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Saint Paul’s, Seattle: the search process #1

Saint Paul’s is in a search process.[i] I decided to use that as a starting place to write about the transition of ordained leadership in our parishes. So, this is about St. Paul’s but it’s more about the relationship between search processes and parish development.

What will come next?

On the Feast of Saint David I attended the consecration and enthronement of Melissa Skelton as the 9th Bishop of New Westminster. A wonderful event. Susan Ohannesian added a comment to the Vancouver Sun on-line coverage -  “I love her smile and her sense of humour. This was a very momentous and solemn occasion for the Anglican Church and Melissa Skelton embodied the holiness and solemnity and let in the lightness of the Holy Spirit and avoided pomposity. I think she is going to be great for this diocese.”

Melissa brought that reverent lightness to Saint Paul’s in Seattle and helped that parish lighten up and in many ways also “drill down” into a more profound reverence. My guess is she’ll bring the same to her new diocese. She’ll help it grow in reverence, solemnity and awe while developing a lighter spirit.

Driving back to Seattle I found myself thinking about Melissa’s beloved Saint Paul’s and what would come next for that magnificent congregation of the baptized. And that got me reflecting on the church’s processes for transition and search.

 A time for ….

In the mid 1970’s. Bill Yon wrote “Prime Time for Renewal.” and the title captured one aspect of the approach that became normative for many years—in a time of transition the parish church can engage certain developmental tasks that can advance its renewal.[ii]

These days there are multiple strategies in use for a transitional period. We have no idea if any of them are any better than the others or what we used in the past. The increased choice is wonderful. The half thought through strategic thinking going on as we use them is less wonderful.

I don’t think the transition period is really a prime time for renewal. Sometimes it is but mostly it isn’t. Renewal that brings sustainable improvement, increased health and faithfulness, comes with a priest in place. It comes when that priest has the needed competencies and wisdom and the parish is ready. And it comes after years of hard work and common prayer.

The transition period is a time when the parish community may begin to let go of the former rector, take stock of their current situation, and seek a new rector with whom life may be shared in the years ahead. It is by its nature an opportunity to disentangle from existing ways that may no longer serve us and explore new ways.  It’s a breathing space. It can be an opening of minds and hearts. Sometimes.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”[iii]  The parish needs to engage that twice during the transition. First as lay leaders make an initial discernment. As they explore for themselves, “where are we and where do we need to go?” And again when the new rector arrives. The same questions need to be explored again because the new priest changes the initial answers. Her skills, wisdom and temperament will bring a shift in how things are seen and what is possible.[iv]

The place of Saint Paul’s in all this is that it’s the parish in which I participate in the Sunday Eucharist and weekday Masses and Daily Offices. And being a fairly typical person engaged in such a pattern, the “devout but institutionally uninvolved,” – I know little of what’s happening in rest of parish life. A happy state of affairs. However …

However, I do know a lot about the culture of the parish and about the patterns of parish dynamics and culture more broadly.[v] So, I thought I’d use the occasion of my own parish’s current transitions as a starting point for a broader reflection. 

There is no perfect priest and rector that creates the perfect parish

Yes, yes! We know that!

More precisely, we know it but there is a part of us that doesn’t believe it. There is in parishes a child like illusion that seeks the perfect priest and the perfect parish. Sometimes it sits on the edges, other times it takes over the center.

I think Melissa Skelton was perfect for the moment in which she served.

The parish needed a more extroverted energy. It needed someone with skills in parish development. It needed a priest who would appreciate and love the parish as it was while taking it into a new and broader life.  She brought all those things.

Mother Melissa knew how to assess the situation, build on parish strengths, and add the strategic elements needed to generate the kind of energy that attracted many new members and brought the parish to a new level of vitality. She had the mix of temperament, experience, and training[vi] that Saint Paul’s needed.

She knew how to look at the whole system, think long term, provide strong leadership with charm and finesse, and push forward in the face of challenges and resistance.

I want to begin with two models that can be used in understanding transition issues: Transition Dynamics and Iceberg image. 

Transition Dynamics

There are dynamics that get set loose among parish leaders when the rector leaves. Those dynamics amount to pathways the parish can walk down during the transition.

With the announcement of the rector’s departure there emerges two broad pathways for the parish—acceptance or denial. The acceptance pathway accepts the complexity of feelings and tasks. There is anxiety and excitement, grief and anticipation. There’s a kind of balance.

The denial pathway is focused on anxiety. People avoid their feelings and consider various forms of withdrawal as a way to manage their anxiety. 

The first is reflective and productive; the other is tense and may become cynical and passive.  

        Here’s a PDF of the model – “Transition Dynamics: The Rector’s Departure”

Are there dangers for St. Paul's? Places where the denial pathway could claim ground? I’ll be surprised if it happens but if it were to happen, where would it come from at Saint Paul’s? Here are a couple of the possibilities – 1) Something related to idealization of the past rector. That could show up in the profile or the expectations of the search committee or vestry. Or it might not appear until several years from now when the new rector is unable to navigate the disappointment phase of the process in which people and priest move toward a mature relationship. 2) Old issues reemerging. One would be a tension about being Anglo Catholic. During Melissa’s first year as rector there were those who thought that the parish would be better off if it stopped calling itself Anglo Catholic. Others feared not being “catholic” enough.

