Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CREATING A SUCCESSION PLAN FOR A PRIEST a blog post by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

I am going to retire. I have promised Carole, I have promised Bishop Hayashi, and I have promised myself: I am going to retire. I’ve earned it, I deserve it, and by God I’m going to have it! (Recall that this is what people say about nervous breakdowns, too. There may be a parallel to retirement, but I am not sure what it is.) 

The missing element in the above paragraph is a date. Yes, I am going to retire; I just do not know when. 

I began the first meeting of the newly-elected Bishop's Committee in February by stating that my one clear goal for the 2016 term is to complete a succession plan for the Priest-in-Charge by the Annual Meeting in January 2017. (It was stated thusly in order to get their attention. It did.) 

By succession plan, I mean a carefully thought out statement that includes these elements: a clear definition of “where” St. Mary's Church is now (that is, what is the true state of the congregation and its ministries); a clear statement of the vision of the future (that is, to whom do we intend to minister, and with what kind of resources); and, the beginnings of a description of the kind of skills and experience and gifts the pastor of this congregation should have (that is, a tentative position description). 

There are several reasons why the skills and experience and gifts lists should be tentative. 

In the first place, history has consistently shown that when the current pastor [in Episcopal congregations] gets involved in choosing a successor it is an invitation for failure and conflict. Congregations are not for-profit businesses that can and do change focus when a CEO retires. Congregations have shared experiences, history, culture, personality, character that must be respected. 

The proper term for this sort of planning in churches is a transition process, a term that focuses attention on the transition between pastors. (Another way to create conflict in churches is not to have a transition period.) 

Typically, it is during the transition period that a congregation gathers information about its current status, creates a vision for the future, and then looks for a pastor to bring to the congregation the skills and gifts needed to assist them in moving into that future. In other words, my goal for the year, stated as a succession plan, is to do exactly what a congregation does in the transition period, short of identifying and calling a new pastor. 

Some of you will remember that I came to St. Mary's Church in late 2011 as a long-term interim minister. I had spent the previous ten years serving churches throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Utah as their interim, helping them do exactly what I am talking about here: transition from one pastor to another with the assistance of an interim pastor. My original call was for three years. Next Labor Day I will have been the Priest-in-Charge at St. Mary's Church for five years. 

At this time St. Mary's Church is a stable, strong, active congregation, with four healthy ministries: Sunday morning worship, hosting twenty or so self-help groups (e.g., A.A.), the monthly Food & Care Ministry, and the Community Music Outreach Program. Beyond strengthening what we are already doing, it is not clear to me or the parish leadership what the next steps ought to be. Therefore, a time of discernment—prayerful consideration of the present and visioning the future—is appropriate. 

We will be assisted in the planning process by Bishop Hayashi and by the Rev. Terri Heyduk, currently the Interim Rector of St. James’ Church, Midvale. A brief biography of Terri is to be found elsewhere in this edition of the newsletter (here). She, too, is an experienced transitions pastor (previous to St. James’ she was the Interim Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Salt Lake City), she understand what we are trying to do here with a good, strong congregation, and she is excited to be of help. 

The first meeting of the steering group from the Bishop's Committee is the week of April 24. We will keep you posted as to what is happening. 


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