Tis the gift to be simple

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I have had several conversations recently with followers of this blog from around the country that all touched on the same theme: the maddeningly complicated nature of the church’s transition ministry process.

A priest in Province 2 called to ask whether there was a simple way to determine what parish positions are actually open and receiving names.  He complained that many that are listed as receiving names on the OTM have already closed to new applications.  Did he have to go to every diocesan website to find out what was open, when?

Unfortunately, there is no simple way to track openings.  The neither the OTM nor the Transition Ministry Newsletter are kept up to date by all participating dioceses.  Some individual diocesan websites appear out of date.  In my own diocese, the DioMass.org website lists eleven openings.  Only six are listed on the OTM Portfolio.  One is listed as “receiving names” on one site and “developing self study” on the other.  (BTW, Massachusetts has five rector searches in program or resource size congregations plus a search for a new diocesan. Come join us and get a Red Sox clergy pass to boot.)

A local priest asked to get some help with her OTM Portfolio.  She can’t sort out what goes where in an eight-section document.  As the resident expert, I thought I could handily walk her through the process.  After filling out about half the form, we tried to save our work, only to get an error message indicating that a “province” did not match a “country” and that the error was highlighted in red.  After spending fifteen minutes looking for the error, we chucked the work and started from the beginning, this time saving the data every few minutes.  I can see how clergy get frustrated by the mere process of filling out the OTM form.  Much of my time leading workshops is spent answering mundane technical questions about the form.  Must it be so complicated?

Several clergy have told me that they have sent applications into positions listed as “Receiving Names” on the OTM, only to discover that the position has already been filled.  The OTM Portfolio lists ten classifications for a parish in search: Search Complete, Receiving Names, No Longer Receiving Names, Developing Profile, Beginning Search, Interim in Place, Developing Self-study, Profile Complete, Seeking Interim,  Re-opened.  The Episcopal Digital Network Job Listings cuts through that complexity by asking a simple question, When is the application due?

The Clergy Deployment Office was established by the national church in the 1970s as “a proposed reorganization of Church practices in the deployment of its professional leadership”.  See full text here.  The name of the office has been changed twice, first to the Church Deployment Office, and then to the Office of Transition Ministries.  Each name change denotes added responsibilities and added complexity for the office.  The change from “clergy” to church” represents the addition of lay leadership deployment to the office’s remit.

The change to Office of Transition Ministries reflects a larger expansion of the office’s purview.  The OTM’s 2012-2015 Strategic Plan states: “The Vision/Purpose of the Board and Office for Transition Ministry is to facilitate transitions for effective mission and transformational ministry in the Church.”  The original focus on the deployment of professional leadership has expanded to providing guidance over all elements of a transition from one pastoral leader to another – leave taking, use of interims or priests-in charge, profile development, search processes, congregational development, etc.

The original CDO was “designed to house a modern “data bank” of up-to-date personnel records of all clergy,”.  Its purpose was to help clergy who ” don’t know where to turn” when they want to move.”  This original purpose seems to be lost in the current strategic plan.  The OTM 2012-2015 Strategic Plan mentions the current iteration of the data bank, the OTM Portfolio, only once.  The OTM Portfolio is one of twenty-five bullet points in the ministry section of the document.  Are we losing focus here?

What would happen if we tried to simplify the transition process and the OTM Portfolio? I welcome your comments and will add a few of my own in a future blog.

Are Search Committees Using the OTM System?

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A blog follower recently wrote: I have been looking over the OTM…What a mess, how do clergy actually search for positions?  Is there a listing anywhere of positions or do you have to wade thru everything?  What is interesting is that most of the profiles that I looked at were barely completed.

That question called for a bit of statistical analysis, so I recently sat down and looked through the OTM Ministry Portfolio, specifically, the “receiving names” list of the “search community ministry portfolios” section.  The “receiving names” list in theory contains listings of searches that have completed their profile and are actively compiling an initial list of candidates. I looked at the first six pages of the list, which included fifty-eight individual portfolios.  The results were disheartening.

Seventeen portfolios were completely filled out, including compensation, work history, and narrative sections.  Twenty-two were partially filled out, but did not have enough information for the OTM matching program to match the positions with potential applicants.  The matching program within the OTM system matches openings to clergy portfolios.  The matching program compares basic compensation information and basic skills found in the narrative section. Some of the partially filled out forms lacked compensation information.  Some lacked work history or narrative sections.  Nineteen lacked any information beyond a position being open.

