The received wisdom is Bob Jackson’s, (potted here) that long gaps between incumbencies are bad news. Now David has met a statistician in Bath & Wells who tells a different tale. I suspect both are right; across the board overlong vacancies can damage attendance figures; but I have no grounds for calling David’s statistician a liar — he did an elaborate comparison of 100 parishes in rural groups which had vacancies with comparators that didn’t, over many years, and found identical patterms of 5% decline in both. Hmm...
After helping fill over 100 vacancies in Bucks, I think I notice...
- Every vacancy, like every pregnancy, is different. The time, locality, previous, run-up to it, and the health of the parish concerned are all key factors. healthy parishes have better times in vacancy than dependent and conflicted ones.
- Within benefices, some congregations cope much better than others, for similar reasons.
- Very few clergy teams take seriously the idea that every time a new member joins team it changes and has to acknowledge this and re-form. Thus people can get saddled with unconstructive assumptions, almost by accident. We are better at talking dirty about teams than the working processes and attitudes which actually make a team work as a team.
- The preparation process for the profile is a window into the soul of the parish. The honesty and ownership of the result has a high correlation to the success of the whlle recruitment.
- Because it’s a time when everybody is asking relevant questions, our parish development adviser, Andrew Gear, always goes in to support every parish in vacancy, both in preparing the profile, and helping them work out what the place and its mission are about. I would go to the stake for this way of working with a PDA, and I think it does make an immense difference. It may be invidious to say so, but the sober truth is that having Andrew, a brilliant PDA with in-depth consultancy and listening skills, makes an amazing difference.
- We have a small number of wise and experienced, often recently retired clergy, who sometimes make themselves available for serious interim ministries for up to 6 months. A wise priest, with experience, imagination and people skills, can make an immense difference to the vacancy experience. I believe we should pay properly for this work, and recognise its true value. We have not yet developed an adequate infratructure to fund and deploy such ministries, but I believe they are part of the shape of good practice to come. This is not about stopgapping per se, but reinforcing the work our PDA is already doing, and supporting people in asking the real questions honestly, as well as briefing bishop, archdeacon and patron about the learning during the vacancy.
- Everybody wants to speed things up, understandably. When I was a nice new bishop, we had a bit of a go at breakneck vacancy minimizing — on one occasion three months. It didn’t actually work well for everybody, and one wise parish actually interviewed five people and then owned up, bravely and honestly, that they weren’t yet ready to call it and would have to readvertise. I know that was only one parish, but it taught me to try and contain my own juggernaut logic about filling vacancies quickly... They readvertised and it worked. We try to keep up the pace, but are perhaps a bit less breakneck than we used to be, having learnt from experience.
- It seems to be the case that the quality of the vacancy, good or bad, is often down to a small number of laypeople’s giftedness and contribution. This is as much the case, if not mroe, for small parishes. Anything that strengthens and encourages those who do step up to various pltes constructively is good news long term.
- Lay Chairs and Area Deans are crucial. Really logged on affirmative action by the area dean can really help — where a kind of minimalist approach definitely adds to the sense of loss and disorientation. Ditto a proper deanery mission plan. If you’ve got one it will help people through an uncertain time. If the deanery plan is a bodge or a mess, or, worse, still, no more than a silly bit of paper you get out every five years to wave at the bishop and archdeacon, the sloppiness will out and curse everyone especially during a vacancy.
- There is an increasing need to build the capacity of the parish representatives and others in line with good recruitment principles, all the more as candidates get cannier and formal process constraints become more pressing. The era of “saying unto this (wo)man go and (s)he goeth” is over. “Fat controller” mentalities among bishops and archdeacons are no longer appropriate. A well handled collaborative process is far less likely to be a pothole on the parish’s highway to Zion than a bodged up, happenstance driven lurcher... but it’s not an exact science. The only way to incease the number of good vacancies, is to grow the awareness and capacity of everyone involved, especially our own.