Saturday, August 3, 2013

Rectors - Resign, Get Fired, Retire, Die

So what’s a congregation to do when a Rectorship is open, for whatever reason?  The answer to that question is critical to their future!  Who can argue that it is God’s plan to place the right priest in the right place at the right time?  Numerous books and articles have been written to provide guidance to congregations, diocesan staffs and transition specialists on what must be accomplished and even how to accomplish it.  Nevertheless, the same old mistakes and strategies prevail to the determent of all concerned.    

Most congregants want a new Rector as soon as possible and furthermore they want the person to be just like or very opposite the one leaving.  What will we do without you?” Or, “We’ll never find anyone we like as well!”  Or, if they were not happy with the rector, then you might hear, “Thank God.”  In any case, focusing on getting someone new in place is not the starting point. First parish members need to resolve their feelings of loss, grief, anger, relief, guilt and panic about the future.

Neil Simon wrote a play titled “The Second Time Around” which showcases the difficulty of starting a new relationship before recovering or resolving a prior commitment.  Still, congregations  practice denial by saying, “we’re an exception to the rule.”  So, some congregations say goodbye to the departing rector on one Sunday and welcome the new rector within weeks; a recipe for failure.  Some quickly choose to promote an Assistant because “the show must go on and we actually like this person better anyway.” 

Friends, never start looking for a new Rector until the former one is well gone and the grief work effected.  Equally true – even though there are a few places where promoting an Assistant worked, for the most part promoting an Assistant to Rector turns the person into an unintentional interim which is problematic.  

Smaller congregations or those with budget problems often choose to buy “supple clergy” for worship and pastoral duties, try to bank some dollars, and turn over the interim process work to the diocese.  The truth is few dioceses have the time or the expertise to actually take on these duties and do them well, not to mention the always present conflict of interest.  The first, the very first, task is to see if the parish can obtain the services of a trained and credentialed interim rector or at least a trained interim consultant or experienced interim clergy team.  Don’t be stampeded into starting the business of naming committees and setting agendas too soon.   

The time will come when a congregation is ready to begin determining what skills will be needed in the new rector if the parish mission and goals are to be accomplished. Soon enough, months not weeks later, the congregation, working through the vestry or a special search committee, will seek and interview candidates.  Once I asked a vestry this question:  “Assuming you needed the services of a Cardiologist and your applicants were the following: a Neurologist, an Urologist, a Dentist, a recent Medical School graduate, and an EMT with great references – who would you hire?”  You guessed it. More than half of the vestry named someone from the list.  The remaining few got it right - “None of the above!” But it happens all the time! Search Committees present candidates who fail to meet the needs of the congregation because these candidates are the only ones who showed an interest, or they are the only candidates the parish thinks it can afford.  Just as disastrous, dioceses often try to push clergy that need to move or are newly ordained and need a place; again clearly a conflict of interest.  The right person is out there but you may need to say “none of the above” a time or two. 

Sound ominous?  In fact a well done transition process is an exciting spiritual journey and educational endeavor for the whole congregation.  The best advice is to take your time and do it right!


  1. The Church moves at the crazy pace of the culture. We need Jesus AGAINST culture right now. Right on about searches and haste—and waste plus pain. Thanks.

  2. Right on, Gary. Everything you say is in fact and my experience accurate.

  3. I believe you stated this well. I accept what you say because of what I have seen in the life of the church.

    Unfortunately, someone who hasn't seen this first hand will question what you say. Do you have a good list of resources for someone who would like to see the research to back up what you said?


  4. Gary this blog hits the nail on the head with regard to clergy transitions and the congregational response to that. Parishes that rush into the search, only thinking about money (or lack of), pressured by the judicatory or trying to replicate or repudiate the old priest are doomed to failure.

  5. Having seen the successor who was called before I left stay only 18 months, I know the dangers of haste. During one stint as interim vicar of a mission church where there wasn't certainty about being able to have a full time vicar, we were able to consider another model of clergy leadership. While the model was not chosen, the discussions were valuable. Has the congregation been in a hurry, this would not have happened. In my last parish before retiring, my initial call came in the wake of a forced termination. At my first meeting with the Vestry, which had been meeting every week for nine months, I asked what was so precious about the parish that they would dedicate so much time to it. One member said that no one had asked them that question and went on to start the discussion by talking about what he valued most. During the next year or so we widened that discussion to include everyone in the parish.

  6. I recently left a congregation, the Bishop assigned an assisting Bishop who encouraged the antagonists and now they are back in power.

  7. Thank you all for joining in the discussion both on-line and in some cases direct to my email.

    The reality continues that the time between installed or called rectors or pastors can make or break a congregation for the future. Trained and experienced Interims are especially valuable; today many Denominations, Centers, Networks, and Consultants are available to those desiring to enter this specialized ministry.

    My excellent training began in 1994 with The Interim Ministry Network. Later I attended Appreciative Interim Ministry Training conducted by an old friend, Dr. Rob Voyle. The Episcopal Ministry Network headed by another friend, Dr. Molly Dale Smith is an excellent resource. Another collogue, a Baptist clergyman, did his training with the Center for Congregational Health and was very pleased. These are only a sampling of places to contact, check Google.

  8. Some of the best comments I have seen in the blog. Thank you everyone as a writer and reader.

  9. Received a nice note Fr. John DeWitt Stonesifer, the current President of "Interim Ministries in the Episcopal Church (IMEC); again, an excellent resource.

  10. Prof Willis H A MooreAugust 9, 2013 at 3:35 PM

    It is clear to this writer and those concerned with transitions that a good, trained interim priest is potentially the best route to follow. Unfortunately most bishops know little about interim ministry, other than to appoint a retired clergy to "step in for a time", or something akin to that.

  11. Congratulations to a prominent Kansas City congregation - from the Sunday bulletin on 11 August: “After several interviews and with careful discernment, the . . . Search Committee decided to continue its process rather than calling either of the finalists for our open position.” “The Committee . . . feels comfortable continuing to look for the person God has in mind. . .”