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.

The Gifts and Lessons of Our Search Process

“Almighty God, giver of every good gift; look graciously on your church, and so guide the minds and hearts of those who shall choose a rector for this parish, that we may receive a faithful pastor, who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen”

Those are the words we pray every time we gather around the table at St. Timothy’s.  This prayer for the selection of a rector occurs following the Collect for the Day in the order of proceedings and then we go to the readings appointed for the day as we ‘listen and respond to God’s word.’

As I write this the first Sunday after Epiphany 2012, it is hard to imagine that it has been eighteen months since we learned that Steve Strane, our rector for 22 years was retiring.  Such announcements are always the source of anxiety and trepidation.  The rules of the church are rather inflexible in such matters for good or ill and as we faced the loss of our long time rector, his ‘trusty sidekick’ Kathy Trapani faced a Hobson’s choice of her own.  She could step into the role of Interim Rector and continue to serve our parish family during this interim period and then exit as a new rector was called.  Or she could apply to be Rector to replace Steven but that would require her to resign now in order to be a candidate.  Such a deal!

So what happened?

I believe God does not ask us to shoulder burdens He knows we cannot bear.  God has been with us at each step of this interim process and because of His Grace we have learned more about our faith, our values as a community, and our vision for the future of our faith community than we thought possible.

We learned that as much as we loved Steven Strane and were sorry to see him retire, that he gave us something we hardly recognized in his midst but THE GIFT has helped sustain us in his absence and empower us in the future.  THE GIFT was a style of collegiality and his humble, welcoming, loving manner that made each person feel at home when they walked in the door the first time, and called by name the next time and every time they came to the table.  THE GIFT was the lesson to love one another as Jesus loved us.

We learned that as much as we loved Kathy and would be sorry to see her leave us, we could celebrate each day we were together doing God’s work in the vineyard of St. Timothy’s and giving thanks for the many blessings that our time together has brought.  This turned from a maudlin lament about Kathy’s eventual departure into a joyful celebration at Kathy’s love for us—so intentional—that our interim period has been seamless, healthy, happy and Holy!  God loves us SO MUCH that he sent Kathy to be our guide and scout through the wilderness. We never doubted her steel and competence.  We never felt abandoned or adrift. We never doubted her leadership nor wondered where she was leading us. The trusty sidekick has become our shepherd and while our time in the fold is transitional it is no less joyous and we are no less grateful for this holy time together.

We learned that in God’s great economy if Kathy had not stepped up to be our interim rector we would not have had the opportunity to call Kurt Levensaler to be Associate Priest.  In Kurt God has sent us a breath of fresh air, a voice of new ideas, a new style, a fresh start that is essential to our transition and to our future.  God has given us the great gift of practicing the joyous act of welcoming new clergy that we will face in our near future.  Kurt is our bridge from the joyous place we have been through the joyous wonder of our transitional wilderness to our joyous future with a new rector.

We know God loves us so much that He has given us the Grace of a steady, healthy, optimistic advent in our search process.  That grace and our confidence in the search committee and vestry to tend the process and keep it moving deliberately forward until they discern whom God is calling to be our new rector and reveals that call to them.

We believe and so we have faith in the process, in our transitional clergy and lay leaders.

We believe and so we celebrate the strengths of our community of faith and we believe that God wants us to keep working in our share of his vineyard using the resources, judgment and love for one another that he gave us—its grace, pure and perfect grace that surrounds us and fills us with joy and anticipation.

We believe and so with we give thanks for THE GIFT for even with the passage of time it still reminds us of the unconditional love that lives into Jesus call to us, for modeling for us how to turn that gift into work in the vineyard, and for preparing us for the future.

And then there is this,

In the Gospel reading appointed for this day from Mark 1:4-11:

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

We know God is with us in the advent of our search process and at a time of His choosing he will reveal to our search committee the one he has chosen to be our next rector.  In the meanwhile, He has prepared us for his plan for our future by giving us THE GIFT of good shepherds to teach us, to love us and to prepare us for this time ahead.  He has given us the gift of time to reflect and the opportunity to grow, to change and prepare ourselves for the time ahead.

