In my last blog, I discussed the issue of tenure. I mentioned that I thought 7 to 15 years was a good tenure for Rectors, but that after 15 years dynamics begin that often make the transition to the next Rector difficult. I shared material that I give to Vestries following such a long tenure with the land mines highlighted. I want to continue this topic and share a collection of thoughts about issues with tenure, long and short ones.
First, I want to start with an observation that will probably get me in trouble with a whole network of people, namely issues related to interim clergy.
I have found that our Bishops put too much emphasis on the place of interims. This doesn’t mean that I think they are not important. I just believe they are limited in what they can accomplish. Of course, a well-trained and intentional interim can be a great help to congregations in transition. But many if not most Dioceses have made one to two year interims almost mandatory for every congregation. This is intended mainly to allow the congregations to grieve the loss of the past Rector before taking on a new one.
Two observations seem important at this point. First, how much grief is there in a suburban congregation for a Rector who has been in place for five or less years. Suburban churches have constant turnover of people. This is very different from the town church losing a Rector who has served for 20 years. However, in the former suburban situation, a two year interim is much too long. In the latter, two years is way too short to deal with the dynamics of grief and loss.
In conflictual and problem congregations, a much better solution is the appointment of an “Acting Rector” who should continue to act with the support of the Bishop until signs of health and healing are apparent and the congregation is moving toward mission and vitality. I inherited just such a situation as Acting Dean at St. Matthew’s in Dallas. Under the right circumstances an Acting Rector could make a good future Rector for the congregation.
We learned this in the Diocese of Texas under Bishop Payne. There are times when the Bishop is better suited to select a new ordained leader than a wounded or dysfunctional congregation. We did this four times during my 9 years there and each congregation went on with their appointed person to flourish and grow.
And finally on the topic of Interims let me observe this, a clergy person who has failed in leadership in several congregations will probably not succeed as an effective interim NO MATTER HOW MUCH INTERIM TRAINING YOU GIVE THAT PERSON!
Now that I have probably riled up a bunch of people including some Bishops, let me move on to other tenure Issues.
Tenure isn’t everything. What one learns is often more important.
An assistant principle who had been in place for 18 years once lost out for a position to another assistant principle who had served for only three years. The first applicant complained. The head of the School board gave this terse but telling reply. We felt that you had 18 years of repeating the same experience year after year while the other candidate had 3 years of varied experience.
My point is that Tenure can lead to stability, but it doesn’t demonstrate leadership. For this, one needs to look at other issues. So just being able to stay in place and tread water for 7 to 15 years means little. Actually, it portends congregational decline and often leads to congregational dysfunction.
I have over the years met certain Anglo-Catholic clergy who content that their job is to celebrate the Mass and carry out other liturgical and sacramental ministries and that is the only true work of clergy. Not only are such clergy wrong, but they often function as more or less chaplains to fairly dysfunctional families who dominate small congregations. In addition, such a contention about the role of Rectors is not what the Canons or the Ordination Service says.
My observation is that healthy congregations have BOTH effective and capable ordained and lay leadership. I would content that Anglican Polity assumes that both are essential.
Four years is now the average tenure
I have met several clergy including one Bishop who assured me that “a Rector should move every 5 years because after that you have used up all your good ideas.” (By the way, the Bishop served as Bishop for 15 years and probably did use up all his good ideas in his first five.) But ordained leadership isn’t merely about having good ideas.
One of the truths we used to share at the Leadership Training Institute in Evergreen, Colorado was this; “Most clergy greatly over-estimate what they can accomplish in the first five years and vastly under-estimate what they can accomplish in the second five years.
What I have often taught clergy at conferences is that in the third to four year of a Rector’s tenure a kind o power shift takes place where the Rector moves from being one of the leaders to being the leader of the leaders. One factor is that after the third anniversary, the Rector becomes the tenured member of the Vestry. There are other factors, but that is for another blog. The point is that at this moment there is often tension and sometimes conflict. More clergy should persevere through this period, but alas many find another congregation. The average tenure for Episcopal Clergy is around 4 years which says volumes about the importance of this period in establishing one’s leadership and how many clergy fail to do this.
So, should I stay or should I go?
So how should Rectors know when to leave or when to stay? My first answer to this is to pray and to seek guidance from a Bishop or some other mature Christian mentor. If through this prayerful discernment God tells you to leave then leave. If God tells you to stay, then stay!
One helpful tool when things are not that clear can be answered by studying the written history of congregations. Here we find that chapters in such books often begin or end with the transition to a new Rector. (Only those chapters titled “The Great Fire” take greater precedence over tenures!) So I have often asked clergy trying to discern these three questions.
First, what chapter are you writing in your own ministry?
Second, what chapter is the congregation writing at this time?Third, are you the leader to best help them write this current chapter? If so, stay.
If not, let another take you place.
One last observation on tenure and congregational vitality
With many congregations in decline, the numbers of full-time clergy positions are also in decline. This means many congregations especially in towns end up with part-time, bi-vocational or retired clergy. This can be a good thing, but many in the Church are claiming that this is a general trend that should be seen as a positive opportunity for lay leadership and so-called “total ministry.” They are generally wrong. This is shown when we ask the question that most Episcopal Leaders seem unable to ask; “What would it take to develop such a smaller or declining congregation into a larger and growing one? “ Putting a part-time ordained leader in place (and especially several in a row with short tenures) will almost never develop a small church into a larger one. What Kirk Hadaway once observed about the tenure of clergy is still true. “The presence of a full-time, dedicated, and capable clergy person in a church is statistically been shown to be beneficial to a congregation’s health and vitality.” To this observation, I would enthusiastically add “AMEN!”