Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Long Tenure (Continued)

             In my last blog I introduced the strengths and weaknesses of the long tenure in a congregation.  Generally speaking, I am a strong supporter of long tenures. By a long tenure, I mean 7 to 15 years.

There is evidence that tenure longer than 15 years creates problems for the successor. However, these problems can be addressed by both clergy and congregations if leaders are aware of the issues and are proactive in addressing them.

Several years ago, I heard Lyle Schaller say, "When you follow a long time pastor, it is important to ask yourself what role is available to you as the new pastor?" The departure of the former Rector often creates a void that cannot be filled by a new person. The older the age of the former Rector, and the more that person functioned as "patriarch or matriarch," this is true.  No new clergy person can possibly take on the role that has been created by tenure and age. In all probability, this role has now passed to a lay leader in the congregation. Beware if this person is either the senior Warden of the congregation or the chair of the search committee. This might predict a possible conflict in the third our fourth year of the new Rector.

You might think that the departure of the former Rector has created an opening for the new Rector as leader. Unfortunately, the primary role of leader of the congregation has probably been filled by someone else already too. It will take two or three years following the long-term pastorate for a new Rector to establish herself as a leader. I usually find this transition takes place in the third to fourth year, if it takes place and all.

Schaller suggested that the position made vacant by the departure of the long-term Rector is simply the “shaman of the tribe,” or what we Episcopalians would point to as the priest/sacramentalist of the congregation. Especially after a long-term pastorate, a new priest must take the time to build trust and establish relationships. This means showing up to marry the people who need marrying, bury the people who need to be buried, and baptizing those who need baptism.

Unfortunately, the earned esteem, and respect, and emotional attachment that the years provided to the former Rector have little carryover to the new Rector. The new Rector must take the time necessary to make this happen. Many clergy are not willing to take the time to make this happen.

We need to remember that the former Rector has almost always been seen as a person of religious authority "older and more mature then us." For many members of the congregation, the departure of the former Rector and the arrival of the new Rector, who may be one are two generations younger, now reminds the long-term members of how old they have become. And think of this, doesn't the term Rector really mean a person of religious authority older than I am! 

When I have a friend who is considering following a long-term pastorate, I often asked them this question, "How did you feel about your grandparents?" Many people do not have good feelings or regard for their grandparents.  However, if you enjoyed them, and if you enjoyed the stories they would tell, you may be able to handle the emotional issues and memories that follow a long-term pastorate.

Again, remember the landmine, many clergy who follow tenure of 15 years and longer often become unintentional interims. In my next blog, I want to identify some of the poor decisions that Congregational leaders make in the transition from a long-term pastorate to a new Rector.


  1. At 21 years in this small parish, I have already been bringing to the vestry's attention over the last 3 or 4 years the possibility that I could be "gone" at any moment, that they need to understand their roles and offices very clearly, and the importance of the Senior Warden in my demise. I trust that all of our work in turning to the Lord in discernment will be the immediate mode of operation, along with (in our unique situation) the names of certain individuals, incl. bishops, who they should plan on relying upon. That list includes Kevin Martin and Neal Michell.

  2. Rob, "gone at any time"? You aren't suggesting the "rapture" are you? (smile) I will be honored if they think of me should they have a need.

  3. Well, the rapture did come up once, and I had to facilitate out of a pre-trib, mid-trib and post-trib debate. So now I just say, "If I should die tomorrow, to whom does the first phone call go?"
    (just kidding about the debate...and, of course, every Senior Warden should know the answer to the phone question).
    You have seen, I presume, the latest graph showing tenure as a function of years as rector or vicar in the same congregation. There's not many of my duration around. But how could there be if the average age of graduation is still 45+ ? All one has to do is "do the math". On the one hand, declining numbers of congregations mixed with declining numbers of ordinands, and the Canons only allowing those later-in-life ordinands 20 to 25 years before mandatory retirement, means the greater likelihood of more of those long-term pastorates if only for family stability, and fewer opportunities to move from one ministry to the next. On the other hand, the usual short-term stepping stone position in a small congregation will effectively cut into the number of years left that might allow for a super long-term pastorate like mine. Where that used to be somewhat common, now will be extremely rare. Oh,well, I guess.
    I happen to think that a 21-25 year pastorate gives one the opportunity to positively influence one whole generation. Such may be the only competition the local educational system has in the same.