Is the clergy deployment system broken?

by Donald J. Muller

I want to suggest that one of the reasons for the decline and continued decline of our Episcopal Church is a broken clergy deployment system. I think our church needs to examine this system. I want to pose this because I don’t hear anything about it in the discussions around the decline in membership of the Episcopal Church. Let me name some of the issues that I see:

The prohibition of an incumbent rector/vicar being involved in the profile and/or search process;

The lengthy interim periods between rectors;

The necessity of calling an interim priest/rector and the things they do;

No one to advise the clergy who are in the calling process;

The lack of clarity in the transfer of pastoral care and leadership to the new rector

I have been a priest for 29 years, a curate for two of those, and rector of four churches for the remaining years. I believe that no one knows a parish better than the current rector (if they have been there for at least three years – maybe five). The bishop may have been in that parish once or less a year, and rarely has a Diocesan staff person been on site. Parochial reports which tell some of the story of a congregation and almost never examined in detail. The Vestry members rotate on and off. I am now serving my fourth parish as Rector over the 29 years of my ordained ministry. Each of the parishes I‘ve served has had an interim period between my predecessor and myself of 18 months to over two years. Twice I’ve followed long term Rectors who have retired and twice I’ve followed priests who have gone on to other parishes. The interim period between them seems to be no different. In all four cases, my predecessor had absolutely nothing to do with the transition. Yet, those four priests knew the parishes better than anyone in the Diocesan office, or even in the parish itself. None of the Vestry members currently serving were in that position when I was called five and a half years ago. I am now the one who knows this parish best, my knowledge should at least be used in the process of putting a profile of the parish together.

Over the course of my ministry I had observed first hand and second hand the lengthy interim periods between Rectors. In some cases the long time between rectors was intentional by the Diocesan Office because of the long tenure of the previous rector. At other times the process just takes too long. I think this is a detriment to the forward movement in ministry for the congregation and for their overall self worth. Sunday worship attendance shrinks and doesn’t seem to recover. I know from my work in evangelism that when people start disappearing on Sundays mornings unless they are recovered very quickly they drift away and do not come back. I’ve heard that the length of the interim is proportional to the time the last rector was in place, that congregations need to grieve the death of that pastoral relationship. My experience as a pastor, over 29 years, tells me that the grief process has no certain time line. It matters not whether a person dies suddenly or over a long period of time – each individual family member grieves in their own time and in their own way. This is true in congregations, as well. If a congregation is healthy why not get a new rector/vicar in place as soon as possible so that the ministry trajectory remains forward? There will be parishioners who will leave because the new rector is not the old one. There will be those who leave because they were very attached to the old one. But most are more likely to stay around and see what the new priest will be like, if the time period is short.

I understand that there are various understandings about what interim priests do (rectors – I don’t like that term, because interims do not have the Canonical authority of Instituted Rectors). Some believe they should expose the congregation to the great breadth of the Episcopal tradition that they are not now experiencing. Some believe they should continue the ways things have been going and give most of their attention to pastoral care. There are interims who delve into every system that exists in the church to expose its faults and fix them; to remove persons in charge of ministries; to challenge the way “things have always been done.” My experience has shown me that real change happens with people we trust. A quick fix on the surface might be accomplished, but not a lasting deep down kind of change. Why not have Sunday supply priests who might also be on call for pastoral care or give one or two days a week for that purpose? The congregation then doesn’t invest in that priest.

Most Dioceses are very good at giving the vacant congregation advice in the calling process. Some have consultants, either paid for by the Diocese or the congregation, that give advice throughout the process. The consultants have extensive knowledge about the calling process and the particular process of that Diocese. Unfortunately, they don’t know the parish except as presented by the parishioners they interact with, and they don’t know the clergy who will be seeking a call. The clergy seeking another call have no one to advise them or care for them in the process. They are not experts in the process themselves. Perhaps they have been to CREDO and have had their CDO and resume shaped with expertise there, or the Diocesan Deployment Officer of their Diocese has helped them. But in the process itself, no one talks to them about the process; no one asks how they are doing; no one tells them anything until they get a letter saying they are out of the process or continuing, or that they have been called. This is frustrating for clergy, can lead to self doubt, loss of self worth, etc. It is also very hard for clergy to participate in a search process while still investing themselves fully in their present position and yet trying to be responsive to the parish that they are interested in or that is interested in them.

When a new Rector is called, the official investing of them with the powers and authority of the office of Rector (Institution) generally doesn’t happen for several weeks or even months. Some Dioceses don’t even schedule it until a priest has been in place quite a while because of such bad experiences in the calling of new rectors. The interim priest was there the week before and now there is a new priest. But other than the introducing of the new rector to the congregation by the warden or vestry member there is nothing official shown to the congregation. Almost twenty years ago I was asked to serve as the chaplain at a “Change of Command” of a Coast Guard based in Beach Haven, NJ. It was an interesting experience watching one Commanding Officer hand over all authority to another with the entire base bearing witness to the change. Would it make sense for us to have the incumbent hand over the keys (or the other symbols of the office) to the new Rector in person? It would make it very clear who the new Rector was. Would it make sense for the Institution (Celebration of New Ministry) to be the first worship the new Rector was at with the Bishop, Archdeacon, Dean, etc. presiding and preaching? It almost seems an afterthought for it to happen months down the road.

Perhaps it time to have some evaluation of how we do things now, to examine congregations from two years before a vacancy through two years after the call of the new priest. I wonder what we would find in terms of congregational strength and vitality, Average Sunday Attendance, financial health, etc.

The Rev. Canon Donald J. Muller, D. Min

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