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Churches in Transition: Be Patient; An Interview with Bishop Lawrence
Moving vans are pulling up to rectories all around our Diocese as several congregations are in the midst of transition. At press time leadership is changing at St. Philip’s, Charleston; St. Helena’s, Beaufort; Prince George Winyah, Georgetown; Good Shepherd, Charleston; St. Matthias, Summerton; Our Saviour, Johns Island and Trinty Church, Myrtle Beach. It seemed like a good time to sit with Bishop Lawrence to ask his advice for congregations and leaders in the midst of this new season.
Do you have any advice for churches beginning the process of searching for a new rector or vicar?
The search process is always an interesting combination of prayerfully seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit as well as the best of our human reason, reflection and research. Those two dimensions are distinct but compatible and certainly not mutually exclusive.
Remember you’re seeking God’s candidate.
People on the search committee aren’t there to represent a certain constituency. If they attend an 8 o’clock service or the contemporary service they bring that perspective and thought in terms of the process, but they’re not there to find the person that group would want. They’re there to find the person God has in mind.
It’s a discernment process; it’s not a beauty contest. Remember David: When Samuel was sent to Jesse’s household to discern the next king of Israel, he was reminded that man looks on external things, but God looks on the heart.
Can a rector stay too long?
They can stay too long and they can leave too soon.
They can stay too long when they no longer have a vision, passion or spiritual capital for the church they’re leading and they can leave too soon when they’ve not had a chance to fully realize the vision God has given them.
What advice do you have for the new rector and new congregation?
In most cases there’s grief on both sides of the equation. The new rector may be grieving his or her previous parish and members of the new parish may be grieving Father-so-and-so of Blessed Memory.
Also the new rector will bring certain principles he or she has learned about leadership and parish life but just as they say in real estate “location, location, location,”—in ministry it’s “context, context, context.”
Can you explain that more?
The context of the ministry defines what you do.
For instance, Shay Gaillard is leaving Good Shepherd for St. Helena’s. St. Helena’s is considerably larger than Good Shepherd. It’s a different environment altogether. The history of Beaufort is different. So there is the context of the community, the context of the local congregation and the context of the individual person in a different chapter of his or her life – they’re all different.
Context defines the vision and the vision God gives will begin to shape the context.
There are things you glean from where you’ve been but there are things you have to learn and recognize in the place you’re going.
It always begins with listening and prayer to understand the context in which you are to lead.
Look at the difference between St. Matthias and Prince George Winyah. There are things about ministry and leadership that David Thurlow carries with him but it’s about to be put into a very different context. His wife and children will be stepping into a different context. Prince George had two people living in the rectory next to the church, now they’ll have a family with four children. Everyone’s stepping into a new context. Everything changes – for everybody.
So be patient with one another.
It usually takes at least three to five years before you become the Rector in more than just name only.
Some parishioners may want the intimacy they had with their previous rector with their new one.
They may never have it, but the new people who come will have it. Their relationship will be different because they don’t know the church outside of the new rector. We as parishioners don’t necessarily connect with every rector in the same way.
Let that person be who they are. Don’t force them into the role of the previous rector. If God wanted that person to be there longer they would be there longer.
And for the rector there’s the fact that sometimes the people who buzz around you when you first come aren’t the ones who will pull the wagon when you need the wagon pulled.
Do you have any personal stories or mistakes rectors have made stepping into a new place you can share?
Not that I’m going to tell here.
Here’s the problem with that: it’s all context. One time a person came in and fired the old staff and began with a new staff. In that case it was a horrible mistake and the person never overcame it. But there might be cases in which you need to do that. It depends on the context. Sometimes a person needs to let one person on a previous staff go and sometimes the wisest thing is to keep the person on. Once again we’re back to context.
What’s the biggest mistake a new congregation could make in welcoming a new rector?
I don’t know if it’s the biggest mistake but one mistake is not to let the rector be his own person. Appreciate the spiritual gifts and very human gifts he or she brings.
In some cases, the people in the congregation won’t truly begin to grieve for their previous rector until the new rector comes, especially if it’s not been a long search process.
