Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Long Tenure (part 3)

I want to finish my series on the long term pastorate with some observations about how congregations often make bad decisions due to the emotional attachment to a former Rector.
1.       Most write job descriptions based on “the skills not found in our former Rector.”  For example, Fr. Smith was a beloved pastor who was very good at visiting the sick, making house calls, and giving one-on-one pastoral care.  Unfortunately, Fr. Smith was not a very good preacher or teacher.  In addition, after 22 years, most of his sermon illustrations had been used plenty of times.  So, when the search committee gets together, they focus on needing a good preacher and teacher.  What they really should have done was start by affirming the skills in the former pastor that they wanted to see continued.  In other words, they wanted a new clergy with strong pastoral abilities who could preach well.
2.      The longer the pastorate, the more novelty seems like a good idea.  This could include such areas as age, theological perspective, personal characteristics and (as mentioned above) skills.  Using Myers-Briggs topology, an INFP is followed by an ESTJ.  Said in regular English, a creative, introverted intuitive is followed by an organized, extroverted administrator.  This looks good in the beginning, but it is not going to wear well in the long run.  (By the way, the tendency to seek opposites seems to almost always be the case in Episcopal elections.)

3.      The grieving process for a congregation – even when people believe the former Rector has stayed too long – is three to five years.  And, some long-time members may never successfully work through their grief!  This is why I believe the Episcopal Church over-estimates interim clergy.  The truth is that no interim ever stays long enough to work through these issues.  This means that the new clergy person will need to see his or her first few years as part of the grieving process and transition before the new pastorate can really begin.

4.      Lastly, we know from research that 50% of all clergy who follow tenures of longer than 15 years are forcefully removed within five years.  The reason is, of course, all of the above.  I often say that congregations fire the new clergy person in the 3rd to 5th year for carrying out the job description given them in the first year. 
While these land mines are predictable, I still remain amazed at what a poor job most dioceses do in helping congregations negotiate these issues.  I am convinced, however, that with careful intervention and guidance a congregation can navigate these issues and, given the chance, will go on to establish a good, long-term relationship with the next Rector.  


  1. Kevin,

    I'm curious how the magic "15 years" changes when one is the founding pastor. Does it drop to 5 years with all the resultant challenges? Move out to 20 years? Any thoughts?

  2. Clay,
    Of course, the founding pastor has an additional uniqueness that can magnify these issues since much of the DNA and personality of the congregation is formed from the founding pastor. It is not unusual for a FP who leads a new start to become a very large congregation to stay there for a very long tenure which is a main ingredient in it being a large church. So I will tantilize you with this thought. Much of the health for the future will depend on the FP's ability to differentiate him/herself from the congregation. When the two merge, read Willow Creek, the only possible transition may become the son or daughter of the FP. Which is precisely what many large pentecostal churches have done. However, IMHO, such a transition is better managed by bringing on a successor before the departure or death of the FP. If I say more, I'll have to charge you a consulting fee!

  3. Kevin, I agree with what you're saying and one of these days - perhaps post sabbatical I might just have you up to consult. I'm hoping that this sabbatical will provide some differentiation. The challenge is that it's not just the FP, it's also getting that differentiation in the congregation. I'd be curious what other things might help with that.

    I'm also thinking that succession planning might be the single most important issue that the FP after 10 years may need to be addressing.

  4. Indeed, think how difficult succession will be for CC Plano. And, the longer the tenure, the harder it will be.

  5. In reading your post, I thought back to my own experiences as a musician serving over the years in a number of congregations. Some seem to have a genius for calling good people, while others seem to have an equal genius for shooting themselves in the foot.

    Surprisingly, this facility (if you can call it that), doesn't seem to have much to do with the overall health of the congregation.

    My first experience was with a small congregation (now one of the larger in the diocese) that lost a long-term rector and under the care of supply priests dwindled to the point we were lucky to have 15 people on a Sunday morning-spread over 2 services. The search committee finally called a priest, and he served us well for seven years, then moved on, and we then called a rector whose tenure now exceeds 20 years.

    Under his leadership (and Kevin's mentoring), the congregation has exploded; they have expanded into a multi-million dollar plant. The rector, an anglo-catholic, has hired clergy who compliment but do not mirror his skill-set, including an honest-to-gosh English evangelical who's so low-church it's scary, a very capable female priest, and a long-term deacon who has become a legend in the diocese. The rector probably isn't the most-beloved of the pastors in the congregation any more; it's probably a relief for him, since he started as a one-man show. Most notably, he doesn't seem to fear being outshone by the people he has hired.

    Compare that to another congregation where I have worked: one of the largest and most prestigious in the diocese, with virtually infinite resources, a well-defined vision, and an incredibly capable staff. They have a singular ability to call the wrong person. They have squandered their endowment and decimated their congregation by one bad choice after another. Before I left, I was in a "focus group" trying to discern the mind of the congregation for their next priest. There were the usual, "we need a priest who's a stirring preacher; a gifted teacher; an accomplished administrator. When they came around to me, I said, "I'm looking for a senior pastor who has a proven track record in growing the size of a congregation: doubling or trebling the size in 5 years." I continued, "I don't care what the priest's skill set is, because if he or she has this kind of reputation, then it's clear that this person is aware of his/her gifts and knows how to hire people to round out the pastoral ministry of the church." They went on to hire a doofus who the vestry and bishop eventually forced out, and the bishop refused to grant letters dimissory to him until the guy had undergone a battery of psychological counseling.

    I don't know why some congregations get it right and some don't. But I think Kevin's on the right track.


  6. Tom,
    Heath is not a function of size. There are healthy small congregations and dysfunctional ones. The church you describe and which I know,BTW, is dyfunctional and their bad choices of Rectors is a sign of this. Thanks for sharing your insights.