A Brief Overview of Transition Ministry
Calling new clergy is a process of mutual discernment, engaged in by the congregation and the clergy candidates, in partnership with the Bishop and the Bishop’s Office. This exciting time of seeking the best clergy match (not the best priest) for a congregation should be carried out prayerfully and with faith. Each step of the discernment requires a commitment of time and resources by God’s people deeply rooted in prayer. The transition journey also requires clear and honest communication, hospitality, wisdom, patience, and prayers.
The Vestry, working closely with transition clergy and the Bishop’s Office, has overall responsibility for the entire transition process. The Vestry approves the Bishop’s appointment of an interim priest or priest-in-charge, prepares the budget for the search process and the compensation packages for clergy, appoints and oversees the Profile and Search Teams, and helps lead the processes of visioning and strengthening the church community. The Vestry assists the congregation in actively participating in the transition process and, when the process is complete, may elect the new priest with the Bishop’s approval.
The Bishop needs to be a part of the transition process from the very beginning. The Bishop has ultimate responsibility for the ministry of all congregations in the Diocese and needs to approve the start and completion of steps in the transition process, interim priest or priest-in-charge appointments, all final candidates, and the election of the new priest.
Goals for a Transition Journey
An interim time allows a healthy transition and effective ministry while a congregation seeks new ordained leadership. When the energy present is properly focused, the transition journey offers the congregation time and steps to:
- separate from the leadership of the departing priest
- prepare to do new things God has planned
- strengthen and inform lay leadership
- complete a self-study to clarify mission and direction
- find a priest to help lead the congregation in its mission
Five Steps of Transition Ministry
Congregations that experience a successful call are those that see “the search” as part of an overall period of transition. An intentional “transition ministry” can briefly be understood in terms of the following five Steps:
- Saying Goodbye to the departing priest
How you say good-bye to your departing priest will help your church community find closure and celebration of the past so that the community may begin to look forward with anticipation to the future.
- Strengthening the Community
How you deal with one another during the transition will significantly affect the morale of your members, the tone of your search, and the ability of your congregation to grow into the future. Development tasks of the transition period include:
Coming to terms with history
Understanding the shifting context churches face today
Revisiting scriptures that address the nature and calling of the church
Discovering a new and continuing identity
Strengthening lay leadership
Strengthening ties with the wider church
Learning to better love one another
- Discerning God’s Plan
A process of discernment can be viewed in theological terms as a ministry of listening performed by members of the Vestry and other leaders on behalf of this faith community. The main question is: “Who is God calling us to be now?” Through this process, the congregation may create new foundational identifying statements (core values, mission and vision statements with a strategy and goals) – all discerned by congregational leaders to achieve the vision of the church.The tangible end products of a process of discernment are a narrative parish profile and an Office of Transition Ministry (OTM) Community Portfolio. The Vestry will appoint a Profile Team that has the skills and commitment to create these profiles to reflect the true identity of the congregation.
- Calling a Priest
A Search Team will handle the work of identifying a priest candidate for the Vestry to elect and call with the Bishop’s consent. The Vestry appoints the Search Team to exercise this ministry of discernment on behalf of the Vestry, and the Search Team fulfills the charge of the Vestry by conducting the search for the new priest. The responsibilities of the Search Team include: understanding the identity of the congregation from the parish profiles and their own experiences; working closely with the Bishop’s Office to identify candidates and conduct the search; being faithful in discernment and following a system for screening, interviewing, evaluating and notifying candidates; and nominating a candidate to the Vestry for possible election.
A healthy start for the new priest will involve an intentional orientation and evaluation throughout the first year.
No one can predict the exact amount of time needed for each step in the transition journey. A short process, when all of the parties and circumstances work together well, can be completed in twelve to eighteen months. The length of time to complete any given stage depends upon many variables, including the frequency of meetings, willingness of members to work independently and collaboratively, issues that need to be addressed (e.g., financial challenges or resolving conflict), and the length of time needed to develop consensus about the future direction of the congregation and develop the parish profiles. It is better to take longer and assure a happy outcome than to force the work into a preconceived idea of the “right” length of time. A realistic timeline is designed to achieve a balance between efficiency and a pace that encourages thoughtful discernment, caution and thoroughness.
A sample timeline might look like this:
Discernment and Profiles………………………………………..6 – 9 months
Receiving Names……………………………………………………2 months
Narrowing the Field………………………………………………..1 month
Phone Interviews…………………………………………………….1 month
Site Visits, In-person Interviews………………………………1 – 2 months
Time between call and arrival of new priest………………2 – 3 months
Total Time………………………………………………..12 – 18 months
Each congregation moves at its own pace and according to its own process of discernment; this timetable is suggested only as an aid in gauging progress and not for purposes of holding to a certain schedule.
For those eager for a process that is as efficient as possible, experience suggests that the following commitments by your Vestry and congregation can promote a more effective transition ministry and search:
- Interim priest or priest-in-charge. Congregations with resident interim priests or priests-in-charge generally address development tasks more efficiently.
- Openness to consultation. Willingness to collaborate with and rely on the wisdom of persons seasoned in the process prevents “blind-alley” and “reinventing-the-wheel” activities.
- Size of teams. Too many or too few members prolong the process. Experience suggests a range of seven to eleven is the best size for a Search Team; a Profile Team might be smaller.
- Number of candidates. Often, the fewer the candidates, the shorter the process.
- Seasonal considerations. There are many tasks to be done on a complicated schedule. During certain seasons (Christmastide and Holy Week/Easter come to mind) focus on those tasks is rightly broken. Summer vacations often dilute the intensity of effort.
The transition process is fairly linear, so it’s important to just focus on each next step. A goal is to fully follow the recommended processes of the Episcopal Church and this Diocese and possibly add some enhancements. We need to be flexible with each stage of the process to allow time for development tasks to strengthen the church community and for discernment and calling processes. There is often time added to the end of the process for working out the terms of the letter agreement, for a full background check and for the new priest to complete their current ministry and to move into the area.