This quick survey indicates less than a third of searches using the OTM system for anything beyond a positions open bulletin board.  It does not show how many searches are not using the OTM system at all.  Nor does it show how many clergy have completely filled out their portfolios.  My suspicion is that clergy completion rates are still fairly low, as clergy tend not to fill out these forms unless they are in active search.

Shouldn’t we be concerned that a program introduced two years ago has such low utilization rates?  I’d suggest a couple of changes in direction to increase utilization rates.  1.  Vastly simplify the program, understanding that end users seem to want a jobs bulletin board, rather than a computer matching program.  2.  Sponsor field training around the country to teach clergy and search consultants how to use the program to its fullest.

In the meantime, how should clergy search for positions?

  1. Fill out the OTM profile to the best of your ability, particularly the entire narrative essay question section.
  2. Use the “search community ministry portfolios” section as one of several jobs bulletin boards to identify where openings are.  The left side of this blog has a comprehensive selection of national, regional, and diocesan jobs listings.
  3. Work with your diocesan transition ministry officer.  Their networks with other TMOs are one of the more effective ways of getting your named placed in front of a search committee.
  4. Feel free to apply for an open position to the diocesan TMO or a search committee (depending on diocesan policy).
  5. Do not wait for search committee to call you. This is an increasingly rare occurrence.
  6. Network by being engaged in the life of your diocese and by attending continuing education programs where you can meet clergy and laity from around the country.
  7. Help your brother and sister clergy.  Let them know about the helpful information on this blog.  Urge your local clergy associations to work toward making the transition ministry system work better.

I would love to hear how you are experiencing the TMO system.  Has it helped you in your vocational discernment and searches?  If so, what components help?  What would you suggest for improving the system?

Chocolate and discernment

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I am blogging from the annual meeting of the Colonial Chocolate Society in Williamsburg this week.  As much as some of us believe that chocolate should be another sacrament that is not why I am here.  This is one of the fun events I attend as the overseer of an historic site.  Several colonial members of Old North were in the chocolate business and we are expanding our interpretive program on the topic.

The conference, sponsored by Mars Chocolate, is focused on brand marketing this year.  One of our speakers, from the advertising giant, BBDO, asserted that marketing had three basic goals.  What she said about historic sites and chocolate, applies well to our marketing task in the discernment process.  What then are the three goals of presenting ourselves to search committees according to this speaker?

  1. Get noticed – We need to stand out among the many candidates for a specific opening.  What is the unique blend of skills and values that makes us stand out among all candidates?  For example, M&M’s are colorful, fun chocolates.  Ms. Brown and Ms. Red are the cartoon characters that reinforce colorful and fun.  What makes you special?  How can you communicate that quickly?
  2. Be remembered – We need to make an emotional connection with search committees.  The intellectual connection, i.e. these are my skills and successes, will only get us so far.  Ultimately, the decision to call a specific priest is emotional (and often irrational in the best sense).  Search committee members are asking, do I want the next number of years of my spiritual journey with this person?
  3. Be understood – We need to communicate a sense of purpose and a sense of personality.  Search committees want to know what makes us tick.  Another speaker asserted that understanding is a two-way form of communication.  Her example was a dinner table companion who spent the evening talking about themselves.  At the end of such a one-way conversation, the listener is reduced to saying “uh huh” and “yes” while their mind has gone someplace else.  True understanding requires dialog, which is often hard for us as candidates to remember when in an interview.

The other point the marketing experts made several times was the importance of stories for conveying meaning.  Stories are easier for our minds to capture and retain than, for example, lists of facts.  Try this biblical exercise: remember these two biblical passages: the Beatitudes and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Which image is clearer and more expansive in your mind?  Can you cite all the Beatitudes from memory?  Do they evoke emotion?  Can you envision the characters in the Parable of the Prodigal Son?  Do they evoke an emotional response?

What are the stories that will help you get noticed, be remembered and be understood?  Are those the stories you tell in your essays and interviews?

Chocolate is a food that evokes a strong emotional response, which is why historic sites are including chocolate stories in their educational programs.  Given its power, I wonder if we could find the stories to justify making chocolate into a sacracment?

