No doubt as a factor of my age and a life of mobility, I have been in several parishes that found themselves in “transition.” An excellent way of saying a Priest was leaving and a new one had to be named. Unlike more top-down faiths, Episcopalians have a system of recruiting a new rector that is pretty democratic. Our parishes, with some help from the diocese, hire their leader. At the risk of sounding pompous, this process has, I believe spared the church the level of scandal found in other faiths involving their clergy. While we are not perfect and have had priests who have been caught in compromising positions, the transparency of the leadership and the extensive involvement of the parishioners in choosing our clergy have kept our scandals to a minimum. In the four or so transitional parishes I have been part of all of them benefited from the process and I feel made stronger.
Last Sunday, I sat in my regular spot at Christ Church, Greenwich and heard the final sermon of our interim rector The Rev. John Branson. It was a good sermon, followed by brunch with a large crowd showing up to say goodbye and thanks. The whole event was exhilarating. There was a real sense that something terrific had been accomplished in the last year and that while everyone seemed more than willing to have Father Branson stay on, (an impossibility according to the rules of the church), those in attendance seemed equally as excited and perhaps relieved that we had found our new leader. Now, it might have been a sugar high from the farewell cake, but I couldn’t contain myself from praising the interim rector-search committee process. All the way home I kept saying, “it is a brilliant system, it works!”
Christ Church was my most recent observation of the Episcopal church’s clergy search process, but it was not my first. Why this particular process was so uplifting versus the others, I can’t say, except that being older I may have a newfound appreciation for why it works so well. My first experience was when my childhood parish experienced a battle royal over a priest who had come from England and managed to anger half the congregation. The half part is critical because it led to a real fight in the church. If everyone had disliked this gentleman, he could have been removed and replaced under the system with an interim priest at the helm. No, this was a real dividing moment and half the parish left to join a neighboring church. I was too young then to appreciate the real value the interim rector played. He inherited a mess and was able to guide the disgruntled group back to a peaceful place where the decision about a new rector could be made with compromise as the governing rule. In time St. John’s in Larchmont, NY found through the process the late Rev. Kenneth MacKenzie, who reunited the parish and served for 17 growth-filled years, followed by the late Rev. George Zabriskie and the Rev. Thomas Nicol. Each of these men served until retirement and served well. Each time the search committee and the process of determining what the parish wanted and needed, as seen through different eyes, served and helped strengthen the congregation.
At St. Chrysostom’s in Chicago, the process was not fraught with such drama, but there were issues between the older members and the young parents who wanted a more child-friendly environment. I remember one particular battle over acolytes. The parent group of which I was a member wished to have our children as acolytes, but there were adult servers who wanted no part of that! This disagreement of the role of children in the church carried through the survey period while looking for a new rector and was seen clearly in the debate among those who cared more about the sermon and those who wanted to strengthen the Sunday School. But, again under the reassuring hand of the Rev. George Hull, a consensus was reached. While Father Hull saw to the needs of the parish and provided the necessary stability, the recruitment process could go forward in an orderly manner, and as at St. John’s and Christ Church, the operation served us well.
Here is what is essential about the recruitment process, the transition that I believe is so brilliant. It allows parishes both mighty and small to reflect on who they are and more importantly, who they want to be. The interim rector enables members of the congregation, beyond the vestry, to step up and lead. In the time of transition, there is room for extensive discussions and civil debates about what each of us wants from our parish. Since the prior rector is not involved, people can speak freely about what they love and what they would like to see changed without fear of offending. There is the ability to address issues both large and small and to hear from new members, as well as those who go back several generations. Debates like morning prayer versus Rite I versus Rite II and so forth are welcomed in this type of a setting, and if not, then they certainly should be. The transition process also empowers the vestry to involve themselves in more than fundraising. I am not suggesting that the members of any vestry aren’t included in all aspects of a parish, but it seems to me that most of the time they are worried about raising the necessary funds to keep the lights on and the roof fixed. In short, the recruitment process allows parishes the time to get it right.
Central to all of this working is the interim rector. It is his or her strengths as a first responder that makes it possible for a parish to continue to grow and flourish while in transition. It is the interim that allows experimentation of new ideas or concepts that perhaps had been placed on the back burner before the departure of the former rector. Christ Church was lucky in securing the Rev. John Branson, who served during the year it took to find a new rector, but I suspect there are many well qualified and eager to help clergy on the list of interim pastors, all well trained to handle the stress that comes with change.
Besides the elements I mentioned above, the interim rector also comes to a parish without any baggage or preconceived notions. Further, because the interim cannot become the permanent rector, there is no need to lobby for the job. It is not an endless job interview. The interim is the caretaker, not the change maker. He or she is there to soothe, comfort, maintain and help the parish grow. Don’t care for the interim? Don’t’ worry he or she will be gone shortly, and he or she does not make the decision on who the new rector will be.
When I came down from my high on interims and transition processes (and maybe the farewell cake), I began researching the issue of the transitional process and discovered several articles on The Episcopal Café, www.episcopalcafe.com. A couple of articles written by Episcopal priests suggested that the transition/search/recruitment process had some serious flaws. One, in particular, indicated that the interim process helped to decrease the size of parishes and failed to attract new members under the notion that if you don’t know who the rector will be why join up? Another criticized the time the process takes and the lack of permissible involvement or input from the outgoing rector. I certainly can not presume to debate with people far more experienced than myself, or experts in the field, but I can say that my experience over the years has been just the opposite. Every parish is different but implicit in these arguments is that the congregation is secondary to the rector.
My experience has been, with all due respect that for those of us who are regular churchgoers and are not sick, dying, getting married or in need of counsel, the rector is critical but the congregation is essential. I have always chosen my parish in the many cities I have lived for the congregation. The person who is wishing me peace or teaching Sunday school with me is far more critical to my sense of fellowship than the Rector. I have suffered through (or perhaps I should say, slept through) many a sermon by a priest I liked because of his work in the parish, but whose homily I never could follow. To me, the heart of the Episcopal church is its members, and I trust them to find the right person to lead us, and if they are mistaken then to fix it. I come to church in large part for the fellowship. What makes a great rector is how he or she fits with a congregation, and both become successful together. The interim priest and the recruitment process are essential to making the magic of a thriving parish happen. Membership should not fall off because a permanent rector is not in place, nor should newcomers fail to be interested in joining. The responsibility for growing a parish must be led by the congregation. It is the parishioners who make a church a place of warmth, welcome, excitement, and energy. The core of the parish is its people whether there is an interim or a long-serving priest.
In November, Christ Church will welcome the Rev. Marek Zabriskie with excitement, energy, and warmth. Last Sunday we said God Speed Father Branson. Two ends of a process, time-tested, congregation centered and well worth a sense of pride.
To interims everywhere who have had to endure parish politics, constant moving and other bumps along the way all I can say is well done and I hope you will keep serving in this critical role.