“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32).
Today, October 13, is my final day as priest-in-charge of my current church. Tonight, we have our formal “Ending of a Pastoral Relationship” liturgy in which I hand over the keys.
Pastors come and pastors go. I am in the middle of that at this moment, an experience that many of us have had on either side of the pulpit. I intend this post to be the first of two reflections on the process of transition, the second appearing down the road in the cycle of Covenant contributors. This post will be on the nature of a search, and, hopefully, it will benefit both clergy and search committees. I arrived at my first parish in July 2011, a small family-sized church in southern Louisiana which I’ve led for more than three years. But now the time has come to move on to a new call. In the second of these two posts on transition, I plan to write about saying goodbye and saying hello. But for now, the search.
The process of clergy transition in the Episcopal Church (formerly known as deployment) is wild to say the least — and it’s wild on several levels. Obviously, we have a “call” process, something I have to explain to the ladies at the library or to folks at cocktail parties when they find out that we’re leaving and they ask “so where have you been moved.” So, initially, one has to realize that the actual work/burden/opportunity of the search is on the priest. No one is moving the priest unless there is a problem. Moreover, while it is true that there are people who help in the form of giving some advice and/or who will put in a good word when references are checked, the work is on the priest. Also, this is all pretty quiet to begin with (priests generally don’t tell their current vestry that they’re even contemplating a transition until they’re absolutely sure they are moving on). So where do you go to start?
The Episcopal Church’s “OTM,” the Office of Transition Ministry, is a clearing-house website. The priest is given a password and then she or he gets to update a “portfolio,” a form with blanks to be filled out online. It basically tries to help you describe yourself. The whole process from start to finish is about describing, listening, and then listening to what was not said. Think about it this way: when someone tells you about himself, it’s wise to listen to what he says and ask yourself: “Why is this person telling me A instead of B?” It’s vitally important to listen to what people tell you and what they choose not to volunteer. Why do you tell me about your kids or where you went to college or the fact that your wife doesn’t work? Because these bits and pieces are important to you. Then it’s important to consider what was not said. In a similar vein, when a parish in search has paid for me to get on an airplane (more about that below), I ask them to show me their town — and I often leave it to them to show me what they believe is important for me to see. One tour guide took me to the poorest part of town. That’s what he wanted me to see. And that told me something about him and his church.
Let’s get back to the OTM website and the “portfolio.” The searching priest isn’t the only one putting together a portfolio. A parish search committee does the same — a work, hopefully, of description and vision. And, again, the OTM website asks a lot of things that sometimes you’d like to dodge. After listing all the vital statistics (like Average Sunday Attendance, because membership numbers are meaningless), there is a standard list of questions. For example, “Describe a successful ministry developed in the past few years.” Or, “Describe a moment of conflict and how it was resolved.” I have to hand it to the folks behind the OTM because these are very good questions. When interviews come and there is an opportunity for me to ask questions, I always supplement the OTM questions with (1) “Where is God moving in your congregation?” and (2) “What is the “muscle” in your church that needs more exercise?” (i.e. “Where are you out of shape?”).
Now, the generic questions posed to the priest in his portfolio are actually the exact same questions posed to the congregation (with only slight grammatical changes). What’s great about these questions is that they do not ask the worst (but also the most common) question that everyone in a knee-jerk fashion asks: “What is your leadership style?”
It’s a terrible question to ask a potential rector for a number of reasons. First, it’s actually several questions rolled into one, each of which needs to be asked directly and separately: (1) how do you lead vestry meetings and provide examples, (2) how do you handle conflict and provide examples, (3) describe your methods of communication and provide examples, (4) how have you successfully initiated change and provide examples, (5) how do you manage and encourage both staff and lay volunteers and provide examples, and (6) tell us a story of failure and what you learned. There are more I could list, but you get the point. Another reason the knee-jerk “leadership style” question is terrible is that the search committee member asking it probably has a bad experience of a former rector in the back of her or his mind and she or he really only wants one of two answers: either “I’m easy-going and I will bend,” or “I’m a strong, take-charge leader who gets things done.” Any half-decent priest with a modicum of experience can actually say both of these answers sincerely, but context means everything.
Second, this “leadership style” question welcomes lies. As a dear mentor of mine once said, the search process can often be two groups of people lying to each other. Because the “leadership style” question over-simplifies, asking it practically invites the priest to over-simplify in response. It invites the priest to toss out one of those two pre-packaged answers. More importantly, neither the “tough leader” answer nor the “flexible buddy” answer will give a committee a true, nuanced view of the candidate’s strengths and growing edges.
