Lessons from a Failed Rector Search Process

This is a short story of what happened at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Danville, California when the relationship between the rector and the parish could not be saved by a deliberative process of reconciliation and discernment. After a relatively short tenure with a growing sense of dis-ease came an open, candid, healthy and holy process of reconciliation and discernment. The end of that process brought consensus but the answer was not the one either St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church or the rector wanted. The decision to resign as Rector was his but the process completed made clear that there was little support for an alternative outcome.

What happened?

The views expressed by the rector’s supporters centered on the following:

  1. He is an experienced, seasoned; personable Rector who believed he was called to St. Timothy’s to help the parish ‘change’ so it could grow again after a long period of declining membership and changing demographics.
  2. But what he found after his arrival was a resistance to change and a lack of support for the changes he did make.
  3. The reasons for that disconnect were ascribed to the failure of the interim process before he was called to enable the parish to make the break from the last rector in order to prepare the way for the next. Huh?

When you probed these three commonly held views the rationale for this mismatch between the Rector and the Parish boiled down to a failure of the search and selection process and how the interim period was managed. That failure, according to this point of view, began by naming Associate Rector as Interim Rector. Doing so, the theory goes, prevented the parish from making a clean break from the past making it more difficult to focus on what the parish discerned God was calling it to be and do in His service for the future.

What can we learn from this experience?

In my view none of the issues the rector faced at St. Timothy’s had anything to do with the congregation clinging the retired rector or wishing that we had been able to call the Interim to stay on as permanent rector despite the church rule prohibiting such a call. By the time the new rector arrived at St. Timothy’s the former rector had been gone for two years. I think the parish grieved his retirement after 22 years but the passage of time made us realize that the parish could go forward without him because its strengths came from God not from the rector. The Associate’s contribution as interim rector sustained us and enabled us to withstand the long search process and the failure of the first process. In deciding to accept the call as interim rector she decided not to be part of that search process. She was our bridge to the future. Her willingness to love us enough to let us go because she felt we could thrive in the arms of another rector endeared us to her all the more in her time left with us.

Lessons from a Failed Rector Search Process

I believe the first search process failure was compounded by the way the search process unfolded when it was learned that the consensus candidate was involved in another search process and did not want to make a decision on accepting a call to St. Timothy’s until the outcome of the other search process reached its conclusion. The Vestry felt strongly enough about his candidacy that they agreed to wait for the competing process to be completed —a decision that took several months longer than expected—instead of forcing the candidate to ‘fish or cut bait’—will you accept a call to St. Timothy’s or not?

By waiting, the Vestry faced several unintended consequences that are useful insight for all search processes:

  1. The parish lost control of the search process. By waiting for someone else to act we put the fate of the parish in the hands of someone else. If we forced the preferred candidate to make a choice and he said no we had to start over—and the vestry did not feel that other candidates measured up to their preferred choice. But forcing his hand forced the candidate to decide if he wanted to risk NOT being selected at the other parish. Waiting it out, in hindsight, was imprudent. It told us that the process was too long already costing us the best candidates.
  2. The consensus candidate was not part of the consensus. By asking the Vestry to wait for the other process the candidate was telling St. Timothy’s he was not convinced this was the right call for him. In hindsight, the wiser course for the Vestry would have been to force the decision and NOT WAIT. You either love us or you don’t! Which is it?
  3. The candidate pool dried up! By waiting it became clear to others that St. Timothy’s had found the person they wanted so candidates looked elsewhere. It may also be true that a small candidate pool tells us something about our competitiveness or the cost of moving to the San Francisco Bay area from lower cost states that we must address, or other factors.
  4. The search process failed and had to be restarted. None of this failed first search process had anything to do with the rector but it cast doubt on the entire process and left the parish feeling unfulfilled. The second search process resulted in a smaller candidate pool and a rushed process as the parish frustration grew at the long time it was taking and lead to a sense of relief more than joy at the end of the process. This sense of frustration forced the rector to bear an unfair burden in the sense that his calling was seen as a second-best outcome for the parish.