Discernment Doctor Workshop

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Dear readers,

Sorry to be away from the blog for a while, but we have been dealing with a terribly sad and unnecessary tragedy at Old North in the last few weeks that led to the untimely death of one of my colleagues.  I cannot comment publicly on the situation other than to say do not believe what you read in the press.   I can also commend my congregation as a wonderful, caring group of Episcopalians who are pastoring to each other and to me in the kindest and most creative ways imaginable.

The Massachusetts Episcopal Clergy Association is sponsoring a day long workshop, featuring your truly, at Christ Church, Plymouth, MA, on Thursday, December 13 from 9:00 until 3:00.   The workshop is entitled, “Preparing your Portfolio; a workshop to help you navigate your way through the “new” discernment process”  The fee, including lunch, is $25.  I am sure clergy from other dioceses will be welcome.  For more information contact: the Rev. Robert Hensley, Grace Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 1197, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.

I am available, from time to time, to lead workshops like this for travel expenses and a small honorarium.  If you would like to bring me to your diocese or seminary, please e-mail me at: stephentayres@gmail.com.

I am trying to find the time to write a blog in honor of the Red Sox by asking the question, “If you were to blow up the discernment process and start afresh, what parts would you trade to Los Angeles, what parts would you keep, and what new players would your seek?”  Your comments are welcome.

The Discernment Doctor Conducts a Search

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I have been rather quiet on this blog for the past month as I have been busy conducting a search for an assistant.  Now that we have successfully completed that task, let me share with you our process and my observations about the responses to the process.

The Old North Foundation was seeking an Assistant Director for Education.  This is a secular, museum position, requiring a masters in history or museum studies.  It is the equivalent of a full-time assistant rector position.  I learned of the vacancy on August 3, when the previous incumbent announced he had accepted an offer to lead a historical agency in Wellesley.  We hired a new assistant on September 10.

My first step was to secure interim coverage of essential parts of the job.  We promoted our lead tour guide from part-time to full-time and I assumed grants administration on a temporary basis.

The second step was to design the search process.  Our process was simple.  Advertise the position, screen resumes, conduct initial interviews to further screen the list, present final candidates to a small committee of the board, and make a final decision.  Only four people were involved in the process, which shortened the timeline considerably.  I led the effort, assisted by the Foundations other senior assistant, and two board members.

We wrote the job description, modifying previous job descriptions to reflect the evolution of the position.  We fill the job every three to five years, so the old descriptions did no need much tweaking.

The position was posted on a job site maintained by the Massachusetts Cultural Council called HireCulture.org.  It was also circulated to other history museums and societies in Boston.  Within two weeks we had received almost forty resumes from as far away as Florida.  Almost all met our minimum requirements for education and experience.

The gift shop manager and I selected seven candidates to invite for an interview.  Six responded.  After those interviews, we turned down two who did not have the requisite skills our experience.

The four finalists were invited back for second interviews with two board members ( a third had to back out due to a family illness), the gift shop manager, and myself.  One board member conducted phone interviews.  The other participated in half hour interviews with the gift shop manager and myself.

At the end of the interviews, I asked each interviewer to rank the candidates and comment on the skills and values they discerned in each candidate.  The interviewers felt that all four candidates were strong and could fulfill our expectations.  Two candidates seemed a bit stronger than the others.  I was left with the final decision.

The decisive factor in the final decision was that our chosen candidate was an internal candidate, already teaching our history program to elementary school students.  Both the gift shop manager and I were pleasantly surprised by our decision.  We began the process fully expecting to hire outside.  As this was a secular position, there was no prohibition against hiring from within.  We debated briefly how the decision might impact the rest of the guide staff, and concluded that the impact would be minimal and mostly positive.

When we issued the first invitations to interview, I informed all other candidates by e-mail that we would not be able to offer them an interview.  I received several responses thanking me for getting back to them, noting how often they applied a job and never heard anything.  One said, “That is the nicest turn down letter I have ever received.”   Clergy, please note, the widespread lack of communication we experience in church searches is endemic of a widespread rudeness in secular culture.

One of our board members asked a great question of each candidate that was new to me.  “How do you manage up?”  This is the perfect question to ask potential subordinates as it recognizes that those of us with final authority may not always be right.  I wonder when interviewing candidates for rector or bishop, whether we should ask them, “How do you encourage subordinates to manage up to you?”

