Hi. I’m new to the blogosphere and not exactly looking for something to fill up empty moments in my day. But I’ve been encouraged to contribute because I’m involved in exploring a merger between the parish I serve as rector and a neighbouring congregation. If you are looking for expert advice, you are in the wrong place. I’m new at this. So why am I contributing to this blog? I’m excited enough about the potential for new life coming out of this process that I’d like to share my excitement with others. I’m hopeful that contributing to a blog will help me more deeply process what’s happening. In sharing, I hope that I won’t feel quite so alone and vulnerable. Maybe, over time, we’ll feel like we are together on an amazing journey of God’s renewing the face of the earth.
For all the uniqueness of my particular situation, there are universal principles at play. I suspect that the quickest road to the universal truths we’d love to possess is through getting deep into the specific and personal. I’m imagining sharing a few vignettes from the process in which I’m engaged and exploring what may be some of the universals that are at play.
The Great Reveal (sharing the idea of exploring a merger)
I’ve chosen the first vignette “The Great Reveal” because regardless of the particular circumstances the moment will come when it will be revealed to the entire congregation that a specific merger is under consideration. Much that is unique took place before our Great Reveal. In the fall of 2013 Grace Church having decided that the status quo was no longer working established a Futures Committee to consider various possibilities going forward including merging with another congregation or moving to a more affordable location. A series of meetings to explore the future of Anglicanism in the Greater St. Catharines area involving all 11 Anglican congregations provided a venue to casually search out potential partners. At these meetings Grace and St. George’s seemed at times to be kindred spirits. These parishes shared a passion for outreach to the local community as well as being self-described as future-oriented and progressive. St. George’s characterises itself as “The oldest church with the youngest ideas.” An identifying legacy of Grace is its early adoption of the Book of Alternative Services and being one of the sites at which the first female priests were ordained in Canada. This sense of being kindred spirits, perhaps more than any other factor, led the rectors and later lay leaders to consider the possibility of exploring St. George’s and Grace joining together in ministry at the St. George’s site.
Much time and concerted effort preceded sharing the news with the congregations. At Grace Church, this included vetting the idea first on a Futures Committee. The proposal to explore joining ministries with St. George’s was then shared with the Wardens and finally with the Parish Council. With each iteration of sharing the proposal, a similar pattern emerged—initial grief, care-filled listening, and in time, willingness to enter into the exploration.
Informed by the response of parish leaders to the proposal, we worked hard to incorporate into the general announcement assurances that had helped the leadership to come on board. The rectors crafted jointly the letter on behalf of the Corporations of both parishes (i.e., clergy and senior lay leaders). We acknowledged “that this exploration will involve many questions and concerns, hopes and fears, as well as sadness…” We prepared carefully in the hope that a clear and well-presented proposal would instil confidence. The Bishop, at our request, provided a brief memo indicating his support for the proposed exploration. His memo was read along with the letter.
On Sunday, July 3rd, a letter was read at Grace and St. George’s stating “our congregations are entering into an intentional conversation to explore joining together in ministry.” We read the same letter at both churches. At Grace, the wardens and deputy wardens read the letter aloud and made copies available to anyone who wanted one. Knowing the emotional impact the announcement would have on themselves and the congregation, the wardens acknowledged their own mix of emotions. They wore badges identifying themselves as “Weepy #1 and Weepy #2,” but they also wore badges—“Hopeful and Inspired.” Teary eyes were common among the speakers and the congregation.
Sharing the news with the entire congregation was qualitatively different from sharing it in smaller groups. Reassurances that had been effective among a small group were deficient in the midst of the emotional shock in a relatively large group (40-50). The slick presentation came across as a sales pitch and raised scepticism. Some interpreted the tears of sadness and compassion that the wardens shed as indicating that they were being forced to read something against their will. Rather than hearing the Bishop’s memo as simply lending valued support to a home-grown possibility, some concluded that this merger was being imposed by the diocese.
In the larger setting, it was not possible to spend the time and do the deep listening that was so helpful in bringing the leadership on board. The issues were compounded by the timing of the announcement. Holiday schedules and concerns that the news might leak out given the number of people in the circle of confidence led to announcing the exploration at the start of summer and just a week before I left for a month’s vacation. I was not there to deal with the immediate fall-out. The wardens and deputy wardens did a fantastic job ensuring things didn’t boil over while I was away. Looking back I’m not sure any time is the “right time” for the kind of news we shared.
So what “universal” truths do I observe as I look back on The Great Reveal? The first will be hard for those who like to be in control—“we cannot control what will happen.” This is especially true when something as emotionally upsetting as leaving a cherished sacred space is involved. Second, the chasm between knowing there is a problem and agreeing to explore a specific way forward is huge and cannot be traversed with a well-crafted letter. It had been three years since the congregation had agreed that we should be exploring options but with the Great Reveal it all became very real. Third, regardless of the level of trust that has been earned, in a matter so close to the heart of a congregation as leaving its building, clergy should expect scepticism and push-back. Getting defensive or arguing will be unhelpful. I remember reminding myself at coffee hour immediately after the Great Reveal—“just listen”. Fourth, taking the time to actively listen to their questions and concerns is as important as having the right answers for people. Effective ways to listen should be incorporated into any proposed merger plans—having a history of being a good listener will pay huge dividends here. I remind myself that Grace is their parish. I need to listen so I can lead this particular congregation using my particular leadership skills and styles. A box at the back of the church inviting questions and comments, while helpful, is woefully inadequate for the level of communication necessary. It is helpful to keep your ear to the ground and take the rumour mill seriously. Fifth, preparing for what we did expect was not wasted effort, rather those preparations made us better able to respond to the unexpected. There will be surprises along the way. Being well prepared puts us in a better position to respond to those surprises.
I’ve listed below some other vignettes that I could reflect upon. Which if any of these might you find helpful?
- “I can’t lead this” (my anxiety attack before the town hall meeting and how I dealt with it)
- Good Grief (what grief looks like in our parish aka my interpretation of our town hall meeting)!
- How did we get here anyhow (trust and distrust in process aka uncovering our tracks)?
- Who’s afraid of the big bad—fill in the blank here—(discovering what we are afraid of)?
- The horse is out of the barn! (keeping up with the chaos)