Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Long Tenure

In my next three blogs, I want to share some observations about the dynamics of a long-term tenure, and some of the issues this creates for the congregation when an ordained leader leaves after one.

First, you should know that I am one of the strongest advocates of a long tenures that you will find.  I believe the overwhelming evidence is that long tenures by clergy are good for congregations.  One study revealed that significant growth, for example, often occurs after the seventh year.  Speaking of the seventh year, the Alban Institute considers seven years to be a long-term pastorate.  This is amazing commentary on how the mobility of our society has changed the relationship between priest and congregation.  I remember reading a comment that tenure in the English Church was “One goes to a parish, plants a rose garden, dies 50 years later, and they send someone else!’’ Well, those days are gone.

I would express my general feelings about the value of a long tenure this way.  IMHO, clergy greatly exaggerate what they can accomplish in a congregation in the first 5 years, and greatly underestimate what they can accomplish in the second five years. I once heard a Bishop say that five years is long enough to serve any church, because by five years, every clergy person has pretty much used up their energy and creativity in that congregation.  (Interestingly, that Bishop had never served a parish longer than five years.)   It comes down to this, an adequate clergy leader with tenure has the esteem and relationships that can make significant things happen in a Church, and the longer the tenure, generally, the more this is true.
What then is a good tenure in an Episcopal congregation?  I would suggest 10 to 15 years.  The reason I stop at 15 is because after 15th years a series of dynamics between clergyperson and congregation happen that makes the transition to new ordained leadership difficult, and the longer the tenure beyond 15 years, the harder the transition.  This becomes especially true when the clergy person stepping down is also approaching or beyond the age of retirement.  The combination of age and tenure make for some predictable land mines.
This can be best illustrated by the typical conversation that I have had with Senior Wardens or Search Chairs who have asked my help in managing through the transition.  Early on I would ask, “How long was your previous Rector there?”  A typical response would go like this, “Oh, for 22 (or 25, or 28, or 33) years.”  I would pause and wait, and then came, “Of course, lots of us feel that our Rector really retired about 5 years ago, and that we have been stuck since then.”  What does this express?  A tenure that has lasted beyond 15 years, and the aging of the clergy person both create a dynamic where the beloved clergy person has become a kind of matriarch or patriarch to the people.  The rector can then coast on the good will of the relationships.  Can the departing clergy person do anything to help off-set these dynamics.  I believe she or he can, and the answer is to continue to lead until the day you leave!

Does this mean that I think clergy should never serve beyond 15 years?  Absolutely not!  Although I would suggest that in a better deployment situation, clergy might be given a seven year term with the possibility that, after a review, this term might be extended for another seven year term.  But, I will save discussion on this matter for another blog.  For our purposes in this one, just think of the clergy person who has served for 15 years and is now 61 years of age.  Deployment after around 58 becomes very difficult in our community, so why punish a person for loyal service?  I would simply say that we should be aware of the difficulties that such a long tenures create.  Here is the key issue for this first blog:
The Congregation is normally in decline and is most likely to continue this pattern for a number of years.  There will be a predictable drop in membership especially during the second year of the new Rector!  Why is this? 

First, a large number of “marginal members” will use the departure of the old Rector as a time to change church attachment.  The departure creates a wider back door and many simply exit at that time.
Second, a number of “historically rooted” members will feel disconnected by the former Rector’s departure.  They will become less active and may eventually disengage with the congregation.  Many of these folks will also be close to the Rector’s age and will also retire or move on to their eternal reward, Sun City, Arizona. 

Imagine too that the new clergy person is a generation younger than the one leaving.  This further disconnects the older leaders.   From sermon illustrations to music, the new clergy person will continue to remind older members, not how dear and important they are, but how much they have aged!

Now add to this that most clergy learned in Seminary that they should “clear the roles of the membership” in their second year, and you have set up the new ordained leader to be branded with failure.  It is not failure.  It is understandable, normal and decline should be expected. 

Next blog, I will point out the void created by the long tenured person’s departure that cannot be filled by a new person.  


  1. Kevin, this is a very helpful post. I look forward to the next installment.

  2. My perhaps too cranky observation is that the parish needs to time to recover from all the things the new rector had to "fix" that the old one was doing "wrong", just as a newly transplanted seedling is going need to recover even if it did need a larger pot to keep growing.