Those critical voices that became more prominent and outspoken during the reconciliation and discernment process framed their criticisms around the following factors that led them to the conclusion that calling the rector to St. Timothy’s was a mismatch and largely prevailed in building a consensus that he should leave. Those factors included:

  1. Too Many Surprises, Too Little Communication. The rector’s style of communication was to keep his own counsel and then to announce changes he had already decided to make. This happened early on with changes to the Vestry process, a new commission structure, and a dilution of the role of the rector’s warden. Over time the same thing happened with changes in the service order, music and other worship and liturgy elements. At first there was just grumbling—‘why didn’t we know about this first?’ Then there was second-guessing ‘why are we doing this?’ Then there was concern about motivation made worse by the call of a new associate priest making ‘rookie mistakes’ that irritated more than illuminated why things were being changed.
  2. Going through the Motions. As the rector settled in and his routine was clearer, there developed a sense among the congregation that he was ‘going through the motions’ rather than engaging in pastoral care and other areas important to the parish. Interpreted as aloofness at first it was not until later that the parish learned he was dealing with his own problem with depression. I remember my reaction on hearing that news. Were we making his condition worse by piling on the pressure to address these parish concerns? Could we do something constructive to support him through this journey rather than grumble about things that, by comparison, seem trivial?
  3. Among Us but not One with Us. I remember the point in time when I realized that there was a low probability of reconciliation. It was a feeling of clarity and discernment. It happened in the midst of one of the parish workshops when one of the parish members had the courage to stand up and say what was on almost every heart in the parish hall that day—this isn’t working and airing our issues in this process is leading us to the discernible conclusion that it isn’t likely to get better. It was not a mean-spirited statement and there was no animus in the words or sentiment. It was healthy, it was candid, it was confessional. And because it was all of those things—it was holy coming from the heart of the congregation. The rector was among us but neither he nor we felt we were one with each other.

Why write this?

These views are my personal feelings and I do not pretend to speak for the parish, the Vestry, the Rector or anyone else. This blog has become a source of information on Episcopal Church selection processes, profiles and the issues of church vitality. I started this blog when I began my term on the Executive Council of the Diocese of California before the rector’s retirement at St. Timothy’s. I continued it during the search process. I stop writing in it in 2012 when a new rector was called feeling that its usefulness had ended.

When the rector announced his resignation,  I offered the aging contents of this blog’s chronicle of the first search process to the wardens and vestry for whatever value it may be to them. I went to the blog admin page and was surprised to discover that even after lying fallow for three years it still receives an average of about 100 hits per month from people ‘googling’ church vitality, Episcopal Church selection process for calling a new rector or similar phrases.

I offer this post as a candid observation of how our search and selection process at St. Timothy’s unfolded for whatever lessons can be learned from documenting our experience.


Please God Give me Patience—and do it right now!

That was the old Mark Twain adage—true today as it was 100 years ago.

In our busy lives today, patience is often not something we have much time for, yet deep down we know that our life is not a race to the finish line.

More importantly, we realize that rushing ahead often means missing out on the beauty, joy and love around us every step on our journey.  It is tempting to call it the restlessness of youth, except some of us have been so busy rushing through life that we can only savor the few times we did stop and listen to the quiet.

I remember, in my own case, when that realization hit me.  I was standing in the cathedral grove at Muir Woods with my children.  The silence, the majesty of those ancient living things, and the realization that they live so long by pure and perfect grace. Now my children are adults and I still savor those few rare times of silence as I held them tight wondering how many such examples of pure and perfect grace did I miss by rushing to beat the traffic home.

Stop blubbering and listen:

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Danville, California is one of twelve parishes in the Diocese of California searching for a new Rector.  While these parishes each have different characteristics that make them unique, they share common bonds in more ways than one.

I’m not talking about their affiliation with the Episcopal Church or the Diocese of California. As seekers of a new rector to guide their faith journey forward, they also are seeking the views of their congregations on the qualities, traits and skills they should look for in the candidates.  And they are all listening—not always patiently—for God to guide them on this uncertain journey. We are all impatient to find a new Rector and get back to “normal” in our parish lives.

The Search begins with Prayer, Listening and Self-Study

We know from the lessons and case studies of other congregations searching for new rectors that the process takes time—a lot of time.  The typical search process takes a year and one-half.  I have described it like painting your house: 80% preparation and 20% implementation.

We know from the research that there is a logical and predictable transition from grieving the loss former rector, discerning who the congregation is and what it seeks in calling a new rector, and then preparing to have a conversation with the candidates before choosing a new rector.

We also have learned from the experience of others that rushing the process or setting arbitrary deadlines has a way of backfiring since so much of the success of the call process is not the call itself but the preparation, and discernment, and consultation and consensus-building that informs it.

