Friday, November 6, 2015 at 3:27PM
It's easy to get blindsided during the honeymoon. Almost unavoidable.
I had consulted with this east coast parish for many years. As the long term rector was approaching retirement he gave some thought to what things to change before he left. There were two categories we discussed. One was about changes that were basic matters of parish health. The other were areas where his practices were likely to get in the way of the new rector.
He had used the Anglican Missal for the weekday masses for many years. He knew that fewer and fewer priests used the Missal. A new rector would most likely stop using the missal and that might set off a small conflict with a few lay people attached to the Missal. The rector thought that he could make the change with less difficulty than a new rector would face. So, the Anglican Missal was retired to a drawer in the sacristy. The Book of Common Prayer altar book was then used for the weekday masses.
My last piece of work with the parish was to be a meeting with the new rector and vestry. It was an opportunity to assess the current state of the parish, connect the new rector with the background of parish development work that had been done, and bring to a conclusion my work with them. The session went well. During a break there was informal conversation about the weekday masses. The new priest mentioned how unfamiliar he was with the Anglican Missal. I expressed surprise and said, "How did that get reintroduced after Fr. ____ ended its use last year?" The new rector got a shocked look on his face, "I've been blindsided. Jess told me that we have always used the Missal and so I agreed to continue the practice."
He had been blindsided.
1. To attack when and where a person is vulnerable or uninformed.
2. To surprise or shock (someone) in a very unpleasant way
3. To be bushwhacked, caught unaware, sucker punched
A priest is especially vulnerable to being blindsided in the first months of the relationship. There are people in the parish that have been unhappy with some of the decisions and practices of the former rector. This is an opportunity to change that. A chance to have things "my way" (also known as the correct way). This is common whenever there is a change in institutional leadership. It happens in churches, non profits and businesses. There may also be a communication gap in which the new rector doesn't learn of some practices because no one thinks to share them.
-The parish musician was unhappy with the norms of the former rector about music in the liturgy. So, she just changes how she does things to fit her preferences without mentioning the changes to the new rector.
- In your opinion someone hadn't been properly reigned in or admonished about their behavior. So, you have a meeting with the new rector "just so she knows."
- A member who dislikes the intimacy of groups sitting in a circle as they meet arrives early at the first few meetings to "help" set up. Tables are brought out to sit around. He tells the new rector, "We always sit around tables at meetings and in classes."
- No one tells the new priest when the parish patronal feast day is. It gets missed that year.
-And so on
What can you do to avoid being blindsided?
1. Make it a practice to ask a group not just individuals. After a weekday mass ask people to stay a few minutes and let you know how things are usually done.
2. Find a few people you are certain will tell you the truth about existing practices even if they don't agree with the practices. And, will not use your openness as a chance to push all their ideas about what you should do. You want to know what the practice has been recently and what came before that.
3. Test out assumptions and information. If something doesn't seem right, ask. You may want to make a list of questions to ask the previous rector about his rationale for some decisions and practices.
4. Follow a wise naval tradition. In the change of command on a ship the new captain will include a statement that standing orders will remain in effect. As a new rector be clear that you expect all staff and lay leaders to stay with existing practices until changes are made by appropriate authorities.
5. Assume responsibility for presiding in the community -- preside at vestry meetings (even if the last rector had allowed the wardens to lead the meeting); preside at parish community meetings; and preside in the liturgy (even if there are other clergy in the parish it's wise for the new rector to preside and preach at all liturgies for the first month. Even after that it's smart to preside at least half the time and preach three out of four Sundays). You need to allow yourself to play that focal role in the community. And use your presiding role to facilitate and equip shared leadership.
Please note -- this isn't about not making any changes. It's about having useful information and free choice in making any needed changes.