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Before Christmas, I promised to publish some ideas about etiquette guidelines for search committees. I am still working that project.  A few of you have corresponded with me and I have held conversation with my deanery clergy and with clergy who come to me for coaching.  At this point I am not convinced publishing etiquette guidelines will necessarily solve the underlying problem.

Most clergy can site at least one example of being hurt in a search process.  I have yet to meet a clergyperson who has found the search process enjoyable and uplifting from beginning to end. In my conversations with search consultants and search committee members, I hear a similar unease about the search process.  I am not your there is an epidemic of bad manners, but reports are widespread enough to wonder if there is a systemic problem.

Why is it that so many participants in the search process, both clergy and search committee members, report some level of dissatisfaction with the process?  After all, we have promised to love each other as God loves us, so why is it hard to consistently treat each other with respect in job searches?  If there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current system, why is it so hard to change?

Tom Erhich, who led the Massachusetts pre-Lenten clergy retreat this year, offers an interesting response to this systemic problem.  Tom was talking about how hard the vocation of parish priest has become in our lifetimes.  He called our attention to the recent Executive Council presentation on church statistical trends http://www.scribd.com/doc/79692388/TECdata (Price and Hadaway).

Their study conclusively shows that the Episcopal Church has been in steady decline for almost fifty years.  Our decline has been somewhat steeper than other similar denominations, but all churches have experienced some shrinkage.  The decline in church participation parallels declines in all forms of self-organized communities documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

Putnam’s book should be required reading for anyone thinking about church decline.  Decline is impacting all forms of community, what Putnam calls “social capital.”  Having better liturgy, better clergy, or more polite search committees won’t solve the problem.  Church decline is part of a much larger social phenomena that is not susceptible to a quick fix.

Our institutional response to the decline follows many of the grieving patterns first noted  by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: fear, denial, anger, and, bargaining (or the search quick fix solutions).  Reports like the Price/Hadaway presentation may be the early steps of moving toward acceptance, though given the embarrassing infighting at the national church level, I don’t think we are there yet.

My theory is that the stress of long-term decline has negatively impacted our deployment practices and is the underlying cause of the bad etiquette experienced by clergy and search committees alike. Tom Ehrich focused on fear as a particularly strong demotivating factor.  Clergy fear whether they can find a job that is both spiritually and financially sustaining. Search committees fear whether they can find the perfect candidates with the right bag of tricks to reverse decline or at least maintain a sustainable level of church activity.

How do you think broader trends in church participation impact your sense of vocation?

Have you experienced symptoms of grieving in yourself when you are in discernment?

How do you think search committees are reacting to broader trends?

Is their behavior impacted by -trends in church growth and decline?

Do you think tinkering around the edges of our current discernment system will help, or should we experiment with radically different ways of managing our vocations? (Okay, I admit that’s a leading question.)

I will post some suggestions about etiquette in the search process shortly, but wanted to open up this broader topic for discussion first.