The Episcopal Diocese of  
of Western Massachusetts

Canon Richard M. Simpson 
                   September 2015
    From the Rev. Canon Richard M. Simpson

A long time ago in a galaxy far away (September 2012 to be precise) a new bishop-elect named Doug Fisher moved onto the floor at 37 Chestnut Street. A few months later (in December) he was consecrated to serve as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. In the summer of 2013, at Bishop Fisher's request, Pam Mott and I joined Steve Abdow (who got a new title, Canon for Mission Resources) as "senior staff." But what would we do and more importantly, what would we be called?
During Bishop Scruton's tenure, Canon Sarah Shofstall served as the Transition Officer, while Archdeacon Bill Coyne served as the Congregational Development Officer. As for Pam and me, it was not immediately clear who would do what. But as we talked and prayed (and then talked and prayed some more) we began to imagine a different way to share this work together. And so it came to pass that I was given primary responsibility for working with the Worcester County congregations doing both transition ministry and congregational development work there, while Pam was given primary responsibility for working with the Berkshire and Pioneer Valley congregations, also doing both transition ministry and congregational development work. There are other aspects of our jobs and things that the bishop sometimes thinks up in the middle of the night - but basically this division of labor recognizes that context matters and also that the line between transition work and congregational development is a fuzzy one. This way we each get more time to know the people among whom we work while also having a friend and colleague in the other to bounce ideas off of. After much conversation we came to the understanding that we'd both be called Canon to the Ordinary - which narrowly beat out "Thing One and Thing Two."
So we've now been at it for more than two years. So far, it seems to be working. We are still learning...
I take you on this trip down memory lane as a prelude to letting you know that one of the fruits of this labor on the transition side of things has been the development of a Clergy Transition Manual that you can now find on the diocesan website here. Please check it out.
Both Pam and I are very clear that every situation of a clergy transition is unique. That is to say, it matters whether a rector has been in place for fifteen years or three, and whether a position is full-time or part-time and whether there has been conflict or things have been humming along. Even so, we are learning there are some best practices, and definitely some worst practices. There are healthy ways clergy can say goodbye, and less healthy ways. Clarity and boundaries around what it means to end a pastoral relationship (which does not mean the priest no longer cares!) may be the most important thing that needs to happen to make room for a new, healthy hello; but sadly too often goodbyes are unclear, ambiguous, and even avoided.
There are better and worse attitudes about facing transitions: some parishes embrace change, ready for the next adventure, while others are terrified and paralyzed. All of which is to say that one size definitely doesn't fit all. We work with real people in real congregations.
Even so, we are part of a diocese; this manual is offered as a means to convey not just technical "information" but to provide at least the framework for a theological vision for what this ministry can be about. So I encourage you to check it out.
Undergirding it is a deep commitment to seeing clergy transitions as a time when the Holy Spirit is working overtime; it therefore becomes our work as diocesan leaders and as congregational leaders to see what She is up to in these times of transition so we can support that work; and conversely to try not to get in Her way.
If your congregation has gone through a clergy transition in the past few years, I invite you to read through this manual and then send Pam or me an email. How does this manual reflect what you learned? What isn't here that ought to be? What suggestions might you make for improvement? Our work with all of you has shaped this manual but we both know it is Version 1.0 and we expect there to be revised editions as we continue to grow and learn. We really would love to hear from you.
If your congregation is in the midst of a clergy transition, I invite you not only to read through this manual as we walk this journey with you, but keep notes. Again, we'll learn and grow and revise along the way - and your willingness to use these materials will help us to figure out what works well and what needs to be updated.
And finally, if your congregation is not currently facing a clergy transition - don't worry. That day will surely come. The last issue of Abundant Times was on the theme of embracing change and the truth is that clergy transitions are a part of all that. In the meantime it helps to know that the Church is a people - not a rector. This manual may help you, even now, to reflect on the work that lies ahead and to be ready for that work when it does come. If you are a priest who is thinking about moving or retirement, I encourage you to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest especially Appendices B-E. As mentioned above, good goodbyes open the door for healthy hellos and it is mostly the clergy who set the tone for all that.