God has already chosen the next rector of St. Timothy’s Danville. Our job in the search process is to listen for clues about who that person is, talk to each other about our hopes, dreams and fears for the future, pray for guidance, and hold each other tight in the silence until we feel that pure and perfect grace.

So I worry when I hear that the Vestry has set a December 2011 deadline for the new search committee to present candidates for rector because we have so much listening, praying and preparation work to do before we get to our new Jerusalem in this next stage of our faith journey.

CASE STUDY: The Church of the Good Samaritan, Diocese of Pennsylvania

The Church of the Good Samaritan
212 West Lancaster Ave.
Paoli, Pa 19301


Homepage: http://www.good-samaritan.org/

Contact: Discernment Committee, goodsamdcinfo@gmail.com


Good Samaritan recently completed its discernment process and has called a new Rector, Rev. Richard T Morgan, from St. Paul’s, Salisbury, England after a 19 month search.  He will be coming to this Pennsylvania congregation as soon as the necessary visa documents can be approved for the work permit.  Mac McCausland was co-chair of the selection committee process.  The parish used a consultant to help them with the self study preparation process and as a facilitator. The information gathered here comes primarily from the Good Samaritan parish profile, the Strategic Plan and information from Mac McCausland, co-chair of the discernment committee during the rector call process.

Parish History

The Church of the Good Samaritan began alongside a promising dirt road about 14 decades ago and has been engaged in ministering to a growing and changing Episcopal congregation ever since. Planted in the 1870’s, safely beyond the western reach of the city of Philadelphia, Good Samaritan unknowingly laid roots into the mainstream of suburban growth. Before long, the wayside chapel proved too small. Within Good Samaritan’s first 50 years, the campus of the church doubled. Within the next 50 years, a day school and new sanctuary were added to meet the growing demands of new membership.

Good Samaritan is one of the largest churches in the oldest diocese in the country. But it isn’t just favorable demographics that paved such growth. Good Samaritan held onto a taproot, which had proven successful through the decades– faithful, clear, and dynamic lay and ordained leadership. With only seven Rectors in over 14 decades of ministry, Good Samaritan established a strong heritage of solid biblical teaching, engaging worship, and a clear commitment to compassionate, hands-on local and global outreach.

As the result of the prayerful work of the Master Plan feasibility committee in 2001, the leadership and congregation launched a campus renovation and expansion program which included a successful capital fundraising campaign. An expanded Ministries building has equipped us with the ability to provide expanded Children’s, Youth and Adult Christian Education programs. With a renovated and expanded Sanctuary completed in 2007, our commitment to remain a vibrant community of worship has been wonderfully enhanced.

With the departure of our 7th Rector, Greg Brewer at the end of 2008, we begin a new chapter in the Life of Good Samaritan. With the calling of The Rev. Dr Todd Cederberg as our Priest-in-Charge during this season of transition, our call to “Build up the body and move forward in mission,” remains our focus as we seek to follow and serve Christ as His church.  The parish completed a Strategic Plan in 2009 as part of its discernment process.  In 2010 a new rector was called from England but his start date depends upon securing the work visa necessary for him to be employed in the United States.

Self Study Process

“Our self-study was amazing – and invaluable – to our work. By careful attention to the structure of the self-study process, and to the content, we were able to include over 40% of our ASA into the self-study – and this was over the summer months of 2009 when many were away on vacation. I’d strongly recommend you pay particular attention to this phase of your work. The self-study also enabled us to produce a parish profile which reflected our values and priorities. The comments from our applicants seemed to confirm that it was clear and helpful to them in their own discernment.”  Mac McCausland

Good Samaritan engaged a consultant TAG Consulting, Fairfax, Virginia to assist them in their process. TAG consulting is run by Kevin Ford, a nephew of The Rev Billy Graham and the author of a popular church planning book Transforming Church.

Supported by the church staff and with the assistance of a consultant, the committee initiated a self-study and made every effort to ensure both the congregation and staff had the opportunity to participate. To assist in this endeavor and to facilitate such involvement from a large parish, two principal vehicles were utilized:

A survey (known as the Transforming Church Index (TCI) survey) was made available to the congregation during July and August 2009;

A series of “Discernment Gatherings” were held at the church and in people’s homes during July, August and September 2009. The results of both represent a broad spectrum of our family and include children in our Sunday School, the youth, elderly shut-ins and our congregation at large. With an average Sunday attendance (“ASA”) of 618, our goal was to include as many parishioners as possible.

