Five ways to improve your parish’s transition process
(Note: this is really about all of us not just St. Paul’s)
1. Finish the old business
There are always issues that have been avoided or left hanging. It is a moral and priestly obligation for the outgoing rector to finish the work. If she doesn’t do that it falls to the interim. One rector faced into moving a long-term employee out of his position and the apartment that came with it. It was emotionally very difficult for him. He had been avoiding it for a few years. He decided it was simply wrong to leave it to the new rector.
The most important business to complete is to act for reconciliation among members in a significant state of alienation from one another.
I’m aware of a situation going on right now in a parish where the interim and some lay leaders are planning on letting an estranged situation wait until the new rector arrives. The situation has gone on for several years. The outgoing rector took a few steps that made space for healing but didn’t complete the work. The parties on one side are clearly open to moving on while those on the other seem resistive or conflicted (this second group also have considerable power in the parish).
It is not responsible oversight to leave such things for a new rector to face without making an attempt to bring healing into the situation.
2. Seek as much ownership as possible among the congregation and vestry.
All too often search committees fold in on themselves. Maybe it’s about wanting to be in control, maybe it’s just feeling overwhelmed. In many cases it’s a lack of competence—few members have training or experience with these things.
The new rector will have to work closely with the vestry and lead a congregation that doesn’t know her. The search committee can provide humble leadership by focusing less on their own opinions and preferences and more on shaping things so the vestry and a critical mass of the congregation, especially those of Apostolic faith and practice, has a sense of ownership in the decisions being made. We want the new rector to arrive out of a process that: a) has appropriately involved the vestry and whole congregation in assessing the parish’s life, b) with a sense that this is really a free choice not rising from habit or pressure, not reactive, and c) has high commitment and is likely to hold well over time and under pressure. The Intervention Theory may be useful in understanding how this works.
3. Do some parish development work
The transition period may not be a prime time for renewal but it is more than a time of running in place. It’s useful to pick one or two developmental initiatives to work on. If the Daily Office teams have withered—renew them before the new rector arrives. If people have stopped coming to coffee hour—do something to draw people again.
4. Use survey feedback methods not just surveys
Too often we make up surveys based on our desire to know if the candidates agree with us about some issue. Other times we use survey’s that are more professional in construction but offer little or no insight into the spiritual dynamics of the parish. So we learn about the sense of satisfaction and energy in the parish without being helped to understand if the parish is grounded in an Anglican way of being Christian or whether members are longing for a deeper spiritual life or if the rhythm among stability, conversion and obedience is healthy. In themselves surveys offer few definitive answers about these matters of spiritual life. But they can seek and provide information that those with training in pastoral and ascetical theology can use in guiding leaders to better discern the state of the parish.
So, one issue is the survey itself—what information it seeks and what it overlooks.
The other important consideration is the impact of the information on parish leaders and members. That’s where the survey-feedback method comes in.
When we ask people for their thoughts and feelings most people find their attention sharpened. They are interested and often prepared to act on what they learn.
Survey feedback is a method that allows a parish to make use of the energy generated in the process of gathering and analyzing information. It includes timely, well structure feedback meetings in which all those who completed a survey get to see the results, have a conversation, and act on what they hear. In fact the most effective process is to arrange it so only those willing to be at the meeting and listen to others get to do the survey.
In a transition process we would provide several such meetings and limit the action taken rising from the meetings. Actions coming out of the meetings might be tasks that can be completed before the new rector arrives. In that way we don’t undercut the desire and need to have another survey feedback process that we do along with our new priest.
5. Be appreciative and honest
Those working in the field of organization development and organizational psychology have known for 70 years that the best way to improve organizations is to start with an appreciative stance. What are the strengths? What are the opportunities before the parish? Work with those things. Build upon and expand the strengths.
That only becomes a problem when we ignore the weaknesses that can kill us. Some parishes have used appreciative process in just that way.
We don’t want the parish profile to offer a list of 100 things to fix so we can be perfect. We do want to know is this parish basically healthy, static, or in decline. We do want to know the two or three big challenges we face, including areas of parish life that have been consistently weak. It is spiritually and emotionally healthy to acknowledge the truth. A PDF on the parish life cycle
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
Saint Paul’s, Seattle: the search process #1
Saint Paul's Parish Profile - posted in early October 2014