We know that in hearing the news of that call of a new rector we are receiving the Holy Spirit anew–a gift of pure and perfect grace.

CASE STUDY: Christ Church Alameda, Diocese of California

1700 Santa Clara Avenue
Alameda, California 94501
Tel. (510) 523-7200

Homepage: http://christchurchalameda.org/

Contacts:

The Rev Kathy Crary, Rector

The Rev Anne Jensen, Interim Rector

Jean Brennan, Co-chair

Jim Keltner, Co-chair

Background

The year and one-half call process at Christ Church Alameda ended with the selection of the Rev Kathy Crary to be Rector in November 2010.  Rev. Crary previously served as the Interim Rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Fremont, California. CEC’s previous Rector, Reverend Edward Thompson (Ted), decided to pursue a Master’s degree in peace and reconciliation in Washington, D.C. When Father Ted shared his plans, the Vestry stepped in to lead us during this transition. CEC spent the next six weeks devoted to our goodbye – and making certain that we as a congregation were sending Father Ted and his family to Washington, D.C. with our love and gratitude. The Vestry appointed an Interim Rector, Reverend Anne Jensen, and began the process of developing a search committee for the very important task of finding a new parish priest for CEC.

Discernment Process

In developing our parish profile, our discernment included four all-parish forums, a parish survey, and one-on-one meetings with three other important stakeholders in the parish: our youth, our paid staff members, and our unpaid clergy. This self-study effort spanned a five-month period. This profile also represented research, questioning, reflection and prayer. It tells of our history, our past experience, our present life and our hopes for our new Rector.

In a CEC parish survey most of the responding parishioners have increased or maintained their current level of involvement in the church in the previous two years. We are satisfied or very satisfied with our relationship with God, our spiritual growth and our community. We continue to attend Christ Church because of friendships, fellowship, a faith community for our children, and the Episcopal denomination. Morale is high and there is a sense of excitement for the future.

What We Seek in a New Rector

We sought a spiritual leader who will love and care for our community. Based on our shared values and acknowledged challenges, CEC sought a spiritual leader with proven experience in a comparably sized Episcopal parish. We wanted as rector someone who feels a continued calling to serve as a parish priest. We sought an individual of deep faith and personal integrity and wanted our Rector to be knowledgeable about the tenets of our Christian faith, our church’s history, and our current Episcopal liturgical and religious practice. We wanted our new Rector to be a clear communicator who is able to explain these matters in everyday terms and make the Gospel relevant to our daily lives. We sought a compelling speaker who is able to inspire and motivate us through sermons. We asked for sermons that are scripture-based and thought-provoking, and which challenge us to personally apply Christian standards to our lives regardless of our individual political beliefs.

We wanted a priest who has the pastoral experience to counsel us as individuals and to lead us as a congregation in the task of defining a clear common vision. We seek a Rector with demonstrated leadership in—and for—a parish that is welcoming of all people. We seek someone who can nurture a community which is diverse in age, cultural background, economic resources, sexual orientation, and political viewpoint. Our new Rector should be open to multiple points of view and have the ability to understand and collaborate with all stakeholders, both within and outside our congregation.

Our Rector needs to be a sound administrator with proven delegation skills. We wanted the Rector be able to guide and encourage the staff, and inspire, renew and grow our lay leadership. We desired a leadership style that encourages open discussion, that empowers the staff, lay leaders, and congregation to share in decision-making, and that ensures transparent communication. We sought a leader with flexibility and the grace to smoothly change gears and adapt to change as needed.

Christ Church has a firm commitment to its growing Children & Youth program and wanted a Rector who has worked closely with such programs. We seek someone who enjoys and is comfortable with young people and their active participation in all facets of church life. Christ Church also wants to continue its ecumenical development and involvement with the Alameda community and beyond. We are in discernment with nearby Oakland parishes in regard to area ministry and look forward to guidance from our new rector in this matter.