The TCI Survey

“The TCI Survey was available to parishioners to complete from June 28 – August 17, 2009, and 261 (42% of our ASA) participated in the survey during this time. The survey revealed many wonderful and encouraging strengths of Good Samaritan. These included a strong sense that Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and Savior, that our church strives to make a difference in people’s lives outside of the church and that many congregants felt better prepared to minister to others as a result of attending Good Samaritan.”

“As with all families and large churches, the survey also revealed some areas for improvement. These included an acknowledgement that we need to be better at closing down ministries that are no longer effective. Additionally, some members felt that they could be more connected with the overall mission of the church, while others did not feel that they had a clearly defined role in our church family.”

“Though it is always harder to hear our weakness than our strength, the survey has been helpful in highlighting areas where we need to make change. These areas of strength and weakness will be an important focus for our future Rector.”

The Discernment Gatherings

“We were heartened that 253 people (41% of our ASA) participated in a Discernment Gathering during July, August and September, 2009. These informal gatherings were held at the church and in people’s homes; they were identical in format and presented many opportunities for individuals and families to attend. Each gathering lasted approximately two hours. After refreshments, fellowship and prayer, participants were guided through a series of questions addressing such topics as our strengths and weaknesses as a church congregation, where we want to go and what skills and gifts are needed in a Rector to take us there?”

“People wrote with care and at times great passion about these and other topics. There were many different answers to each question and the committee labored over each discernment gathering worksheet. It is not possible to convey all the input we received, but patterns emerged and the discernment committee was greatly informed by these invaluable gatherings.”

The process of involving the congregation was an intentional and important part of the success of the process according to Mac McCausland. We also held discernment gatherings for the Discernment committee itself (the very first one), the Vestry (the second one), and other key leadership groups within the parish (paid lay staff, clergy staff, etc.). We were intentional in obtaining input from as many leadership groups within the parish as was possible. That was very helpful, because since the information from those groups was largely in sync with what we learned at the congregational discernment gatherings, we knew we had solid and reliable data on the parish’s priorities, goals, and dreams for the future. This was key in helping us discern a Rector whose gifts were precisely what the congregation and leadership was looking for.

The other lesson from the discernment gatherings was the need to be PATIENT. This is a long process, and it’s very hard to stay fully connected. After the fact, Mac said the Discernment Committee said one thing they would do differently is expand communication with the parish beyond reporting on the last Sunday of every month (and through the parish’s emails and monthly publications). Because the process took so many months it was necessary to keep refreshing the parish on what the process was, where they were in that time line while still protecting the confidentiality of candidates. He recommended that other parishes err on the side of over-communicating with the parish to pay particular attention to this.

Candidate Screening and Selection Process

The Vestry at the church of the Good Samaritan set the tone for the process in charging the discernment committee.  They told the committee to:

  1. Cast a wide net
  2. Provide a progress report to the Vestry each month on the discernment committee work
  3. Maintain complete confidentiality regarding the identity of the candidates
  4. Tell the wardens when you need financial support
  5. Bring us one name at the end of your work.

The Discernment Committee felt fully supported by the Vestry and their courage in placing their trust in the committee members.  The Discernment Committee members responded by devoting “serious time to this work.”  The Committee:

  • Met weekly for almost 19 months meeting typically for 90-120 minutes
  • Formed subcommittees to work in parallel on different tasks:
    • Developing a self study methodology
    • Organizing, staffing and leading the parish discernment gatherings
    • Interpreting the survey data (TCI Survey and discernment meetings) for the profile and to include in the monthly Vestry update report
    • Produce the parish profile draft
    • Develop questions for the process
  • At each step, the full Discernment Committee had the opportunity to review the subcommittee’s work product and recommendations and modify them to reflect the sense of the full committee.

“We asked our initial “inquirers” to provide us with the following information (on the basis of which we eliminated a fair number): their resume or CV, the average Sunday attendance (ASA) of their present (or previous parish where they served), their letter of inquiry, and their CDO profile. We eliminated perhaps half of our inquirers after our committee’s review of these three docs.

We asked three initial questions, which were peculiar to our parish. We are one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of PA (ASA over 500) so we had particular questions relevant to us and our situation.

Those first three questions were these:

  1. What are your core beliefs and how do they inform and shape your ministry?
  2. Providing effective pastoral care in a resource-sized parish can be a challenge.   What strategies would you apply in approaching this challenge?
  3. What strategies have you used to help clarify and sharpen congregational vision?

