff as well as specific pastoral issues. This document is updated by the interim priest at the end of her or his tenure. This is a powerful tool for the new priest.

      We also encourage (sometimes aggressively!) that parishes tell the whole of their story in their responses to the narrative questions in the Community Ministry Portfolio. Not just the bright and shiny moments, but also the moments of challenge and struggle, since they often tell stories of resilience. Parishes are encouraged to be equally transparent in their history when they interview candidates.

      I hope this helps clarify our thought process on the profile issue.

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  6. Where do you find Interims who are trained and capable of doing the work necessary peculiar to the searching parish? Are you, as a diocese, committed to a stable of trained and multi talented Interims?

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    • We are fortunate to have a number of gifted intentional interims who are in this diocese. We "share" interims with nearby dioceses as well, such as the Diocese of Washington, the Diocese of Southern Virginia, and the Diocese of North Carolina. Occasionally, we find interims from further afield. It's a challenge - we cannot always predict what our needs will be in any season. That said, we work hard to match interims well with the parishes they will serve.

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  7. Thank you for this very helpful article, Mary. From my experience, the parish profile takes a good deal of time; I agree the time, energy and funds are best spent on a solid and informative website. We encourage parishes to create a narrative and populate the website with it. A .pdf of the narrative is then made available to the candidates so they need not print out pages of color photos along with the text.

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  8. I think this is an excellent approach with close involvement by a diocesan expert.

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  9. Mary, what do you do for congregation with less than 50 ASA and no full time salary? Or for congregations that can't pay for two transitions (interim and pastor)?

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    • Tom, it's definitely a challenge to work with these smaller parishes. Oftentimes, they will simply ask for a Priest-in-Charge. Finding PiCs who want to work part-time usually means that they will have a retired priest. We're grateful for these folks. The challenge, though, is to get them to think missionally rather than simply seeing their task as a chaplaincy to the remaining parishioners. In some cases, they will do a congregational meeting using an Appreciative Inquiry oriented series of three questions - what has bee a high point in the recent life of our congregation, what are the things we most value in this place, and what will be our 2-3 most important accomplishments in the next three to five years? I am indebted to my colleagues int he Diocese of North Carolina for this approach. At the very least, it reminds parishioners that our work is not simply to show up on Sunday. On the other hand, if there is no sense of mission, it opens up a conversation about the future of the parish. This is a short answer to a long and complex question, one that the whole of the Church is wrestling with. Other options include sharing clergy, but that is something that many of our smaller parishes are not yet at ease with. If others have some creative ideas, please do share them with us!

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