I dreaded having to call the unsuccessful final candidates, having been through that a number of times.  It is not easy to say no to someone who has impressed you.  The conversations were all very short.  I could hear the disappointment in their voices.  One candidate e-mailed me shortly after our conversation asking for feedback.  I could honestly tell her that she had been very impressive, but that the final decision was made on a factor out of her control, as we chose an internal candidate.  Clergy note: in my experience, final decisions are often made on factors outside of our control.  The decision is not that we are not good enough, but that someone else possesses a set of skills and values that fit better than ours do.

Why were we able to move so quickly?

  1. This was a secular process, where short searches are the norm.
  2. This was an assistant, not an executive position.
  3. Only four people participated.  Our church’s proclivity to appoint large committees is inefficient.
  4.  We used a secular jobs bulletin board that is closely watched by professionals in the field.  We were not worried about call vs. discernment theology.
  5. We were confident enough to make our first cut based on the resume and cover letter.  We did not require additional writing samples.
  6. We did not reference check until the end of the process.  Reference checks do not generally yield much useful information for decision makers.  All candidates provide positive references and in the secular world, references rarely will make a derogatory comment for fear of being sued.  References can help affirm a decision that has pretty much been made.
  7. We were not trying to find the one, preordained, perfect match.  Rather we were trying to find a candidate who would exceed our expectations.  As Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Throughout the search process, we tried to treat all candidates with respect.  Responses to communications from candidates were prompt.  The timeline was made clear.  Interviewees were told when they would learn of a decision.  No candidate spent more than a few weeks of psychic energy thinking about this job.  We never contacted any of the candidates’ current workplaces.

Now some may say, “As a church, we must do things differently when it comes to clergy searches.”  To which I would respond, “Must that always be the case?”

Transition and Discernment Issues at General Convention

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Confession:  With all due respect to the great state of Indiana, I’d go to Indianapolis in July only if I wanted a foretaste of my possible eternal reward for being too snarky about the church’s most holy transition ministry system.  The following comments are based solely on my reading of published documents.  I was not there and have no inside information.

I only see three GC resolutions that have a direct bearing on the transition ministry system.  All three, A143, A144, and DO31, call for greater affirmative actions efforts on behalf of women and other minorities.  Clearly, the church perceives an ongoing problem.  The question is, will these particular resolutions help address our affirmative action challenges, and if not, what other policies might we try to implement?

I’ve worked on affirmative actions solutions for more than twenty years in Massachusetts.  In the early 1990s, I authored a diocesan convention resolution calling for the appointment of women and minorities as interims and priests-in-charge.  Once the resolution passed, I pressured the then reluctant bishop to enforce the resolution.  The policy is still in place and fairly effective.  About ten years ago, I served on a task force to update our diocesan deployment policy manual.  A convention resolution had called for the task force to beef up the affirmative action component.  We ended up writing sixty page bureaucratic search committee manual, which I am sure most search committee glance at briefly.  I doubt we had much impact on affirmative action.

A143 calls for the national church through the Office of Transition Ministries, the Office of Pastoral Development, and the Committee on the Status of Women to develop a “Search Tool Kit” with two purposes.  The first would be to give helpful information about the search process to women applicants.  The second would be to give information to search committees about the nature and impact of discriminatory hiring practices.

IMHO, Discernment Doctor comes close to fulfilling the first purpose of the proposed search tool kit.  Useful information about resume writing, OTM writing, interview preparation, etc., can all be found on this blog.  I would be happy to post an article or two that addresses discernment specifically from women’s and or minority points of view.  Send me your contributions and comments.

From my experience in Massachusetts, giving search committees reading material on affirmative action has little impact on their behavior.  Rather than relying on written material, DioMass policy is to monitor the search process and intervene if the list of candidates is not sufficiently diverse: The Diocesan Office will engage in conversation with the Search Committee throughout the process and reserves the right to add names if the slate does not reflect the Diocesan commitment to diversity.

A144 focuses on Episcopal offices and calls on the Office of Pastoral Development to monitor the ratio of female and minority candidates to white, male candidates in Episcopal nominations and elections, make recommendations on how to improve the ratio, and advise bishop search committees about affirmative action practices.  The explanation notes that while the number of female finalists has been steadily rising, the number actually elected to the episcopate still falls far short of where we could be.

Research is helpful, but I would expand the scope of this survey far beyond the activities in episcopal elections.  What systems do we have in place to mentor younger female and minority clergy so they grow into good candidates for the episcopate?

