Earlier in the fall I wrote a Covenant reflection on transitions, the bewildering process by which clergy move around in the Episcopal Church. It takes a lot to navigate the terrain prayerfully and practically, and I hope that post was helpful (I got a tip of the biretta from at least one canon to the ordinary). That first post was on the search process, and this one today is the promised second part, on saying goodbye and saying hello. For a slightly different reflection on entering a new place, see yesterday’s post by Paul Wheatley.
Of course I’m no deeply seasoned cleric, but rather a priest who has just made the jump from first call to second call, and I hope this post will likewise help others, both clergy moving as well as lay people having to say goodbye or hoping to welcome rightly.
As with so much in ministry, transition is an art and not a science. And, to be up front, everyone in this process should be reading How to Hit the Ground Running by Neal Michell. That said, let’s pick up with the moment that you (the priest) have obediently informed your bishop that you would like to accept the new call, and he or she has given a blessing. You should talk with the bishop about dates (more about that below) for the very practical reason that while he is very busy, he or his designee should officiate an ending of pastoral relationship liturgy. That does not necessarily have to be a Sunday morning, and likely cannot be a Sunday morning if the bishop is to be there. The next person on the list is your senior warden and that talk is preferably done in person (possibly with both of your wardens). When you announce this to your vestry, your senior warden should already be in the know. Many folks on your vestry have been part of periods of transition and search, and some have bad memories have how hard it was or at least how hard they perceived it to be. There will be anxiety, and you need to explain how God is also calling “St. Swithun’s” (or whatever else) to a new stage in their life.
That Sunday, the transition should be announced during worship, and a special letter needs to be sent to the entire congregation with all important dates and details (again, see below). In your remaining sermons, focusing on the gift of hope is advisable: be clear that your move is not simply a job change, but a new season for everyone in the continual working out of God’s Kingdom. Now is the time to celebrate the season coming to a close, to remember joys as well as challenges. But don’t be afraid to ask them: “Where is God calling St. Swithun’s next?” They should answer that not to you, but for themselves. A party or reception is needed not simply for you, but for the parish to mark the turning point.
Set clear dates working backwards and as soon as possible: (1) your start date, (2) your move date which should be at minimum two weeks before the start date, (3) your ending date (see my earlier comment about an ending of pastoral relationship liturgy).
Also, factor in the fact that you should not hang around very long after the announcement: three or four weeks is a sweet spot from announcement to ending liturgy. Now, the X factor of course is whether you live in church-provided housing, and that’s one of the many reasons this process is not a science. You have to move your entire life, including your nuclear family, if you have one, and this may involve buying a house too. The timing of your move and your ending can be a delicate dance. The whole process from announcement of leaving to start date is most likely two months and here is another factor: INSURANCE. End your relationship sometime after the CPG payment is made at the start of the month so that month is covered. Then arrange to start around the end of the next month but ask your new vestry to start your insurance payments at the start of that month (e.g. end on October 5 and start on November 20 so there is no gap in coverage). These dates need to be worked out very early so they can be clearly listed in that letter you send to your existing congregation.
Now that all that is covered, there is the topic of your pastoral responsibility to your ending congregation. Visit all your shut-ins and explain to them that you are moving on. Schedule face-to-face time with key people (lunches and dinners and coffee) just to be with them one last time. If you have a family-sized parish, write every single household a short note telling them how much you enjoyed knowing them and serving with them in this place. And be sure you write a note to the person who gave you trouble too! Every member needs to hear grace at this moment, not to paper-over the hard times but to dwell on God’s mercy and his purposes.
Let me say clearly (for any bishop or diocesan staff reading this blog) that indeed you are absolutely not to tamper with their search. God, who has always been in charge (not you), is moving them on to a new season, and you need to encourage them to trust him and the leadership of their new bishop.
Now, having said all of this, a priest going through transition needs to remember that you have been a pastor to a congregation, and you have shaped them in different ways. They have come to expect certain practical things from you. Sit down and think through a garden-variety week and through a garden-variety month. Hopefully you have empowered them in different ways to serve even in little mundane things like turning on the air conditioning. If you’ve got a good practical spirituality in your parish, then your people will know that God is found in those little things that, frankly, remind us of the quotidian aspects of the Incarnation.
Make a list of what you do day to day. Websites? Newsletters? Vestry materials? And then give that to the vestry with the understanding that they will have to take up the reins. This is a great opportunity for them, frankly! Some may disagree with me, but I also think it’s wise to talk with your senior warden about supply priests. Sure, you may have a church with an interim rector on his or her way, but that’s not true for a lot of small churches who might go more than a year, Sunday by Sunday, with supply priests. Surely you have some “go-to” retired guys who have been there before: sharing their contact information with the vestry or senior warden is not tampering with transition. And when it comes time for the ending of pastoral relationship liturgy, hand lots of very practical things to the wardens as part of the service (these things can even be funny if you’d like). I think the real way to evaluate how well you did on prepping them comes about three months after you leave: the metric is how many times do they have to call/email you in that three month stretch. Once or twice? Fine. A dozen times? Perhaps you didn’t prepare them enough.
