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.


Stage Two: Transition—still on Training Wheels

The lessons today at Church were about the manifestation of Christ in our lives.

It was a good reminder for us at St. Timothy’s that our journey from the 22 years of ‘ordinary times’ in the ministry of Steven Strane as our Rector were anything but ordinary.

Yet we are passing through the seasons since his retirement three months ago with both ease and anticipation.

We know we have much work yet to do, but we are eager to get to it.

Lessons from Stage One: The Departure

Steven’s gift to us was the patient nurturing of a strong faith community over his tenure into a place for every person who loves God and seeks Christ—and where there is never a shortage of ways to love and serve Him in the midst of our congregation, in our community and the wider church. As we embark on the transition stage of our journey toward finding a new rector we are impatient to get there but confident that God will show us whom He has called to be our next shepherd if we pray, and talk to each other and keep on doing His work in the vineyard.

Steven’s collegial style faithfully lived all those years made St. Timothy’s a cradle for those called to the priesthood.  Out of our pews have come a dozen faithful who have taken Holy Orders and serve God in ways large and larger in the lives of those they touch.

One of those seedlings has turned into a mighty oak tree for us on this journey of transition. We have learned in transition how fortunate we are to have Kathy Trapani as our Interim Rector. In the months since Steven retired Kathy has been our shepherd and keeper of our hopes, dreams, prayers and aspirations.  That the time has passed so smoothly gliding seamlessly forward is testimony to her skill and experience.  For all the reasons we have loved her as our Associate we now love her even more for holding our hand and guiding our way through transition to Epiphany.

Our Transition Still has Training Wheels

In her sermon today, Kathy Trapani, reminded us that our relative comfort in our parish community should not be taken for granted.  She told us that from the Bishop’s call to the Rector of St. Paul’s Walnut Creek to ‘plant a mission congregation down the road in the San Ramon Valley’ back in 1953 our parish has grown strong.  But she said more than 85% of the people who live in our parish service area do not have a church they call home.  They are seekers but they have not yet found a faith community.  It reminded us that while we committed ourselves during our 50th anniversary to keep our unbroken chain of faith going by planting a mission congregation of our own that maybe that work begins by inviting one new person each week to ‘try us out’.

Kathy’s gift to us is to ask us “what are you waiting for?”

And to remind us that we can do it, just as she has!  Her own journey from the pews to seminary and back again to be our Associate and now Interim Rector is a pure and perfect gift from God—and a lesson that we too can get up out of those same pews and get involved.  We don’t need sacred orders to roll up our sleeves and do God’s work.  Just do it.

Like Andrew and Simon Peter in the lessons today asking where they could find Jesus in their desire to follow Him, Kathy is telling us we can follow Jesus by doing the work of this transition to get involved, to serve God and those seekers in our midst, and in so doing learn more about ourselves and what God is calling our faith community to be for the future.  It is a journey of anticipation, of prayer and some risk—the risk of new ideas, change, new people.  She challenges us not to be complacent.  Not to coast but to share the Good News from our own experience.

Our journey of transition is mostly still ahead of us and there are plenty of opportunities to serve.  No job is too small and every gift of time and talent brings us together as a community of faith more confident that we can do it with God’s help.

You don’t need to ask St. Timothy’s for a brochure—just ask someone who goes there.

By the end of our transition stage we must prepare a parish profile that describes who we are as a faith community and what we seek in calling a new rector.  Getting to that Epiphany is going to be hard work.  But somehow, some way we must capture the essence of this parish—but first we must discover it anew and put into words what is in our hearts.  We must show the manifestation of Christ is the work of our hands and in the faces of those we serve.  And we must KNOW in our hearts that we are ready to put out a call, receive candidates and listen to whom God is calling to be our new rector.

When God tells us whom he has chosen we will not need to look at their resume—just ask them why they feel called to this place—if their answer shines brightly in your heart and fills your spirit with hope, joy and peace.

That will be our Epiphany.

What’s in a Question?

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church has embarked on two search processes.  The first is to find an Interim Associate Rector to assist Kathy Trapani, our Interim Rector, over the next year or two that the Rector Search process is expected to take.