DO31 calls on bishops to require search committees and vestries to attend an affirmative action workshop as part of the discernment process.

Could we build those workshops around case studies of parishes/dioceses that have experienced female or minority leadership as a blessing?  I have been to far too many church workshops that focus on what is bad about racism, sexism, gender bias, etc. but fail to give my leadership team positive images about the blessings of operating in a non-sexist, non racist fashion.  My gut sense is search committees, vestries, and electing conventions make traditional decisions because we are “playing it safe” in these challenging times.  Telling us that is wrong is not as likely to change our behavior as giving us successful case studies of women or minority clergy in leadership positions.

The next General Convention could see more resolutions impacting transition ministry as the church restructures herself for the 21st century (one can always hope.)  My hope is that transition ministry will be treated as piece of a larger human resource management system that is focused on recruiting and sustaining the best team of clergy to serve the church.  Such a system would include ordination, seminary (or other) education, mentoring, transition/discernment, clergy health, insurance, pensions, etc.   To my knowledge, the last time General Convention took a comprehensive look at transition ministry was back in the early 1970s, when the Clergy Deployment Office was first established.  Lets get a conversation going.

 

OTM 2.0

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In late June, clergy should have received the following correspondence from the Office for Transition Ministry:

Version 2.0 of the OTM Portfolio will roll out the first week of July with many upgrades including requests from users, a newly enhanced search functionality, and three new Narrative questions.  Logging in to your account at www.otmportfolio.org will lead you to find:

  • The ability to add a new degree in education or position in work history with ease
  • The opportunity to review many of your recent Ministry Portfolio revisions and revert to any one of them yourself
  • An option to view a list of positions identified as ‘Currently Receiving Names’ on the home page of the website before even logging in
  • The ability to identify a worshipping community and search the database for ‘More Like This’
  • The ability to now create and organize lists of your search results
  • The opportunity to refine your gifts & skills according to the help text provided

Upon deployment of Version 2.0 you may want to log-in and answer the three new Narrative questions:

  • What is your personal practice of stewardship and how do you utilize it to influence your ministry in your worshipping community?
  • What is your experience of conflict involving the church? And what is your experience in addressing it?
  • What is your experience leading/addressing change in the church? When has it gone well? When has it gone poorly? And what did you learn?

The Board and Office for Transition Ministry want to make the experience of engaging with the Ministry Portfolio both smooth and satisfying. We are also striving to use this tool to elicit and communicate to the wider Episcopal Church the profound gifts and talents, and calls to ministry of our worshipping communities, clergy and lay leaders. Please know that you are invited to communicate directly with us about your experience with the Ministry Portfolio or ideas for future enhancements at: support@otmportfolio.org.

How do these changes impact clergy using the OTM Portfolio?  Here is a review of each of the changes outlined above.  The most significant change is the addition of three new narrative questions.  Clergy should fill those out asap.  Other changes don’t work as promised or may have unintended consequences.

The ability to add a new degree in education or position in work history with ease

There are new orange buttons on the Education/Continuing Education and Work History pages that make adding new information much easier.

The opportunity to review many of your recent Ministry Portfolio revisions and revert to any one of them yourself

There is a third tab at the top of the Update My Portfolio page entitled “Revisions” that brings up the history of all changes made to your OTM Portfolio.

The “Revisions” tab also appears on top of parish Community Portfolio pages, enabling clergy to view the editing process of parish profiles.  I am not sure that this is intentional, and I hope that search committees or DTMs cannot view the editing history of clergy profiles.

An option to view a list of positions identified as ‘Currently Receiving Names’ on the home page of the website before even logging in

This list is in “pdf” form and is not updated daily, so it is not very useful.  Clergy should continue to log in and go to the “Search Community Ministry Portfolios” section for up to date information.

The ability to identify a worshipping community and search the database for ‘More Like This’

This feature does not work.  On the Search Results page under each parish listing is an orange line “Show More Results Like This”.   A sample I clicked on for a rural Southern parish offering a salary of $65,000 with an asa of 100 yielded a list including parishes offering salaries from $15,000 to $140,000 from small rural to major urban settings.  Many of the parishes in the list were not currently searching for rectors.

The ability to now create and organize lists of your search results

When perusing the Search Results page, you can create a list of Community Portfolios for further investigation by clicking on “Add to list”.  You also have the option of creating multiple lists of you own definition.

