Thursday, 13 November 2008

Clergy vacancies: Filling the gaps?

As I rejoice with Bishop David on a new Rector of Strathearn, and prepare for a Vacancy meeting this evening, David Keen asksdo long clergy vacancies cause Church decline? For those who think vicars rule over them, and others, there’s even a Good Interregnum Guide. I do think the term “interregnum” in itself indicates some questionable attitudes and expectations about church leadership... But, of course, leadership in any voluntary organisation is a crucial aspect of its health and effectiveness.

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...
  1. 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.
  2. Within benefices, some congregations cope much better than others, for similar reasons.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
I wonder what other experience there is out there, and would welcome experience, good and bad of interim ministry, for my own learning. Whilst we should work as efficiently as possible during a vacancy, David’s post makes me wonder whether Bob Jackson’s reults, however excellent, are perhaps rather generalised and focussed on Chronos (time quantity)when we ought to be thinking Kairos (opportunity)... Perhaps the mentality we choose to take can, in itself, make a difference.

7 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

People in our parish look back on the year we had no priest and say that the parish was never better. Attendance was down -- fewer casual visitors -- but the parish pulled together and became a community. Visiting clergy vied to come and serve, because they could feel the sense of community that was absent in their own parish.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, teve. I wish more of ours had this kind of experience — actually more do than one might expect. There's a line in one of our Eucharistic prayers about God using Lent as a time to draw us back to him, and to teach us how to be his people once again. My evening meeting at Princes Risborough was actually fantastically positive, and having helped them on a recent parish weekend, thus had extended time with them, I believe God will bless them through the coming months as your parish were blessed... Thanks again, steve for a bit of positive wisdom.

Pierre Whalon said...

Alan, One thing we do rather well in TEC is the practice of interim priests. Trained interims go into troubled congregations, especially after clergy misconduct but also lay misconduct, has forced a painful transition. These interims can be quite long, on the order of two to three years. Their job is to be agents of healing and the requisite change. Interims are also very useful to help with transitions in healthy congregations as well.
The parishioners' ability to coalesce during the transition is a good indication of the soundness of their community. In any case, trained interims are very helpful for a bishop to have available. Maybe the CofE needs a "fresh expression" of interim ministry?
Delightfully wrenching photos, btw...
Yours,
Pierre Whalon

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks for the reminder about TEC IM procedure. I remember back in my days as a work consultant for clergy, seeing some really interesting Alban Institute stuff on interim ministry. It reminds me how far behind we are about this in the UK — some rainy day, or one of our team off site days, it might be good to revisit it with my close colelagues in Bucks, and see if we couldn't find creative ways of being more supportive to churches in vacancy. I fear we don't have the means (easily) in our system to resource a theologically cogent and intentional approach like TEC's, but perhaps Andrew's professional work is a step in that direction...

dmk said...

There's some interesting good practice to glean here about how to make best use of a vacancy. I suspect that some dioceses simply view it as a money saving exercise: 11 months when we don't have to pay a stipend. What you describe is much more postive and strategic.

It's not just how big your interregnum is, it's what you do with it.

Jonathan Evans said...

Just came across this when googling "deanery plan" - we do not have such things, but desperately need a strategy for our deanery - which I am currently working on. If anyone has any ideas where to start, I'd be interested to hear.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Hi Jonathan — good to hear from you, and I wish you well with deanery planning. It's been a long and interesting journey for our 10 deaneries in Bucks. Our process has wended through various phases, but in general it has made our lives much more liveable and consistent, and helped us all; still there's a long way to go, especially the process of turning plans from bits of paper you chuck at the bishop and archdeacon every five years, into ways of life; genuine strategy. I suppose I would say this, being in my job, but one of the hardest parts can be getting your senior staff onside, so that they stop striding around undermining your plans from on high and start aligning with a shared strategy. A good resource site to start on is (Google it) the Church House Deaneries Group, which has information exchanges and live networks to help deaneries get going with plans. If you'd like any contacts or conversations round here, let me know and various of us would be delighted to share experiences — you may be ahead of us in some places, and networking/ supporting fellow sufferers is always a good thing.

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