This tendency to over-simplify is also true for committees when it comes time for them to answer questions. Again, this is where the OTM questions are helpful because they are pretty direct; they uncover and shine light on strengths and weakness. If it weren’t for these, so many parishes would likely say the exact same things about themselves: we are a loving church family with a great community and no conflict.
Look, I’m sure that there are beautiful things about every church and every community in our land, but tell me the hard stuff too. Trust me, I can take it. Tell me about levels of volunteering and tithing and tell me about that time there was a knock-down-drag-out about the kind of cookies at coffee hour (and what was really going on behind the cookie debacle). Moreover, it’s not uncommon for parish portfolios to be contradictory: we need a leader who will lead us into change without changing anything. And, Lord have mercy, I think the word “growth” has been stretched to the point that it has lost semantic meaning. And you can always spot the suburban parish because “youth” will be mentioned in every sentence of their portfolio, often with emergency-room levels of anxiety and tunnel vision.
Let me be clear, though: I don’t think any of this is ever intentional. Picture a volunteer committee at “St. Swithun’s Church” (made up of folks overworked already) being charged by a diocesan transition officer to put together a portfolio and they’re doing their best! Then the committee advertises on the OTM site (via that same transition officer) as well as two or three other websites (just Google “transition” and “episcopal”). Maybe if there is a little extra money, they’ll put an ad in something like The Living Church. On a rare occasion, a diocesan website will post the ad. The Diocese of Virginia is unusually good about this (see here).
As a perspective candidate I then see the ad wherever it may be. I check out the town. I read Wikipedia pages. I look at your church website and Facebook page. Anyone reading this blog will know how important those are. I take a glance at area real estate and the schools. I might even walk around the church campus on GoogleEarth. I read what you’ve written, and I read between the lines too. Then, after clearing it with my wife, I email the materials that the committee asked for: a cover letter, my OTM portfolio, a CV. But I also include some items the committee didn’t request: a picture of me with my wife and our infant son and then two or three recorded sermons. I want the committee to see me and hear me.
The committee will do a first round filter and then move on to initial interviews over Skype or a Google Hang-out. A phone interview really doesn’t let us engage nearly as well. On a video chat, we can see each other and start to get a feel for each other even hundreds of miles away. A committee should take the time to run a laptop through a big screen TV at a committee member’s home using an HDMI cord. The kind of technology I’m describing here is pretty easy to come by in the year 2014. Most middle-aged people use this sort of stuff all the time in their homes (e.g. to stream Netflix or Amazon Prime).
Now, after some initial video interviews, the next step is for a committee and/or vestry to extend an invitation for an in-person interview. Here is where it can get tricky. Remember that the search committee is made up of volunteers, even at a large church. People’s lives happen! And that can stall the process. Making sure everyone can be present during a candidate’s visit is not always easy, but this is important work. On the priest’s end, this is where the airplane rule takes effect. If a priest gets on a plane, he needs to tell his bishop. Your bishop likely doesn’t want to know every thought that pops into your head about the next stage of your ministry, but he does want to know if it is serious enough for you to get on an airplane. And, as the chief pastor of your current congregation, he deserves to know. Likewise, the committee should let their bishop know if someone is coming to town (not least because the candidate will need to pay the bishop a visit). The committee will likely have some measure of autonomy and some measure of guidance from diocesan leadership too, although that balance will vary from diocese to diocese. Regardless, let us say what needs to be said, be transparent with each other, and establish clear lines of communication (cf. Matt. 5:37). No surprises!
Ok, so what about the nature of the visit? If you’re on a committee, you need to meet the spouse, and the spouse needs to see the church and community. She or he needs to be involved. My wife sees all kinds of things that I simply don’t see. Second, the schedule needs to be hammered out with the candidate before anyone gets on the plane. It should include dinners and social times, formal interviews, a driving tour of the community, a thorough tour of the facilities, and down-time too for the priest to reflect carefully and pray with his spouse. I also think it wise for the candidate to celebrate the Eucharist with the committee and preach for them. Consider using the propers for the Holy Spirit on page 927 of the BCP. If there is a rectory, the candidate and spouse need to see it, and they should be given clear answers about renovations and when these will be finished. And the search committee needs to be clear with the renovation team: dear old Father Wojohowitz who lived there for twenty years has now left, and this house will be someone else’s home with a new family. Nothing should be retained in the house (like wallpaper) simply because that’s the way Mrs. Wojohowitz liked it. On the priest’s end, paying for a rental car is a good idea as it allows you to make your own tour of the community even after the guided one. Also, covering the cost is a good faith sign of mutual investment. Bring your GPS.