I just want to add that I find this work incredibly rewarding. I try to remind parishes early on that priests are not one-size-fits-all. The goal is not to go out and find a perfect priest hiding somewhere like "Where's Waldo?" The goal is to find a good match, which means the first and maybe most important aspect of this work for a congregation (after they say goodbye to the former priest) is to discover, and rediscover, and claim their own sense of mission and vision. A priest who is a good fit for an urban parish in Worcester might be completely out of sorts in the Berkshires, and vice-versa. The only way I know to make good healthy "matches" is for both congregations and clergy to be honest and real - not only about their strengths but also about their challenges. I used to say when I was the rector of St. Francis, Holden that I was lucky to have found them because I wasn't sure I would have been at my best in any other parish in the diocese. It wasn't that they were the best or that I was but rather that we "fit together" for that season of my life and theirs so well. I'm learning that when that happens there is joy and purpose and both priest and congregation are enriched. (This does NOT mean there won't be some growing pains along the way and some conflict, but that is a whole other 21st Century Congregations post!)
The parishes I have worked with as Canon to the Ordinary in calling new rectors will all attest (I hope!) to the fact that I encourage depth and honesty in the narrative of their parish "profile" (whether written out fully or expressed in an updated website and brochure.) I tell clergy the same thing. We don't all preach like Michael Curry! Pretending to be other than who you are is a recipe for disaster.
You will find two changes in policy for us as a diocese in this manual that are significant and that everyone should be aware of. First of all, I put "profile" in quotes in the preceding paragraph. We have moved from a print era to an electronic age. Yet until very recently most parish profiles have followed the same template we used thirty years ago when we were taking profiles off to the printer and running off 100 copies. And yet a profile - as much work as it requires - is a little bit like those pictorial directories that are so maddening; they represent a snapshot in time, and the instant that they are printed out, they become dated. Someone dies, someone is born, the congregation changes...
So we are now recommending that the profile energy go into upgrading their websites, which is where potential clergy go to look and learn about a parish anyway. (This is also where visitors go before they come through your doors on a Sunday morning but this, too, is a post for another day!) If the website is solid and if it tells a story about who you are and what you are about, then the information that was formerly in a profile can now be condensed to something brochure-sized. Along with the questions answered on the Community Profile for the Transition Ministry Office, this gives a lot of information and has the advantage of being able to keep up with real time.
Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, we are recommending that the Search Committee present a "slate" to the Vestry who will now conduct final interviews, much in the same way the Bishop Search Process worked. One of the canonical oddities of past practice in our diocese has been that Search Committees picked one name and then presented that single candidate to a vestry that until that point was largely "in the dark." The candidate was unknown to them and usually the vestry was unknown to the candidate. And yet, if the call is accepted, the new rector will soon be working with the vestry; not with the search committee. Many other dioceses have made this change long before us here in Western Massachusetts, and Pam and I are convinced by countless conversations with Transition Officers in those dioceses that this is the right thing to do.
Going forward, ideally the Search/Discernment Committee will present three finalists to the vestry who will then conduct those final interviews in person, on site. At this point the Search Committee will have completed their work; and the VESTRY will make the final choice from those three. This also allows a fresh set of eyes and ears to connect with finalists at a time when many Search Committees are often feeling weary, or have settled on their own "favorites." It is accurate to say that this takes some authority away from Search Committees and gives it back to the elected leaders - the vestry - but we are convinced that this is where this authority appropriately should rest.
So again I'll say it - and I'm grateful if you've read this far: this manual is only a guide, and it will only ever be as good as the canon, vestry, profile and search committees that use it. But we believe it will be a helpful tool, and we offer it to the diocese at this time in our life together in that spirit. Both Pam and I enjoy walking this journey with congregations on behalf of our Bishop - and one of the things we are learning is that it is an opportunity for spiritual growth and congregational development. When we do it well, the congregation is poised to write the next chapter together, always with God's help.