We looked for a Rector who is accessible, approachable, and a good listener. We want someone who has a good sense of humor. We want someone who will actively join in our parish events and programs and will be with us in mind, body and spirit. We hope our new rector will be tolerant of well-intended criticism and understands that no one can please everyone all the time. We look for a rector who feels at ease with people of all ages and wants to share our lives. We look for someone who can serve as a role model for all parishioners, young and old.

And we look for the attribute that is the key to bringing all this together: humility. From this most basic (and most difficult) trait will flow many of the other traits needed to lead a spiritual community. From humility will flow the message our community wants to hear from the rector – “I am not in charge. God is. All is well. Rejoice.”

Parish History

Our parish has a long history of serving Alameda and its surrounding communities. CEC opened its doors for worship in 1871 – and today we remain an active and strong parish serving over 360 communicants, including 100 children and youth. We are members of the Episcopal Diocese of California and the Alameda Deanery.

We at CEC are a welcoming and diverse community: in age, cultural background, economic resources, sexual orientation and political viewpoint. We are a strong community of faith; we have a deep commitment to caring for God’s creation, and for the community of CEC and beyond our parish. We enjoy the fellowship of spending time together: to laugh, to play and to pray. This is the heart of who we are. Fellowship brings us together in our faith, and strengthens our ties to one another and to our relationship with God.

Christ Church is an historic organization, predating the city of Alameda. The first Episcopal services were held in a private home in 1869 by the Rector of the Church of the Advent in Oakland (now St. James’). By 1870 lay-led services were being held regularly in the ―village’’ (Alameda). Christ Church parish was organized and entered into union with the Diocese of California at the 1871 Diocesan Convention. In 1872 the Parish was incorporated, with the Reverend Sidney Wilbur becoming the first of our 19 rectors. The Church has had four rectors who later served as bishops: the Reverends H.H. Shires, Sumner Walters, A. Porter and G. Richard Millard.

Who We Are at Christ Church Alameda

We – the people – are the church. Christ Church is a welcoming community with many intergenerational bonds, a source of family and fun. We embrace our children and youth and they are an integral part of our parish. We see ourselves as strong and tenacious, yet flexible.

The people of CEC prize our reputation and image as a warm, welcoming body. We feel that we are an intergenerational community of friends who are accepting of all people. We strive to continue to extend our circle of Christian fellowship.

We are a Eucharist-centered parish which provides the spiritual grounding for our programs and outreach efforts. While many of these activities involve devotion to doing God’s work, our approach is celebratory, light-hearted and fun. We believe that joy, laughter and doing good works bind us together as a community.

We are there for each other in times of trouble. Although we are not ethnically diverse, we have a diversity of experience and are accepting and tolerant of others with different backgrounds, social, and political beliefs. We value independent thinking and the ability to make our own decisions.

The majority of parishioners have joined Christ Church in the past 15 years. Our size and make-up place us between pastoral and program size churches. In our last report to the diocese, we had 360 communicants in good standing. The average Sunday attendance between the two services is 170 people. Easter Sunday attendance was 370 in 2009. Over 100 children are enrolled in our Church School.

Challenges We Face

The primary challenge we see facing Christ Church is creating a clearly articulated vision and a strategic implementation plan for our future. As a congregation, we have looked at where our parish is in terms of our organizational life cycle. We found that our parish is robust and mature. Although we are proud of our many successful programs and activities, these are not coordinated and directed toward a set of common agreed-upon goals. We need creative leadership in addressing this issue and renewing a clear direction for our church.

A related challenge is that we hover in size between being a pastoral and a program church. Because the congregation does not have a shared vision for our future, there is uncertainty whether we should (again) apply our energies to growing into a program-centered church.

One of the most frequently expressed concerns within the parish is financial. For several years, in a concerted attempt to grow programs by adding an Associate Rector, Christ Church operated at a deficit. During that time we were able to conduct a successful capital campaign, which resulted in acquiring and renovating a rectory, in renovating the parish hall, and in making other improvements to the campus. However we were not able to successfully grow a continuing pledge base to support the larger staff. We have now returned to being a one-priest parish and to operating within a balanced budget based on less than-full-time staff positions. Although the parish survey indicates that our parish family could support a larger pledge base, we have yet to discover the key to making that base a continuing reality. Christ Church also faces challenges in staffing its programs. We are concerned about sustaining and growing our volunteer base and recruiting additional lay leaders to reinvigorate our programs and avoid potential burn-out.