The other places where that kind of anxiety might arise are around what I call “key factors” – overall satisfaction, the formation of members, the extent to which the parish remains vibrant, questions of alignment, and the Sunday liturgy. If the parish was to have difficulty in these factors where would that develop? My guess is that it would happen around alignment or formation issues. Again, I don’t expect it. But parish systems are living communities and susceptible to forces that we pay little attention to.    

          See the PDF on “Some Key Factors”

My impression is that Saint Paul’s has accepted the new reality and is getting on with life. As in any parish there are likely to be individuals who are personally caught up in their own anxiety. However, there seems to be a center that is holding the parish in a graceful stability as it listens and considers new directions. That center is a mix of spiritual and emotional maturity, constancy in liturgy, and not “doing stupid stuff.”[vii] It is the parish’s cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

The iceberg

Do you know the iceberg model? It’s the image of an iceberg with a portion that is visible above the water line and the larger part that is invisible, below the water line. Here’s a PDF of the model. The PDF “OD Looks Under the Tip of the Iceberg” is a secular model. Useful in itself. For the church, in addition to all those forces, are the forces of the Holy City and faith. “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[viii]

Real icebergs typically are 10% above the water and 90% under. And from what I understand, the shape of the portion under the water can’t really be determined by looking at the part above the water. 

It’s the unseen part that sinks the ship.  It's also the unseen part that provides needed balance to the visible part.

Search processes are understandably centered on the more visible aspects of the transition. We attend to the day-to-day work. The formal steps and structures of the search are managed. The values and identity of the parish is affirmed. And that’s often all that we need to do.

Usually we only concern ourselves with the stuff under the surface when something is already going wrong. We notice trust issues when trust is low. It's the exceptional parish that works on developing trust as part of its parish development work.

Trouble can come from a lack of empathy and inclusion in a parish group or even the search committee. It can develop if the process feels as though it is dragging out and those responsible are not seen as working hard enough. It can arise if enough people believe that some things are ”undiscussable.” It can surface if the leaders or consultants of a process are seen as screening information or limiting choices.  There are dozens of ways in which the generally invisible life of a parish community can do damage.

And if adequately attended to – all the same unseen forces can offer harmony, beauty and joy.


Worship that swept us off our feet
Worship that swept us off our feet
So what’s transferable?
Small issues with large consequence
Instinctual and intuitive leadership
The role of the bishop and the diocese


 A List of All Postings

Saint Paul's Parish Profile - posted in early October 2014 

[i] The parish notices say that the profile is about to be released. I’ve been waiting on that. I didn’t want to post this before the committee completed its work because it might influence that work (if anyone happened to read this blog) and I wanted to post it before the document came out because that would allow this blog and the profile to each stand on their own.

[ii] I don’t think the transition period is really a prime time for renewal. Sometimes it is but mostly it isn’t. It is however a time when the parish community may let go of the former rector, take stock of their current situation, and seek a new rector. In 1988 the Episcopal Church defined the interim period as “the time between rectors when educational and developmental opportunities abound.” Transition activities were seen as including: reviewing history; evaluation and planning for the future; encouraging lay ministry; dealing with grief, loss and anger; and leadership development. This was still seen as the work as late as 2007.

[iii] Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8.

[iv] A mistake made by some parishes is to develop a fearful investment in the way forward, vision, or issues to address offered in the profile. Most would deny it if challenged but what such an investment means is that we expect the new priest to come and do what we have already decided. This is an illustration of the pathway of denial and anxiety mentioned in the “Transition Dynamics” model.

[v] My own connection with search processes has included: being considered for positions, being the exiting priest and the entering priest, consulting with parishes, being a diocesan staff person with direct responsibility for placing vicars in our 21 assisted parishes and for helping the consultants facilitating all diocesan search processes to bring into their work attention to group and system dynamics, emotional intelligence, understanding the spiritual dynamics of the parish church, and so on), working with non profit organizations on their search processes, and consulting with the Episcopal Church’s deployment office as it explored a new direction and managed the retirement of a long time director.

[vi] This is an area of confusion for some people.  There are those that point to her MBA from Chicago and her extroversion. I believe that the story is considerably more complex and included—a natural inclination to lead with the training and mentoring received at Procter and Gamble; experience with parishes ranging from Trinity Wall Street to the Community of Julian of Norwich with its shared homilies, jazz, silence, and communal dancing in the liturgy; formal training in the Church Development Institute and with NTL; and in the first couple of years at St. Paul’s a willingness to seek advice from someone with a very different temperament from her own.

[vii] It’s not so much that leaders during a transition have to be incredibly wise. They just need to not to “stupid stuff” that will generate reactivity in the parish.

[viii] Hebrews 11:1