By the Rev. Mary Brennan Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry, Diocese of Virginia
Journeys to a new place are usually marked by a sense of disorientation, worry, hopeful nervousness and questions. Not surprisingly, the foremost question is often, “Are we there yet?”
I hear that question, as well as the fear that a beloved church home is dying, in a recent article in the Huffington Post by lawyer Mark Osler. His concern is legitimate and his pain is real. The interim period in his home parish feels long to him, and members are leaving. His diagnosis of the problem? Having an interim rector and taking time to do the work of transition. He sees the loss of parishioners and lack of enthusiasm in the pews as a sign that the church is limping along using a process that is out of touch with the way that the world now works. Osler identifies the interim process, being the most recent and most visible variable introduced into the system, as the cause of the parish’s ill health.
But what is happening in his parish is more complicated than that.
Note that Osler describes the departure of the prior rector as “messy,” and that the other clergy on staff departed shortly thereafter. Some sort of conflict occurred which is not described further. He points to the rapidity of transition in the secular world, in politics and in business, and describes the interim process as woefully slug-like and out of touch.
Is a traditional interim process to blame for the problems Osler senses in his parish? Is it all too slow, too like navel-gazing?
Maybe. Maybe not. Without more detail as to what happened in this particular parish, we can’t know for sure.
But here’s what I do know, as a priest who helps parishes in transition.
Calling a new rector is not like hiring a new associate for your law firm. Calling a new rector is not like voting for a new senator or mayor.
It’s more like preparing to enter into the covenant of marriage. To do it right means you need to be thoughtful and prayerful, and that usually takes some time. God tells us, “My time(table) is not your time(table)” for a reason.
And particularly after there has been a divorce (that messy departure of the prior incumbent and the swift parting of the assisting clergy), it’s not smart to remarry quickly without some reflection on what caused the prior failure in relationship.
That’s also the case with transitions in clergy after a “messy” departure. It takes some time to figure out what happened – not to assign blame, but to learn the lessons of history so to avoid repeating them.
So is Osler’s parish falling apart because the interim phase is taking too long? I’d suspect not. My guess, and it’s just that, is that there are other problems that predate the departure of the prior rector. My hope, and it’s just that, is that it is taking long because the vestry and the search committee are wrestling with difficult systemic issues which is necessary work. As can often be the case with many of the “people in the pews,” much of this work is likely invisible. And so, frightened by the decline in numbers, Osler understandably asks, “Are we there yet?” because he wants the hemorrhaging of people and dollars to stop.
It seems to me that the greater misstep of Osler’s church, one that is unfortunately too common, might be that the leadership of the church hasn’t shared the rationale for this long journey with the rest of the congregation. The Episcopal Church is blessed by many successful, talented people in its ranks, and we can’t expect those people to accept without question a process that runs so contrary to their professional instincts.
That’s why as Virginia’s transition minister I preside and preach at parishes on the first Sunday after a rector departs and the last Sunday before a new rector arrives. I weave the transition process into the reflection on the Scripture passages and teach at adult forums so as to answer questions and provide responses that will put parishioners more at ease. Every member of a congregation has a role to play during a transition, whether it’s responding to a survey or chairing the search committee, and church leadership has to convey how much folks are needed during this process – in the pews and outside the church doors. Otherwise, the church might wither as the vestry and search committee do their work and the congregation looks on skeptically.
Good interim practice takes as long as it needs to take. Sometimes it’s less than a year. Sometimes it’s a multi-year process. Interim work is flexible, because parishes are different, but it does offer the chance for a parish to catch its breath, figure out where it has been, discern where God is leading it next, and see what gifts the parish needs from its next rector to augment what the parish already has (the “animating spirit” that Osler’s friend so beautifully described). While some of that work can be done on a business-model timetable, some cannot. It takes time to quiet down enough to hear the Spirit of God, particularly in the hectic world that Osler correctly identifies as “the way the world works today.”
So is Osler right? Are the shrinking numbers in his parish the fault of an outdated or ineffective process?
Maybe yes, maybe no. To get to the answer, we’d need more information and – dare I say it? – some more time. I’d urge him to look a little deeper than “are we there yet?” and get a sense of what is actually happening in his parish’s transition process. I hope the church leadership is available to walk with him in this. I’d pray that he spends some time, that precious commodity, in prayerful discernment as to what his parish needs. He may discover some interesting things if he does, things that might be invaluable to the process. But know this: discovery, in the courtroom, in the parish, or in our own broken hearts, takes time.