Thursday, 23 August 2012

How to Change Your Vicar (Part One)

Not quite Jack Lemmon’s problem, but parish life feels like that sometimes. Just as in marriages, all of us need to remember we are all limited in various ways, and need each other to stay grounded and sane, but don’t always realise how much.

Lord Runcie, when Bishop of St Albans, once stopped in a village to congratulate the butcher, as one pig man to another, on a superb carcase hanging outside.

“You can have it,” quoth the latter, “if you get rid of our Vicar!”

About four or five times a year somebody comes to see me wondering if that is where they are with their vicar. I have got into the way of suggesting a list of Four Last Things to remember before consigning an apparently unsatsfactory vicar  to the Dustbin of History. Remembering these helps you achieve something worthwhile for everybody, and, I hope, prevents the Sermon on the Mount flying out the window early on.

First Last Thing
Everybody has rights and responsibilities equally, and needs to work out in their own mind what kind of a problem this really is. This is a very useful discipline because the sensible thing to do will depend directly on which of the following five options you believe best describes what is going on:
  1. Is the vicar doing something seriously, measurably, wrong?
    I don’t mean everyday common or garden workaday faults of omission or commission, however annoying, but something serious that would in any other sphere of work get somebody sacked?
    If so, the Clergy Discipline Measure is the way to go. It is a major legal procedure because it can potentially deprive someone of the work and home, but sometimes it is the right tool.
  2. Is the vicar not up to the job?
    If somebody tells you they are up to the job of being a parish priest, they are a fool or a liar. But is there some major and necessary area of work in which they continually fall short? To give na example, not being terribly good at chairing meetings is an occupational hazard fr many vicars. But not holding more than 4 PCC meetings a year, or failing to conduct an APCM, is a problem. By the same token some sermons are better than others, but failure to show up in Church or ever preach could be evidence of incapacity.
    If so, there are formal procedures that cover what HR people call “capability”, depending on the terms of your vicar's work (Common Tenure or Freehold). The first stage is to log the critical incidents involved fairly and accurately, bearing in mind that they could be required for tribunal proceedings.
  3. Is this really all about relationships?
    It usually is. It is a truth generally acknowledged in every field of human endeavor, but especially in one in which sensitivities are raised as they are in religion, that not everybody can work fruitfully with everybody else. This is acutely uncomfortable, but as long as people are honest about it, there’s no shame in acknowledging the fact. By dint of personality some vicars are more able to making and sustaining relationships than others — many spiritually minded people are introverts, and it is not given to every vicar to be a Butlin’s Redcoat. Others are extraverts, and may seem brash and rude. Many vicars’ first reactions to having a fault pointed out is to blame theselves, whilst others “have many faults, but being wrong isn’t one of them.”
    If so, we maintain a network of conciliators trained by Bridgebuilders. They and others can offer their services. But beware. In mediation what you really want is usually what you end up stuck with. No mediator can magic a situation better unless people actually want to be reconciled.
  4. What capacity does the whole system of the parish have to transact its business?
    Like families, parishes have different capacities to get along. This isn’t either surprising or insoluble. In fact the vast majority of the skills needed in this area are trainable. Are there repeating patterns in recent history? Is there a feeling of “something in the water?” To what extent is your vicar (or someone else) a lightning conductor for the feelings of others? Or not? the key diagnostic feature is bad communication, I find.
    If so, we have a Parish Development Adviser and other consultants who can observe and then help people be more aware of the snags and opportunities of life and work together and, even more importantly, help them to deliver on their good intentions.
  5. Is the problem just one of those things?
    before I am buried under a hail of “you just don’t understand,” this does happen. It happens in medical diagnostics, it happens with the ministry of deliverance, it happens all over. It’s what happens when the computer helpline tells you to unplug the machine, count to five and plug it in again. People, vicars as well as lay volunteers can flourish in some positions and not in others and even, on occasion reinvent themselves. But to do so they need honest feedback, clear communication, and confidence in God, their calling and themselves. Backing them into a corner and beating them with rubber hoses may make some people feel better, but it rarely achieves anything in the greater scheme of things and sometimes rubs the ash into the carpet something wicked.
    If so, don’t make a drama out of a crisis. Many of our parishes survived the black death, so this is probably a passing cloud by comparison. Assess the strengths of everyone in the situation giving rise to concern, and see if you can think of a way they could bring out the best not the worst in each other. With some idea of that we will know how to deploy Psychotherapists, CBT counsellors, Team consultants, Work coaches, the whole gang.
So, First and Foremost...
Work out what kind of problem the evidence indicates this actually is!


RFSJ said...

Excellent advice! I rather wish I were in your Diocese. Have any openings? :-)

Alastair Cutting said...

I've posted this across to the <a href=">GenSyn Facebook page</a> too.

Looking forward to part: the next.

James said...

There's a much simpler answer.

Walk away.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

To the anonymous author of a comment on 31/08 — The reason I moderate comments is to filter spam and the odd abusive comment. I can't publish yours, not because of your hostile point of view, but because you don't give your name whilst making personal comments about other identified people. I haven't had "myriad complaints" of the sort you indicated.

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