The opportunity to refine your gifts & skills according to the help text provided

This refers to the boxes entitled “Primary Gifts/Skills Engaged:” found on the Work History & Skills page.  This feature does not work.  The text below the box instructs clergy to “Enter no more than four descriptions made up of one or two-words each.”  When I began typing a skill into the box, a list of supposedly similar skills used on parish portfolios popped up.  The words were not that similar, the phrases were longer than two words, and did not fit into the pop-up box.  Clergy should ignore the pop-up box for now and just enter four one or two word skills.

The “Primary Gifts/Skills Engaged:” box is designed to be compared to a similar list of desired skills on parish portfolios.  Given the problems with this feature, clergy and parish search committees cannot rely on the OTM system to generate meaningful matches.

Upon deployment of Version 2.0 you may want to log-in and answer the three new Narrative questions:

The Narrative section of the OTM Portfolio is probably the most popular and successful feature on the system. Search committees expect clergy to answer all the questions.  The three new questions were added to cover areas not covered in the original set of questions: stewardship, conflict management, and change.

One of the basic principles of Appreciative Inquiry is that questions shape our social construction of reality.  Are we asking the right questions to shape a better future for the church?  For example, by looking for conflict resolution skills, are we anticipating that conflict management will continue to be a central occupation of the church?  If that is the case, how are we ever going to reverse current declines?  Perhaps I’ll blog further on this topic and welcome your thoughts.

In sum, I hope that the TMO staff can quickly correct the problems noted above and wonder why OTM 2.0 was released without anyone detecting these issues.

Interim Ministry in Transition

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The Alban Institute’s Dan Hotchkiss just published an article on the evolution of interim ministry theory and practice.  Given that the Alban Institute wrote the book on interim ministry, it is interesting to hear a senior staff member reflect on increasing criticism of the practice.

http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=9964

Hotchkiss writes:  Over the last decade, the consensus in support of interim ministry has softened somewhat. 

 Carolyn Weese and Russell Crabtree, in The Elephant in the Boardroom (Jossey-Bass 2004), complain that the “prevailing stream of thinking about leadership transitions tends to be illness- based. A pastoral transition is treated like a terminal diagnosis….” (p. 19) Ouch!  

Hotchkiss cites a recent article by Norman Bendroth, a long time interim ministry practitioner who surveyed current thinking about the interim system:

http://macucc.s3.amazonaws.com/71BBE2C7B9B049B0883D51809D9A1E82_Rethinking%20Transitional%20Ministry.pdf

Bendroth writes: Anthony B. Robinson, a seasoned United Church of Christ pastor, author and consultant has recommended that “Tall Steeple” churches, in particular, might consider a “succession” model where the newly called pastor overlaps the outgoing pastor so the church does not lose momentum.

How effective is transitional ministry? There is a crying need for longitudinal studies to be done across denominational lines that will provide quantitative results. To date that has not been done,

Here in the Diocese of Massachusetts, a recent transition in our transition ministry office led to a lively discussion among our bishop and area deans about the future of transition ministry.  Bishop Shaw cited statistics that show that interims often slow down a congregation’s momentum, that attendance and pledges often drop during the interim period.  He noted that, given the unpredictability of many transitions, it is difficult to find good interim ministers in a timely fashion.  He expressed openness to trying the planned succession model mentioned by Weese and Crabtree and Anthony Robinson.  Our largest inner city church used the succession model several years ago and is flourishing.  The deans noted that another model – appointment of a priest in charge as a prelude to calling that priest as rector, was increasingly popular.

Here at Old North, we are developing a long-range plan focused on our three hundredth birthday in eleven years.  The wardens approached me about including succession planning as I will probably retire within that timeframe.  They are intrigued with the idea of bringing an associate on who would be eligible to become rector.

The practice of interim ministry will continue to evolve as the church restructures herself for effective ministry in the 21st century.  The articles cited above are useful introductory reflections.  I agree with Norman Bendroth that we need some serious independent studies on what has or has not worked well in the church as well as studies of best practices in other business and non-profit organizations.

 

 

 

 

Demographics, Discernment, and a Summer Reading Recommendation

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In my role as the Discernment Doctor, I try to focus like a hawk on issues affecting clergy career development.  But as our careers are developing (or coming to a conclusion) in an institution that is struggling now, I occasionally feel the need to look at the big picture.  Discerning our own futures is interwoven with discerning the future of the church we love and serve.