After further reducing our pool of candidates on the basis of their responses to these three questions, we then did the following;

  • Conducted a Skype video interview with all remaining candidates (some were outside the US), and we recorded these interviews (with the candidate’s permission) so that all of our search committee members could hear the entire interview even if they were absent. We had questions that were submitted to all candidates, and we had questions which were candidate-specific, based on their earlier materials.
  • Further eliminations took place.
  • The Discernment Committee put together three member visiting teams from among the committee members including one “skeptic” for each candidate.  If the skeptics came back impressed the full committee gave more credence to the candidate.  We then visited (teams of three) the finalists in their home parishes over a weekend: an interview session, dinner with the candidate (and spouse if applicable), worship with the candidate preaching Sunday morning at a principal service, and lunch with the candidate (spouse). The interviews were recorded with the knowledge and permission of the interviewee, so our entire team could hear the full interview. The process was intentional that each visiting team was TRUSTED that meant that the full committee respected the judgment and impressions of the visiting team and consider them representatives of the full committee.  The visiting teams, conversely, saw their role as representing the entire committee not just their personal views or preferences in objectively evaluating the candidates on the same criteria.  The Discernment Committee felt this policy of trust worked so well that it felt as if God was with them every step of the way and that every committee member felt committed to the team.
  • Again, more eliminations.
  • The finalists were invited to spend a weekend with us at our parish – interviews, touring the campus, Rectory, Evening Prayer, homily, and dinner at a committee member’s home, and discrete worship with us on Sunday morning.
  • Following those final meetings, we had several discernment sessions, finally discerning one name.  As the process neared its end, the Discernment Committee invited the recommended candidate and spouse to visit providing a confidential and informal opportunity to introduce the candidate to the Vestry and begin the process of handing off the final decision to the Vestry.
  • The Vestry also established a transition team including one member of the Discernment Committee to enable the elected leaders of the parish to plan the employment terms and conditions and other details of the formal consultation with the Bishop and other procedural issues.  This transition team work was also kept strictly confidential.  This planned hand-off process proved extremely important as the final candidate ended up with immigration and work permit issues since he was coming from England.

Of note – we never took a vote. We worked very hard to practice “spiritual discernment’, and God blessed that intention.” —Mac McCausland

Strategic Plan 2009 Summary

Unique and Attractive Qualities

  • Evangelical, Biblically-based, scriptural orthodoxy
  • Deep commitment to Christ
  • Strong outreach and missions in our community and worldwide
  • Vibrant worship – preaching, orthodox teaching, music
  • Commitment to youth and children
  • Prayer foundational
  • Caring, friendly, grace, filled community
  • Individuals equipped to minister to others
  • Strength of clergy and lay leadership
  • Welcoming facilities

Barriers to Success

  • Being spread too thin with too many programs, too few people involved
  • Weak local evangelical outreach
  • Distracting, potentially divisive national church issues
  • Large size— not being connected or bridging community across services
  • Not personally engaging, valuing and including everyone
  • Danger of weakening focus on God
  • Potential for over-reaching complacency or turf-ism
  • Failure to embrace change


  • The Church of the Good Samaritan has a mission reflective of its name being the Good Samaritan to one another and to the community. Through this we live out Christ’s Great Commission.
  • Participating in the building projects has unified us and established wonderful facilities.
  • Now we will focus on “Building up the body of Christ and Moving Forward in Mission”
  • With all that God is calling us to do, it’s time to raise up new leaders and energize ministry participation.
  • This plan must be achievable. http://good-samaritan.org/documents/strategic_plan.pdf

Lessons Learned

Like painting your house most of the effort required to get a good result is preparation.  Good Samaritan is a great example of a congregation that spent the time up front to discern both who it was and what God was calling it to be as preparation for their call process.  By using a prayer driven approach to involving the congregation in the process pro-actively to define their vision, strategic plan and parish profile, they dramatically improved the alignment between the congregation and the search process and the consensus building needed to achieve a good result.

Their efforts are instructive also for the use of a consultant and standardized survey materials like the TCI Index which adds discipline, statistical validity and quality control to the data gather and survey process and thus makes the information gathered actionable.

Lastly, the clarity of the Vestry direction to the discernment Committee, a regular pattern of progress reports keeping the Vestry informed of progress and the trust factor that developed among the Discernment Committee members and with the Vestry were critical to success.

Prepared by Gary Hunt, Discernable Futures, December 14, 2010