What about length of visit? With airline travel today being what it is, nothing should be scheduled the day of flight. Anyone who travels a lot knows that that day is a wash. Frankly, unless the candidate is driving, two complete days without travel is needed. In other words, flight on Wednesday, discernment on Thursday and Friday, flight home on Saturday. That would mean, by the way, three nights in a hotel. Offering a guest room in someone’s house is very gracious, but the candidate and spouse will need down-time together to pray and reflect. The candidate will also need to visit with your bishop during those two days. So the committee needs to schedule with the bishop’s office as early as possible (the ones who wear purple shirts are busy!). One more note about the bishop’s visit for the priest: there are tons of things to talk about, but asking the bishop about his vision for this parish is a smart place to begin. He is the chief pastor and you should demonstrate that you recognize that with sincerity.
There is also the question of the relationship between the vestry and the search committee. Is there overlap in the make-up of these bodies? Will the candidate meet with these two groups separately? Search committees are often progressive and forward-thinking while vestries often see their role as preserving and stewarding. So there can be a conflict of priorities. The vestry and committee should be on the same page from day 1, months before any candidate is brought to town.
Questions at this stage should be direct and unabashed. The committee has invested well over a thousand dollars on this one visit (flights, dinners, and nights at a hotel), and the candidate and his spouse are investing a chunk of time, vacation days, and possibly childcare. I’m honestly not sure what question is too touchy or too sensitive on either side of the table. How does the candidate feel about same-sex blessings? Do vestry members tithe? What is this gap in your resume? What does the vestry understand “growth” to entail? Let’s get real with each other. And if the answer given by either candidate or committee isn’t satisfactory, respectfully circle back. For example, if there is reticence to explain the budget, then this is a red flag. Hopefully, that clear and direct tone was already set during the Skype interview. But, on the other hand, let’s also be sure that there should be very, very few single-issue litmus test questions. I had the experience of passing one really important litmus test question for a vestry but nothing else about that call seemed to fit. Likewise, I failed a litmus test question, but everything else looked great. Serious questions are important, but we (priests and committees) should be careful about hinging a call on one issue. That seems unlikely, but it happens.
How many candidates should a committee fly in? I know of one bishop who requires that committees/vestries interview no fewer than three candidates in person. But, on the other hand, I have also been in searches in which I was the only one to come to town. For the good of the discernment process, different voices really do need to be heard and in person. Even if the committee is already sold on one candidate, it’s wise to hear something else and see what the Holy Spirit does.
Then, when the committee does issue a call with the bishop’s approval, the committee should be patient. There are no perfect priests and there are no perfect parishes and, therefore, no one’s feelings should be hurt if the candidate doesn’t fall all over himself to accept. Frankly, that may be a sign of desperation. When a call is issued, the priest will need more time to consider carefully. It shouldn’t be terribly long, a few days or maybe a week at the most. Then when the call is accepted, give him or her around six weeks because it will take at least that long to say goodbye, possibly buy a house, move, rest, and start with vigor and passion.
I could tell you so much more about mistakes I made and the immense learning experience the past several months has been. I had the blessing of having a number of calls issued but then selecting the one that God really is pulling me and my family toward.
There are two things I can say with clarity: (1) the process is unwieldy, often erratic, and can be improved; and (2) we are all in God’s gracious hands because so much of this, despite the entirety of this blog post, is beyond our control.
In our prayer life over the past year, my wife and I have often simply said to God, “we are in your hands” and then we sit in the silence. That reality has been brought home to me during our search and God has provided more than we can ask or imagine.
And, as a coda, let me say that I’d really love to be a transition officer one day! If any bishop out there needs a canon in a few years and isn’t completely turned off by my reflections, shoot me an email!
Fr Calvin Lane has just finished three years as priest-in-charge of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, Louisiana. Having been offered calls as rector and school chaplain, he’s heading to a new call, which he’ll describe in the next post.
The image above is “Signpost” (2007) by Andrew Tarrant. It is licensed under Creative Commons.