Our goals for the 2010 stewardship campaign were threefold: 1) to involve all parishioners in the practice and spiritual discipline of pledging money; 2) to reach $300,000 in pledged dollars to sustain and, as possible, increase the ministries we shepherd; and 3) to increase the number of people offering their talents through Christ Church’s ministry teams as a practice of good stewardship. At the Annual Meeting in late January, it was announced that we had exceeded our goal with pledges totaling $315,000. We received 110 pledges, including 12 from new parishioners totaling $26,000.

Our 2009 budget was $416,410, of which we ultimately received $396,973. Expenses in 2009 totaled $393,627, resulting in a surplus of $3,346 due to the absence of our rector for two months. Thanks to a successful stewardship campaign, we began 2010 with a balanced budget of $426,722. However, with 80% of our funds going to fixed costs (salaries, benefits, and Diocesan assessment), there is limited discretionary funding available to support our ministries, facilities, and outreach.

We have a vibrant and energized childrens program, yet we lack comparable adult spiritual formation programs. We are concerned about nurturing our adult education programs to strengthen our parishioner’s faith lives beyond what they glean from weekly worship services.

While we are blessed with many talented musicians, we are challenged to meet the demands of weekly practice required for a strong choral music program. We would like to fully staff our choir and other music ministries such as childrens choirs and bell choir.

Christ Church and several Oakland parishes are responding together to the diocesan call to area ministry. A series of meetings is in progress during which parishes share their ministries in various fields, to best determine how they might support each other and achieve a greater effect by working together. We look forward to guidance from our new rector in defining how Christ Church will best participate in area ministry and in implementing this new program area.

Finally, communications remain an issue. There is a desire to increase transparency in communications among commissions, the Vestry, and the parish as a whole. While we strive to share knowledge about parish events via our website, weekly emails, and a monthly newsletter, we are concerned that these communication channels are not effectively reaching everyone, especially newcomers.

Lessons from Christ Church Alameda

A key to the successful conclusion of the CEC search process was taking the time to be true to itself.  Listening to the faith journey aspirations of its members to do the mission work of the church renewed its spirit and set the stage for an expectant future with the new rector.  Naming the challenges the parish faced made them more manageable by getting the parish focused on creating and sustaining the critical mass of participation to make it happen and praying for the resources and follow through to make it happen.  Another key lesson is that the issues faced by CEC are many of the same faced today at St. Timothy’s even though the parishes are different sizes, different stages of growth.  Change is always a difficult thing, but knowing that God is with us and guiding us each step of the way strengthens our faith.

The discernment process at Christ Church was careful and deliberate and the new rector, Rev. Kathy Crary, has been on both sides as an Interim Rector at St James and now the new rector at CEC. The discernment process included preparation of the parish profile, survey and town hall meetings to frame the challenges the parish faces.  THE SEARCH COMMITTEE’S PREP WORK TAKES TIME AND PATIENCE EVEN THOUGH THE CONGREGATION WANTS TO GO FASTER.  Another lesson seems to be that the congregation needs time to be open to the leadership of the new Rector to lead them forward to face those challenges. Rush the search process and the chances of making a mistake grow exponentially. That seems to be one of the most important lessons for the Search Committee—the job of the search committee is not just finding a new rector but preparing the vestry and congregation to be ready to welcome that new person with a clear consensus about the aspiration and needs facing the parish as a roadmap for the future.

Prepared by Gary Hunt for Discernable Futures, December 2010

NOTE:  This case study is a work in progress and subject to change.  I reached out to talk with Rev. Clary, the new Rector and Jim Keltner, the co-chair of the selection committee but will not be able to talk with them until after the first of the year.  Once I do talk with them I will revise this case study to incorporate their views and their implications for the lessons for St. Timothy’s selection process.