I have just started reading Jill Lepore’s new book, The Mansion of Happiness, A History of Life and Death.  If you like non-fiction, I strongly recommend that you add this to your summer reading list.  It will get my vote for a future reading for my church book club.

The book title and introduction explore American perceptions of the meaning of life as expressed in Milton Bradley’s phenomenally successful board game, Life.  The first version of the game was developed by the original Milton Bradley on the eve of the Civil War.  That game, played on a checkerboard, was a mixture of morality and materialism.  When Milton Bradley, the company, reissued Life in 1960, the game was all materialism.  He who retires with the most money wins.

Lepore made a sociological observation about how changing demographics impacts our view of history and of questions about the meaning of life.  Around 1800, the average American family had seven children and the average American lifespan was around forty years.  In 2010 the average American family has less than two children and the average lifespan approached eighty years.

In response to this dramatic demographic change, Lepore notes that our understanding of life has straightened out.  Where we once observed life as circular, life is now experienced as linear.  Lepore writes:

“In 1800, the fertility rate in the United States was over seven births per woman, the average age of the population was sixteen, and the life expectancy was under forty.  By 2010, the fertility rate had fallen to barely two, the average age of the population had risen to thirty-seven, and the average American could expect to live to nearly eighty….

When life lengthened, all those circles became lines…Meanwhile, the contemplation of life and death moved from the humanities to the sciences,…

When thinking about life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, the light of history dimmed.  The future trumped the past.  Youth vanquished age, and death grew unthinkable”.

Could Lepore’s observation about the dimming of the light of history be made about a dimming of the light of Christ?  I wonder how much the “straightening out of life” accounts for the shrinking popularity of the church and of the Christian message in America.  Churches across the theological spectrum are shrinking.  Yes a few megachurches are growing, but on average, religious affiliation is declining, while polls show “no religion” is increasing.  Even here at Old North, our Sunday attendance dipped a bit last year after several years of steady, if small growth.

Certainly, decreasing family size accounts for some of the decline as the church’s  primary form of evangelism is to baptize children of current members.  The church flourished during the 1950s as post World War Two families gave birth to a baby boom (including me) and launched new suburbs with new churches.  Once the baby boom subsided, so did church growth.

I wonder whether long term demographic changes have had a subtler and deeper impact on how our faith is received. As life lengthens, do individuals confront the same core theological questions our ancestors did?  Birth and death are experienced less frequently in our modern lives than they were two hundred years ago.  Moreover, birth and death tend to be isolated from society.  They occur in hospitals and nursing homes, not at home.  Are we then less likely to ask questions about what happens after death?  Do we postpone asking those questions until our own deaths feel relatively close?

Does the church proclaim the Christian faith in a way that is more attuned to larger families and shorter life spans?   Is John 3:16 (to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.) still the most important summary of the Gospel?  Is the primary role of clergy to be pastors to help families through life transitions of birth, illness, and death?  Do we view sin primarily as an obstacle to eternal life, or as an affront to our fellow human beings?  Is the eucharist a sacrifice to bring us closer to eternal life, or a shared meal to bring us closer to each other?  I am not suggesting that we stop believing in eternal life, stop pastoring each other through life challenges, stop repenting our sins, or stop celebrating the eucharist.  Perhaps we need to rethink what each of these theologies and activities mean in the context of lengthened lives.

Different Christian themes have been emphasized in different Christian eras.  These themes are all found in our large and ancient tradition, but they vary in importance from era to era depending on the existential, economic, and political issues faced by the living communities of faith at the time.  What themes are we currently de-emphasizing, and more importantly, what ancient Christian themes can help us address the spiritual challenges of the twenty-first century?

Might we understand recent church battles over sexual identity and family structure as attempts to adjust the church’s theology and practice to changing demographics and to lives less focused on birth and death?  The difference in responses to these issues by the Western church versus the church in the developing world may be a reflection of differing demographic realities between developed and developing worlds.

What are the spiritual questions that seem most pressing in your longer and healthier life?  What stories from our ancient tradition will help you understand the purpose of life as we now live it?  As The Mansion of Happiness, A History of Life and Death points out, our core values are changing in response to changing demographic, technological, economic, and social change.  Where do we find God in that change?  How can our history help us understand the future to which God is calling us and calling our church?

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