Further thoughts on clergy transitions in the Episcopal Church

A previous Ethical Musings post that also appeared on the Episcopal Café, Rethinking the transition process, triggered a flurry of responses, pro and con, many of whom recounted personal experiences. Mary Brennan Thorpe’s ensuing contribution to the Café, Transitions – Old Ways, New Ways, Right Ways, Wrong Ways, also received an unusual number of responses (references to Mary Thorpe below refer to that post).

Mary Thorpe is right: Transitions often take too long. However, I disagree with her that generalizations are not useful. Admittedly, characterizing the transition management process as broken is a generalization with notable exceptions. However, this generalization will hopefully be the catalyst TEC needs to address its severe case of transition management arteriosclerosis before the problem becomes fatal. Inertia (we have always done it this away), discomfort with change, fear of the unknown, and the use of theological jargon to masque organizational dysfunctionality are some sources of the plaque clogging TEC’s organizational arteries. My hope is that my two posts and that by Mary Thorpe, as well as the conversations they have triggered, will identify tools for clearing that plaque and restoring the healthy blood flow of smooth, timely leadership changes.

As a prolegomenon to continuing the conversation, these points recapitulate my first post:
  1. Eliminate the frequently intentional long interim periods in congregations (parishes and missions) and dioceses.
  2. Dioceses and congregations should commence transition planning immediately upon an incumbent announcing her/his departure.
  3. Eliminate the preparation and distribution of diocesan and congregational profiles.
  4. Dioceses and congregations should rely on the cadre of professional headhunters that TEC already employs to winnow through potential candidates expeditiously.
  5. Teach the revised search process and transition management to clergy and lay leaders in diocesan forums.

(Parenthetically, I incorrectly referred to the Church Deployment Office. Mea culpa. The CDO was renamed the Office of Transition Management several years ago. That error, however, does not alter the substance of my original post.)

Instead of promoting uniformity, I intended these proposals to aid in shifting the general style and method of transition management, leaving ample room for local adaptations. TEC’s dioceses and 5000 plus congregations obviously require multiple approaches to transition management. One approach will never best suit the diversity, apparent on multiple axes, of all of our varied places and situations. Concomitantly, some dioceses manage transitions more effectively and efficiently than do other dioceses.

The proposed changes to transition management modify praxis, not the canons. Consequently, implementing these changes depends upon altering our existing culture and expectations about when a search process should begin, the need for profiles, reliance upon interims, etc. A diocese may experiment with approaches the diocese deems best tailored to its particular context in searching for a new bishop or new congregational leaders. Dioceses, similarly, may flexibly assist their congregations in calling new leaders. Continuing conversations about transition management in multiple forums will allow transition management staff, dioceses, congregations, and clergy to learn best practices from one another.

The support voiced for congregational profiles surprised me. Correctly preparing a statement of aspirations/expectations inherently entails the calling body developing an understanding of who they are. The current approach, in addition to duplicating information already available elsewhere, too often results in a small number of people who, even if representative, prepare the profile and then fail to communicate the richness of their process and conversations to others. Another problem is that searches currently tend to seek a new leader with the skills and personality characteristics the prior leader lacked rather than strategically seeking to identify the leadership gifts needed to move the congregation/diocese forward in its next chapter. Mary Thorpe identified a related problem: “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,’ …).” She commended the Office of Transition Management’s online Community Ministry Profile as helpful in supplementing information available on congregational websites and elsewhere. Her experience is that eliminating preparation of a parish profile typically shortens congregational search times by 4-6 months.

No amount of refining transition management processes is a panacea that will ensure every diocese and congregation always calls a leader well suited to lead it into a future congruent with God’s desires. A group in spite of its best, most faithful efforts may call a person ill-suited for the position, applicants may wrongly discern their gifts/calling, the organization may misperceive its culture (e.g., idealizing the prior incumbent), and so forth. These difficulties can occur even in occasionally in the best of circumstances and more frequently in problematic contexts. Additionally, as Fr. Patrick Raymond observed in an email to me, “An extended interim process can unintentionally create congregational expectations about a “fail-safe” process that will result in calling a fabulous rector.”

Tangentially, a current website seems a sine qua non for every congregation and diocese. Many people today search for a congregation using the internet; not having a current website is tantamount to a congregation declaring that growth is not a goal. One vital way dioceses can assist congregations is to provide the staff or financial assistance to create and maintain a current website to congregations who do not have the skilled volunteers or financial means to perform those tasks.

Many of the saints chronicled in Lesser Feasts and Fasts are noteworthy not only for their personal holiness but also their gifts as strategic thinkers who possessed the leadership and management skills to turn vision into reality. TEC now needs clergy characterized by personal holiness and quality ministry to individuals who also have the strong leadership and managerial skills to transform the institution they serve. Diocesan bishops and clergy in charge of congregations are, for better or worse, leaders and managers because dioceses and congregations are organizations with structure, finances, often employees, usually with buildings, and always with volunteers. In general, leading and managing volunteers is more difficult than is leading and managing paid staff. Add theology and spirituality to the mix, and the church, for its size, is arguably among the most difficult of all organizations in which to exercise leadership and management.

Mary Thorpe wrote regarding the interim’s role as congregational change agent:
… 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.
Why should only interims have the privilege and opportunity to resolve those awkward situations? Expending relational capital by skillfully resolving difficult situations is a prime method for generating additional relational capital. Conversely, unused relational capital atrophies. Thus, clergy need to exercise the skill, if not the joy, of stepping into and then constructively resolving awkward situations. Depending upon a trained interim to resolve awkward situations tacitly assumes that other clergy lack the leadership and management skills required to resolve those awkward situations.

Reducing a clerical leader’s role to working with individuals results in the leader functioning as a chaplain instead of an institutional change agent, a diminished role that usually presumes the goal is to preserve the status quo. In other words, clergy who would lead a diocese or congregation generally profit the organization they lead by having a good interim’s skills in strategic thinking and the tactical leadership/managerial skills required to implement those strategic goals.

Interims are not a remedy for clergy who lack those skills. An interim may resolve immediate problems, but new problems inevitably emerge. Instead, clergy lacking these strategic and tactical skills can develop them through continuing education. Alternatively, clergy can team with committed lay leaders who have those skills. This teaming may occur most often (but not exclusively!) in small and pastoral sized congregations. By relying upon mutually complementary lay and clerical skills and gifts to ensure strategic thinking and the tactical leadership/management to achieve strategic goals, congregations move toward health internally and more actively engage in mission outside the congregation.

Clergy seeking and answering a call today increasingly participate in a process that resembles a secular job search. Mary Thorpe’s description of a call as a work of mutual discernment that requires a parish to “be clear on who it is, where it is headed, and what gifts are needed,” equally applies to a secular firm’s sound hiring praxis, except the latter generally avoids employing theological language. The same applies to a family business seeking its next leader, an analogy that John Keydel suggested in a comment to my original post. Adapting proven processes from businesses and non-profits has the potential to dramatically lower the costs and improve the results of TEC transition management.

These ideas do not exhaust options for improving TEC’s transition management. Mary Thorpe highlighted another in her description of the Diocese of Virginia’s use of turnover files that the incumbent prepares for her/his successor, a tool widely used in other contexts. Another improvement might consist of expanded continuing education opportunities for clergy in subjects including organizational dynamics, leadership, strategic thinking, etc. – subjects not traditionally part of seminary curricula. Other people will identify further possibilities.


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