In other cases, if it’s been a bad situation with the previous rector the congregation may project onto the new rector all the motivations and problems of the previous rector.
Conversely, the rector may be coming from a context in which he’s been the rector for 15 years and there was a huge amount of mutual trust. Now he suddenly has to build trust where before he didn’t need to prove himself.
Parishioners can also tell story after story after story about the previous rector. Some are glowingly positive and others are one horror story after another. Both of these can be emotionally draining for the new rector.
But you don’t want people to not tell the parish’s stories, because you need to know the history. But of course there’s a balance.
What’s the best thing a parish could do to welcome a new rector?
Be hospitable. Help the Rector and his or her family by wearing nametags. Introduce yourselves as individuals. Say, “Hello, I’m so and so.” Say the name slow enough so they can actually hear it. If you haven’t had a parish directory done recently do one soon. Parish directories are very helpful for a new rector.
And of course pray daily for your new rector and his or her family. Years ago I remember reading of a young pastor who took over a very large and renowned congregation known for great preaching. The young preacher acknowledged to one of the church elders his anxiety. The old saint told him, “We will not let you fail for we shall lift you up in our prayers!”
How should a new rector operate differently if he or she is heading into a healthy parish vs. an unhealthy parish?
If you’re entering a healthy parish, you don’t necessarily make a bunch of changes right away.
If you’re going into an unhealthy parish, you probably have to develop trust and you don’t develop trust by making a bunch of changes but by making the changes that need to be made – significant ones that bring trust, create order and build hope.
What if a priest coming from a smaller, pastoral-sized church tries to implement practices that worked in his or her old church in the new corporate-sized church?
If you treat a corporate church like a pastoral church it will become a pastoral church.
What you do begins to dictate the size of the church. You have to begin today to be the church you want to be tomorrow.
If you want to be larger than a pastoral-sized church don’t do the things pastoral-sized churches do. The pastoral-sized church is all about the pastor having connection and the people having connection with one another in a “we’re all cozy, warm and we all know one another” way.
I visited a congregation where they named off those in the hospital and listed the shut-ins. So you’d say don’t do that in a bigger church?
If a pastor of a pastoral or “collie” size church where they have that practice (and it makes perfect sense because it fits the culture) goes to a parish in a growing city congregation and begins to do that it may set the congregation on an unfortunate trajectory.
Would it shrink it?
Yes. It’s geared entirely toward the people who are there and known and not towards the people who are not. Once again it’s context.
If a congregation has developed a culture of a 10-minute passing of The Peace, that may not work for the newcomer. In a larger church you’ll have people walking by a newcomer to pass The Peace with a longtime friend. And so pretty soon the newcomers are just standing there watching everyone else pass The Peace and eventually they just sit down. It can also disrupt the flow of the worship service.
The new rector may understand that and put the kibosh on that long passing of The Peace and then he’s seen as some kind of horrible monster who “doesn’t love us.”
So how would you implement that kind of change?
If he or she is implementing changes that the church may not understand, the new rector needs to make it a teaching moment and say, “I need to teach something. It may feel cold or brusque, but here’s why we’re doing this. This long passing of The Peace may not make our visitors feel welcome. It’s often the place where a visitor feels alienated.“
All those things that look to the longtime member as signs of friendliness can be off-putting to the visitor.
If I’m visiting a new church I really don’t want a long passing of The Peace. I can’t get to know anybody then so just let me shake the hands of the people around me – if I have to. Now after the service, that’s the time to be friendly with people.
What would the “ideal” pastor transition look like?
Seasons that are good and seasons that are bumpy.
There’s an old phrase, “If it ain’t broken, break it.” Sometimes you learn a lot by something that doesn’t work. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the right thing to do but in some cases it might be. “Disappoint them early,” as I’ve jokingly said in sermons.
An ideal transition is one in which both the congregation and the new pastor are eager for what God has in mind for them, where both are open to God’s vision for the congregation and have a godly patience with one another and a godly impatience for the God-given growth the Holy Spirit has in store for the parish.