Weekly Lifelines 10/25/2020

A while back, it dawned on me that my work at St. Luke’s has been more like the work of an interim priest than that of a rector. The distinction between these two roles is important and, unfortunately, isn’t usually well-understood. I want to shed some light on those differences and their implications for our faith community.

The rector’s job is often pretty difficult to define. That’s in part because each faith community is different and so each needs different things from its rector. One might need a compelling preacher, another an out-front social justice leader. An intimate pastoral caregiver might be top of the list for some. A different community might need a dedicated liturgist to steward its elaborate liturgical tradition. In each case, the rector’s focus arises from the faith community’s clear vision of God’s calling to them, whether that be worship, discipleship, service, or something else. Since each community has its own call from God, each rector will be called to a unique focus.

An interim priest, on the other had, has a pretty clear—and universal—job description. No matter the parish, an interim has three major goals:

  • Help the congregation deal with a sense of loss and any unresolved issues arising from the rector’s departure.
  • Deal with internal conflicts and help heal any divisions within the congregation.
  • Help the Vestry, lay leaders, and staff make such changes as may be needed to align parish life and administration with generally accepted standards in the Diocese.

That’s it. The interim doesn’t start big projects or kick off new initiatives. In fact, an interim generally has limited responsibility for on-going ministries. Rather than being in charge of them, during the interim period, all of the church’s ministries are understood to be a mutual ministry of the laity and interim priest (excepting things only a priest can do, like administering sacraments). Episcopalians tend to call any priest serving between rectors an interim, but we’re hit-or-miss on whether we charge that person with actually doing interim ministry as defined above. It’s not uncommon for the so-called interim to really be a long-term supply priest, tasked only with the sacramental stuff but not with true interim work.

When I accepted the call to serve as your rector, I believed I’d be doing rector work. Everybody did. We all thought St. Luke’s stood on a stable foundation and had a clear vision for what God was calling us to do. At some point (I don’t know exactly when), it became clear that this wasn’t really true. A history of declining attendance and deficit budgets revealed a foundation that was in need of some serious rehab. Once-strong ministries struggled to find enough volunteers and burned out their leaders. People left in frustration. The struggle to decide which ministries to focus on and which to retire revealed that we weren’t clear about God’s call to us. We only knew that God’s call had built our status quo, and so we worked to preserve it at any cost. In addition, in just the last few months, outside consultants have helped the vestry to see the huge gaps in our administrative structure. To name just a few, we don’t have current job descriptions for vestry, officers, or staff; expectations for leadership (rector and vestry) are unclear, often conflicting, and generally overwhelming; and there is a huge amount of ambiguity about how to make decisions and who carries them out. In short, our expectation (rector, vestry, and laity moving together toward God’s call) is constantly being undermined by a crumbling foundation and lack of vision.

And on top of all that, we’re in the midst of a pandemic that’s disrupted absolutely everything about how we come together as community for prayer, sacrament, mutual support, fellowship, and discernment. We’re in a tough spot!

Lest this lead anyone to despair, let’s be clear: This isn’t bad news and it’s not doom and gloom. This is good news. St. Luke’s has been struggling to move together in one direction, struggling to gain traction on nearly everything, because we’ve been operating on a deeply flawed set of assumptions. We’ve been trying to move from a stable foundation, which doesn’t exist, toward a shared vision, which we don’t have. And now, for the first time in years, we know what the problem is. Now that we know it, now that we know where we actually are, we can begin to do the work that we need to do. Namely, shore up our foundation and discern what God is calling us to do. Or, in other words, interim work.

Our task for the next chapter of St. Luke’s life is to do what’s outlined above:

  • Deal with the sense of loss and any unresolved issues arising our past.
  • Deal with internal conflicts and help heal any divisions within the congregation.
  • Help the Vestry, lay leaders, and staff align our parish life and administration with generally accepted standards in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota.

This isn’t navel-gazing. It’s not retreating from our call in order to do nothing. This is our call. We can not make meaningful progress on any outward-facing project until our foundation is secure and our call is clear. We want to be a house of prayer for all people, a forge that builds strong disciples, and a home base for people engaged in life- and world-changing service. To serve as a house, a forge, and a home base, we must first ensure that our house is built solidly on rock and oriented toward our common goal. When we do that, when we are firm in our foundation and aligned with God’s call, there’s nothing we can’t do.

In coming weeks, I’ll dig more into these specifics. I’m excited to explore how we go about doing this work as individuals and as a community, and how we reorient ourselves toward a vision of our work that’s radically different from our current expectations. Above all, I’m excited to work with you in moving forward into God’s call to us, wherever that may take us.

If you want to talk about this, or anything else, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Blessings,
Justin

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