Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Leading Revitalization: What to Look For in the Next Rector

 Continuing my blogs on Congregational Revitalization, I want to return to the subject of leadership and particularly what a church should look for in the Rector selected to lead this change. 

In my many years of working with congregations, I have had the great privilege of working with many remarkable clergy.  I have found that it takes a significant combination of personality and skills for clergy who have successfully lead efforts of congregational revitalization.  What are these?

First, let me remind you that in my previous blogs on this topic I have outlined some important pre-conditions that help a congregation in this task.  It is important to remember that leadership is NOT just about leaders, but also about a congregation’s readiness for change and the context of the community surrounding the congregation.  Too many congregations especially in the Episcopal Church have lived with the illusion that “if we just got the right Rector this time” then everything would go well for them.  Often the image of this “right Rector” is that of a past beloved Rector of the 50s or 60s.

Having reminded my readers of this, I now want to suggest what a congregation should look for in the new Rector to lead Revitalization.

1.      I would look for a candidate with a proven track record.  Past performance is the BEST indicator of future behavior.  I would look for a leader who has demonstrated an ability to inspire church members and to attract new and especially unchurched people.  As fundamental as this may seem, it is amazing to me the number of search committees that fail to do their research on this.  Often they based their impressions on one or two of the following. 

a.     Their Bishop’s recommendation

b.     The physical attractiveness of the candidate

c.      The ability of a candidate to answer a few selective questions with no connection as to whether the candidate has ever done what they have written

d.     One example of a sermon by a candidate

e.     How a particular candidate stacks up against the other 4 candidates they have seen so far 

2.     I would look for a leader that has an infectious spirituality.  This leader is able to draw people to her or his vision of the church and its mission and who is able to communicate an image of God and of Christ that is inspirational and attractive.

3.     I would look for a candidate who is an effective communicator of the Gospel.  Here I put the emphasis on “communicator.”  Most Episcopal Clergy are intelligent and thoughtful people who share a certain intellectual ability assured by their seminary training and confirmed by the examination of a Commission on Ministry.  This does not mean that they are effective as communicators. 

When I evaluate sermons, I look at two important skills in preaching.  Fred Craddock called these simply “having something to say” and “saying it effectively.”  I can almost always give an Episcopal Clergy person high marks on have something intelligent to say, but I give few good grades on saying it effectively.  Unfortunately, most clergy use the same form for a sermon over and over again.  We wear the hearer out in our predictability of what we will say and how we will say it. 

4.     I would look for a candidate that loves people, accepts people where they are and yet is ready to challenge them to grow deeper into discipleship and into Christ’s mission.  I would look for an encourager and someone able to affirm lay leadership.  If a larger congregation, I would look for someone who can build a strong team of staff members and effectively delegate.

5.     I would look for someone who values and loves the Church even the local congregation.  Many Episcopal Clergy communicate a certain disdain for ordinary parish life.  We make fun of the Altar Guild or we are cynical about the annual Parish Fair.  We often fail to simply thank volunteers for their contributions.  We frequently chastise those who loyally show up and do the regular routine things that make a community work.

6.     I would look for a candidate who knows what she or he does well and who knows their own limitations.  An effective leader focuses on what that leader does best and delegates what that leader does not do well. 

I once told a search committed that “if you are looking for an inspirational leader who can communicate a vision in a passionate way, than I am your guy.  If you are looking for someone who is focused on details and repetitive tasks, look for someone else.”  Was I a good administrator?  Yes, if you mean by that visionary leader, team oriented, and problem solver.  No, if you mean by that someone who can organize the next parish supper.  I learned often the hard way that I worked best as a Rector when I had a strong administrative assistant on my right hand. 

7.     I would look for a person who models, as a leader, what it means to be a follower of Christ.  I would want a person who can admit a mistake. I would want a person who is able to forgive.  I would desire a leader who is generous in financial matters, tithes to the parish, and gives to other important ministries and organizations.  I have never found a parish where stewardship is strong where the Rector does not tithe.


8.     I would look for a Rector who is connected to other leaders.  I would want a full participant in the Diocese.  I would want a leader who has good relationships with colleagues.  I would want a leader who takes good counsel from other leaders.  I have learned that in the long run there is only one illness in a leader or a church and it is isolation. 

Narcissistic leaders stand alone.  They only have admirers or fans.  They do not live in relationships where they are help accountable.  I remind us that clergy are members of an “order” and not Lone Rangers.  These relationships help a leader remember that he or she is not the Messiah and that the Church exists apart from them, and they apart for their role.  In other words, I would want a healthy person and healthy people exist in relationship to other healthy people.

9.     Finally, I would want a person who is dependent on God’s Grace.  I once heard a clergy spouse respond to a question about the clergy family being “models” to the congregation.  “Yes,” She said, “we are to be models to the congregation.  We are not, however, models of perfection because we aren’t perfect and such an expectation is always destructive.  We are to be models of people who live our lives as if we are dependent on God’s Grace.” No matter what situation a leader or leaders find themselves facing, we can always model that we are dependent upon the Grace of God. 

Notice that I haven’t said anything about programs, or systems, or theories of parish organization.  Certainly these can be important, but without the above, they are of little use. 


  1. Kevin,

    On Revitalization

    Church/denominations began to change in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Rick Warren’s-The Purpose Driven Church, Bill Eason and Lyle Schaller among others and Richard Kew in TEC – Toward 2015 leading the way.

    I assume you are addressing only TEC although your writing would probably apply to all mainline denominations.

    Is TEC an 8-track church in a CD world (and now in a digital/smart phone world)? My answer is that for the most part it is.

    The current numbers from 2015 show an uninterrupted decline over the past ten years.
    Approximately 580,000 ASA in 2015 (over 780,000 ASA in 2005).

    A solution: Rather than rearranging the deck chairs, replace the deck chairs. In addressing this problem several years ago, our solution was to remove all the chairs from the sanctuary (there were no pews) and start anew. In other words, completely rethink purpose and mission. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, the diocese sold the property.

    Any revitalization in my opinion has to come from the grassroots, parish level and more importantly from younger, innovative leadership that is able to function in a continually changing and different world. From my experience, church/faith communities need to be relevant, non-traditional and have a greater purpose than preserving the denomination.

    The $64 question: Whether there are folks that want to commit to an organization that is in an uninterrupted decline.

    Jim Baker
    Cary, NC

  2. Jim, The decline of TEC is a result of a number of factors not least among them is conflict. So I think it too simple to say that we are just an 8 track church in a CD world (although BTW CD's are giving way to downloads.) Also innovation often comes from the grassroots, but I've helped plenty of congregations on behalf of the denomination to think that this is the only way innovation comes. The $64 dollar question for me is "Yes" since I've seen plenty of congregations becoming welcoming and growing places.