Vestries and selection committees are not acting alone in a call process.  They represent the people of God in the congregation. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP page 854) tells us the call process is a God-given responsibility of seeking God’s will for the community where you are; as well as seeking someone whom God is calling to be our rector, pastor, confessor, guide, leader, teacher and friend on this journey together. Parish leaders and priests come together with God’s help to find common faith and a common call to live into their full potential and serve God with their full hearts.

The Search Committee has a big job and a key part of it is to ask the right questions of the candidates?

But what questions?

Often interviews are superficial and the question designed more to get the candidate talking so we can see how they perform on the spot.  Left to this, the call process is at risk of failing.  But questions designed to create a faith filled conversation that not only discovers the areas of agreement or disagreement on a topic but explores the options, examines new ideas, and sees new possibilities can produce eye-opening new ways of seeing God’s call for both.

The selection committee should use the process of framing questions to help frame the key factors that help the Vestry assess the potential of each candidate to live into a call in this parish.  Questions tend to fall into categories such as:

  • Personal faith journey and formation process.
  • Beliefs and theology and their consistency with the congregation consensus
  • Leadership style, collegiality and participation in the work of the broader church
  • Pastoral Care and ministry experience in areas important to the congregation
  • Hot button issues and the overall sense of fit with the consensus of the congregation.

Written Questions Create a Consistent Baseline for Candidates

One approach to considering candidates is to develop a list of written questions to be used to screen candidates in the early round.  These written questions might cover all the categories and be designed to discover areas of agreement or difference between candidates and the congregation.

Examples of such baseline written questions might include:

  • Describe your personal journey in faith, and why you are being drawn to our parish.
  • Please reflect and write a sermon using the following (provide passages to be used)
  • Describe your leadership style. What important parish decisions have you made and how did you go about making those decisions?
  • Describe the best and the worst experience of your priesthood?  What did you learn from each?
  • Why do you feel called to be a Rector? How do your experience and skills fit with St. Timothy’s?

From such a first round of questions combined with the candidate’s CDO profile and other application materials, the selection committee should be in a better position to evaluate each candidate against its list of criteria to be used to consistency assess and rank each candidate in the process of narrowing the long list down to a short list of about 10-12 candidates for further consideration.

Interview Questions Explore Best Fit among Candidates

When the selection committee decides to interview the short list of candidates it has another challenge in framing questions to go beyond meeting the position qualifications to be rector and focus more on leadership style, experience appropriate to the parish needs, and the “fit” issues that make the relationship comfortable, durable and satisfying for both rector and congregation over the long term.

These interview questions must be well framed and to the point.  This is the time in the call process to separate the strongest candidates from the qualified ones.  The questions should be to the point and force the candidates to be honest about their views, experience, philosophy and style.  This match making process is looking for compatibility but it is also designed to help the parish growth into its call from God for its future.

Here is a sample of question to whet your appetite:

1.  Give three examples of contentious issues you have dealt with and how you handled them.

2.  Describe your theology of ministry, mission, and evangelism. How do these beliefs shape how you do your job as a priest and Rector?

3. As has the whole church, our parish has struggled with the issues of inclusiveness.  How have you struggled with these issues and where are you now in this journey? Give us examples of how this struggle played out in your current parish or Diocese.

4.   What is your view on the Anglican Covenant and its implications for the Anglican Communion relationship for the Episcopal Church in the United States?

5. What successful outreach programs have you created or led? Why were they successful?

6.    How do you make the gospel relevant to your parishioners and/or colleagues in today’s world? How have you done this for the varied parts of a diverse church community?

7.     Many parishes and parish families today are struggling with financial pressures from the recession. How have these pressures changed your approach to growth and parish ministry?

8.     How have you encouraged interaction and a sense of community across a parish with multiple Sunday services?  Give us examples of experimental service types or styles you have tried.

9.     St. Timothy’s Vestry adopted a 50th anniversary goal of planting a new mission congregation but we are waiting for God to help us discern how, when and where to do so. What is your experience with congregation development, growth strategies and evangelism to reach out to the unchurched and underserved to broaden the pledge base of the parish?

