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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ask the Matriarchs: Expectations during a transition

Greetings, everyone! I confess that this week I'm not able to think critically about how to synthesize these answers, as I have a nasty sinus infection that really wants to be bronchitis when it grows up. So I'll just put these out there and encourage you, as always, to share your stories about transitions you've dealt with in your ministry along this line:

So I have found myself in a situation which I do not think is unique, but has never happened to me. I was hoping for some wisdom.

Last Christmas, our senior pastor left for new and different things. For the last year, we have been without a senior pastor. We have muddled along pretty well this year with supply and interim priests. But our search committee has issued an invitation now for the new rector. And here is where the questions start for me. It was told to me early on that when a new senior pastor came on board, as an associate I was to offer my resignation and let him "bring in his own team." On the other hand a number of parishioners, including some on the search team, have told me that I was not supposed to do that, but stay in place and just keep doing what I have been doing the whole time. My question is, what to do? I don't really want to relocate, but I also don't want to break form, or prevent the church from moving in a new direction. What would yall do? What have you done?

Ann says, having some denomination-related insight to this:
Dioceses have different policies on this situation. Look in your Diocesan Canons and in your letter of agreement (hopefully you had one of these when you began your ministry with this church) before doing anything else. Your bishop may also have something to say about your staying.

Many places do require a resignation of all staff - especially clergy and pastoral staff. If there is no guidance elsewhere, sit down with the new person and discuss your staying or going.

No matter what is decided avoid all temptation to "poison the well" of your current church - not that I think you would do this. Some leaders are threatened by others in leadership positions who have a history before they got there. Others are delighted to have continuity.

Peripatetic Polar Bear says:
A new rector (or senior pastor in any denomination for that matter) is going to bring about lots of fabulousness and lots of stress. Especially for you. There is no one hard and fast rule about staying or going. The only hard and fast rule is that everyone thinks there is a hard and fast rule, but they can't agree on what the hard and fast rule is!

Generally, you need to look at a couple of things: local culture (what do other churches in your region do? ask your bishop), "fit" with new rector/senior pastor, and whether or not he or she expected you to be part of the package deal (question: did he or she meet you in the process? find out anything about your skills/strengths/history?)

My recommendation is an honest conversation with him or her in the first few weeks. Even if he/she wants you to move, unless you REALLY don't get along, generally the pattern is that you within the year you start submitting your documents and interviewing--not that you immediately take off. Remember, this church has just now called its rector--they don't need to be without an associate before they've gotten to know the senior! Hand-in-hand with whether or not he/she wants you to stay is whether or not you feel like the new person is a good match for your style. It may well be that after a year of "muddling," you've developed some new skills and may be ready, actually, to look at different types of calls yourself!

It's an awkward time. It's going to take a couple of months to sort out either way (getting used to a new supervisor,should you stay, takes time, too). Give yourself a few breaks in this liminal period.


  1. My understanding (which may be wrong, of course) is that at least in the Episcopal Church, the whole resignation thing *used* to actually be in the canons, but no longer is. So, lots of people still think you're
    "supposed" to offer a resignation, but its not canon anymore. I know places that have done both for various reasons, and with various results. I think the honest conversation route is always the way to go!

  2. I've always heard that it's just like the transitions with the President of the USA- everyone resigns as a matter of course. After the transition the "new boss" can hire the staff they want- which may or may not include the old staff.

    There's normally no written rule- it's job etiquette.

    Of course Your Milage (Denomination) May Vary.

    Best advice I can think of is to gently feel out the new boss. If you don't get a firm "don't resign", resign with a letter saying you'd be happy & eager to return if they want you.

    That and never, ever, ever burn bridges.

  3. Speaking from a Lutheran perspective, I think it depends on the congregation. For instance, I had a friend who took her first call and within months her senior pastor resigned. She is still there, and I believe they've hired a new senior pastor. Another friend is in the midst of this and I do not believe she is planning on leaving. However, my call is co-terminus with my senior pastor's, meaning that if he should resign then I would need to resign, as well. If I understand it correctly, I do have the option to "resubmit" my paperwork, for either my position of the senior pastor position, and re-enter the call process with my congregation.

  4. Well, It's a tricky situation. It can be done. Find someone through your denomination who has done it successfully and get their perspective.
    I do agree with the 'don't poison the well'. The most difficult part, and why so many associates do transfer is that some will try, and try and try, to triangulate you into any disagreement they have with the new head of staff. It is odd but true human nature. I think after 29 ordained years I qualify as matriarch. Blessings. I


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