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.
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
 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.