10.   In our 20/20 Vision long range planning process, the Vestry adopted three broad goals for St. Timothy’s future. What is your experience in each of these three goal areas:

a.       Be a Welcoming Parish Open to All

b.      Invest in our Kid’s Faith Foundation

c.       Live into the Mission of the Church

11.   What experience do you have with childrens and youth ministry? How have you engaged pre-school, elementary, middle, and high school youth in your current or past positions?

12.   What is your training and experience with regard to stewardship? What methods or programs have you deployed to successfully increase participation in pledge, endowment, or capital campaigns?

13.   The Vestry said it wants to double the pledge base of the parish in 10 years-–how would you do it?

14.   Describe your approach to pastoral care? What are the qualities or sensitivities you believe are important to ministering to the needs of the congregation at their most critical times? How would you involve other clergy and support resources in meeting the pastoral care needs of the congregation?

15.   What attracts you to the Diocese of California? Or, if you are already a priest of the Diocese, what attracts you to continued ministry in California?

16.   Describe how you would participate in Area Ministry if you were to be called as rector of our church. (For a full description, see www.diocal.org/areaministry.)

17.   Describe your experience in a parish long term strategic planning process. Give examples of your leadership role(s) in implementing strategic goals.

18.   St. Timothy’s Vestry has adopted three broad goals to date from our 20/20 Vision planning process.  How would you help us live into these broad goals and make them more actionable? (Provide candidates with 20/20 Vision Presentation Summary).

Additional Interview Process Resources

The table below offers links to additional resources for the interview process including examples of questions to consider asking the candidates:

Interview Resources Link
Clergy Interview Guide http://www.epicenter.org/Images/edot/Documents/PDF/STAR%20Training%20for%20website.pdf
Search Committee Summary of Congregational Feedback, Christ church Dearborn. MI http://www.christchurchdearborn.org/dl.cfm?file=downloads/CongregationalFeedbackMaterials.pptx 

Good power point summary of the search committee’s sense of the Congregational Feedback to frame the criteria for calling a new rector.

CDO Profile Example, Christ church Dearborn MI http://www.christchurchdearborn.org/dl.cfm?file=downloads/cdo_profile_expanded_final.docx 

The National church posts a summary of the rector openings using a profile of the parish.  Here is a good example from Christ’s Church Dearborn, Michigan now underway.


National Church CDO webpage http://www.episcopalchurch.org/cdo/
Interviewing in the Call Process http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/CDO_Interviewing_in_the_Calling_Process_May2009.pdf
Strategic Visioning process Report, Christ church Dearborn, MI http://www.christchurchdearborn.org/dl.cfm?file=downloads/cec_strategic_plan_aug2.pptx 

20/20 Vision is a work in progress but it likely needs to pause until the search process is finished and a new rector is called.  This is a good example of a finished Strategic Vision for Christ’s Church Dearborn.  The categories might offer insight about questions to ask candidates.

Calling a Youth minister in Diocese of Colorado http://www.coloradodiocese.org/03_faithformation/PDFs/Man_hir_2005.pdf
Tasks for the Search Committee http://www.dioceseofeaston.org/Tasks%20for%20Search%20Committee.pdf Checklist of tasks used in the Diocese of Eastern Oregon call process.

Interviewing candidates for a position whether it is rector or any other job is a lot like painting your house.  Most of the work is scrapping, sanding, and preparation until the house is ready to accept the paint.  Then there is the base coat or primer that is similar to the call process screening and narrowing of the field to get down to the short list.  Only then can you apply the final coats of paint to see the true color of the house.  After that top coat of paint is applied comes the real test—do I like what I see and does it fit with my expectations?  If you don’t like the choice and don’t feel you can live with it for the long term—that is the time to change the paint color.  And so it is in the final round of interviews narrowing the field to the final three to recommend to the Vestry.

Ideally, the selection committee will give the Vestry a list of finalist candidates that offer the same high standards of quality, preparation and experience but offer a choice of styles to enable the Vestry to measure the true color of the ‘curb appeal’ of the candidates today and the ability to judge how well they will wear for the next 22 years.

We are praying for you and know that, with God’s help, your work will serve the congregation well.