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.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Four Strategies Needed Now

            In my blogs on the seven reasons the Episcopal Church is in decline, I say that “if” we know why we are in decline – start with the current realities – it is possible for us to map a more optimistic future.  Here are four strategies that I think we need now. 

           Please note that when I say “we” that I have in mind mostly leaders on the diocesan level.  I believe that the most effective strategies can be carried out on this level.  Of course, our national office could assist this work by helping to coordinate it, but I am so pessimistic that this will happen that I find any discussion of this too theoretical.  Let’s stick with what local leaders can do.  However, the first item would need to be done by a coalition of leaders beyond the local community.

  1. Create a Mission Training Center (or Centers) for the preparation of missionary leaders:  This training would need three components.  First would be Mission/Apologetics.  Second would be Leadership; this would have a particular emphasis on helping people understand their own leadership style and to use it effectively in the service of the Church’s Mission.  Third would be an on-going follow up to support such leaders in their work including a kind of missionary order for the 21st Century..

  1. Recruit a Younger Generation of leaders:  Train these at the above centers and empower them for ministry to younger generations.  This means that Bishops and Commissions on Ministry especially must abandon the current strategies of waiting for people to come seeking ordination, and begin to search for younger leaders and challenge them to consider ordination.  

  1. Develop a Comprehensive Plan for congregational revitalization: this would include, but not be limited to, assessing readiness for revitalization, providing the right leaders, intervention into dysfunctional congregations, strategies for meeting the needs of our family-size congregations, and developing effective educational materials for the congregational leaders on all levels.  

  1. Develop a Systematic Plan for New Congregational starts; this would include reaching new people groups, developing parallel communities within the same church, and strategies to reach specialized communities.  All this is based on reaching those not currently served by the Church.  (And I will add again that for those of us in North America this must particularly focus on the Latino population.)

Will this work?  I certainly think that there is every reason to believe that just such strategies would work in the sense of helping reverse our decline and re-energizing the Church’s Mission.  

A critical question to ask is where can we predict to find the most resistance to initiating these strategies?  I would suggest the following:

  1. Many of the current leaders at 815.
  2. A number of current Bishops and Diocesan Staff Members who are stuck in current ways of doing things and threatened by suggestions that they change their current behavior.
  3. Many current members of Commissions on Ministry
  4. Most of the leadership of our current seminaries
  5. Leaders of dysfunctional congregations who wish use our current climate of congregationalism to prevent diocesan intervention
  6. All Episcopalians who believe that the Church is doing just fine and does not need systemic change – denial is a powerful human dynamic
  7. Many clergy who prefer the current system of low accountability

A second question is where we will find the momentum and support for these needed changes.  I would suggest some of the following:

1. The increasing financial crisis generated by the on-gong decline in membership, attendance, and the number of congregations

2.  A small but growing group of current Bishops who understand the depth of our current crisis and who want to make a difference for the future.

3.  The leaders of the 20% of our congregations that are healthy, vibrant and mission directed

4.  Current leaders who are willing to be accountable to Mission and have little interest in titles, status, and security.  This includes a number of younger, future leaders who would give their lives to be part of such a movement.  
5.  A core of able lay leaders who are willing to support the needed strategies and are willing to invest financially in making them happen.