One more thing needs to be said here about saying goodbye: pray. Sure we think about prayer during the search process, but wrap your leave-taking with prayer too. Spend time in prayer in the church where you have preached and celebrated for however many years, reflecting on what God has done with you and with your people in this place. Do it alone. Do it with your family. I actually said goodbye to the altar, one that had witnessed the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ lifted up by the hands of priests for over a hundred years. I was part of its history now. My little, weak hands, my hands marked by both vile sin and holy chrism.
Now, some elements about saying hello. Let’s wind back to the issue of timing, which is so critical. As most of us know, Oxford Documents, a nation-wide service for background checks, keeps us on the level. But are you aware of how slowly Ox Docs can grind? And are you also aware that formally announcing a new call may depend on clearing Ox Docs? Everything can be put on hold. Think about it this way: you’re about to close on a new house, and the mortgage loan officer wants a document that says you have the job without any contingencies like background checks. Yes, this is a big deal. And while forms are left on the desks of over-worked former employers from ten years ago, you’re left in limbo. Here’s a tip to think about: you’ve already passed Ox Docs (probably multiple times). So, really, all Ox Docs needs to check is the period of time starting from the last clearance, likely when you accepted your current call. Put your transition officers in touch, and see if files can be shared. This isn’t an end-around but a practical solution to what can be a tricky obstacle.
When you make your move, as already noted, make sure there are at least two weeks from move date to actual start in the parish office. Even with the best planning, there will be hiccups. And try your best to make sure everyone understands, as carefully as possible, that you are decompressing and still settling (i.e. we’re going to do lots of parties and receptions, but let’s do those in a couple of weeks even though we’re all very excited). Here’s where Neal Michell’s book is really helpful in charting some practical steps — so in that respect I’ll not repeat what he’s already written. Once you start, it’s of course very important to do a lot of listening and watching and to remain flexible with your immediate agenda. Plan on having a retreat with the vestry, but make that after a season: for example, six months into your start. Then you can do some serious visioning, maybe even with a new class of vestry members if you time it right.
Sure, that all makes sense as a rector. But what if (like yours truly) you’re going from being priest-in-charge of a small church to being an associate at a large church. It may sound odd, but about a third of my current Fresh Start group did exactly that. One of my teachers in seminary once remarked that it doesn’t matter what they call you (associate, assistant, curate, even canon), it is all “at will” work, and, to be perfectly clear, you work for the rector. That relationship is the one needing cultivation and your job is to say “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Sure, that is all true. However, if you have some experience under your belt, your rector knows that, and she or he hired you in part because of that. Given the “market,” she or he could have called someone fresh from seminary. But in a program-sized or corporate-sized church, there is a need for real hands-on experience beyond the person of the rector. If you are a true associate (despite what my old professor said), then you will have de facto leaders working closely with you: the folks intimately connected with the program area you’ve been tasked with. Your role is to cultivate them as leaders too. Now, we’re absolutely not talking about an ecclesiola in ecclesia (a church within a church). Never forget that you’re not the rector. But there are direct bonds that need to be built, trust that needs to be formed, and mission and purpose that needs outlining.
Finally, a word about negotiations. It is important, following the words of Christ himself, to let our yea be yea and our nay be nay. Be clear and up front in the language of the letter of agreement about how vacation and continuing education will be taken, as well as maternity/paternity leave. This is also the case regarding stipends, insurance, continuing education and professional allowances, and the expectation of salary increases. Clergy stipends are meant to allow clergy the freedom to minister without having to seek supplemental income (tent-making in the case of Paul). Most clergy will never be rich, but they should be able to live in the same community in which they minister. It’s unrealistic to say that stipends don’t have a compensatory element (you do good work and so you should be rewarded). However, the main purpose is to unburden clergy to do ministry and to equip them and their families to be decently and respectably housed, fed, and habited. Not to circle back to the search process, but beware of the vestry or rector who wants to avoid talking about money. We are not Gnostics: the everyday, quotidian, material elements of life are touched and transformed by the purposes of God.
That brings me to my concluding thought. Never for a moment allow this process — even picking the movers — to become separated from or secondary to a “higher, spiritual purpose.” The whole of life is being made holy by God who joined himself with his own creation — and that’s not in some blaze of charismatic effervescence but rather in making sure that your kids and your spouse are where they need to be at this point in life, as well as seeing if you have enough time in the week to rest and study and if you are properly preparing for retirement.
These two posts have been practical and maybe even tedious for someone not in transition. But, much like what we read in the schools of practical spiritual theology (e.g. Benedict, Thomas à Kempis, Francis de Sales), that is where God is found and where we grow day by day in accords with his purposes.
The image above is “Signpost” (2007) by Andrew Tarrant. It is licensed under Creative Commons.