Deployment: new director seeks best matches of clergy, congregations

March 10, 2005

The Rev. Rebecca McClain says starting her new post as executive director of the national Church Deployment Office (CDO) feels a bit like "crossing from the South rim to the North rim of the Grand Canyon."

"It's a huge leap of faith, to leave behind so much that was known, and to know that sense of starting again," she says.

It isn't the first such leap for McClain, 57, who as dean of Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, oversaw restoration efforts after a $5 million fire gutted the organ and forced the congregation to meet in the parish hall on Sundays.

Of that experience, she says: "We've been back in the church permanently since September. It's our hope to do the rededication on October 9, which will be the third anniversary of the fire. I'll be there."

Before the fire, the congregation was experiencing a resurgence -- average Sunday attendance had tripled, from about 90 to 275, members had engaged a downtown reclamation effort, and Trinity had been re-established as one of Phoenix's spiritual centers and a gathering spot for the larger community.

"The last 10 years I've watched that congregation undergo radical transformation and change so that it's truly a force for change in the larger Phoenix area," McClain says. "It's an amazing place. I'd like to see if it's possible to bring some of that energy and some of that kind of thinking into this role."

'Called to prosper'

McClain is no stranger to transformation, or to the process of seeking the best matches of clergy and congregations.

Eight of the 10 years she served as Trinity's dean, she doubled as Canon to the Ordinary and, consequently, as diocesan deployment officer. The double duty was "a great gift," she recalls. "The community knew I couldn't do everything. It simply empowered them."

Empowerment is very much on McClain's mind. She plans to create a think thank by calling up diocesan deployment officers throughout the country for input. Another goal is to establish a West Coast office because, "even with all the tools of communication at our disposal, there is nothing like being there. We are an incarnational people and there's something about being present in the flesh."

She hopes to maintain the existing system while transforming it.

"The whole issue of call and deployment is critical to the life of our church," McClain says. "As we make good calls, we will flourish. The church will prosper. The clergy will prosper. Congregations will prosper. We will be agents of transformation and change. I am beginning with a vision that says we are called to prosper and that call is an individual call on each of our lives as Christian people."

Creating radical hospitality, an 'expansive' future

A cradle Episcopalian and a Houston native, McClain is a former high school teacher with a bachelor's degree in biology and history from Trinity University in San Antonio. After experiencing a call to ordination in 1974, she earned a master's degree in religion from the Seminary of the Southwest and eventually was ordained in 1985.

She served at Resurrection, Austin, and at Epiphany, Houston, before moving to Arizona in 1989. There, she was involved in developing rural ministry and stewardship. In 1992, she was named Canon to the Ordinary and, three years later, became dean of Trinity Cathedral.

"I called that community into a life of radical hospitality," she says. "I've spent the last 10 years watching a congregation go through a radical transformation so that it's truly a force for change in the larger Phoenix area. I'd like to see if it's possible to bring some of that energy into this role."

Still "in the discovery process" now, she will supervise a staff of five, with a mandate to create a network to allow more expansive opportunities for search, for clergy and for congregations.

"I am being asked to go back to square one and to re-examine the office as it provides service to the church and to say how can we be doing this better, how might this be more useful to clergy as a tool for their own professional growth and their own deepening understanding of their gifts and talents as offered to the church."

Ultimately, it involves recreating deployment through radical hospitality, while honoring the work that's already been done.

"We always have to listen to the stories and to ask the questions, 'How did things come to be the way they are? Where is it that we're being led today? What is it that we see on the horizon?' It's my job to bring those things together."

'We have to play a bit'

McClain has definite opinions about familiar issues: the aging of the clergy and fewer young people seeking ordination.

"First, of all, I'm 57," she says. "I always had a vision around a destination, where I wanted to be. So, even to say, 'I'm in my 50s and no one's looking at me because I'm too old' -- I'm not going to go there."

And, communities of faith need to be more honest about their needs, their histories and potential for call, she added. "Often, they're not and deployment officers in each diocese have to become a bridge ... and to be able to offer examples of how things can be done differently."

As for young people she says: "I'm actively recruiting all the time. What I'm looking for is someone with a great capacity to gather and create an environment that is energized, that sees changes in the winds and is a blessing to those around them. That's priestly.

"We also have to put people into positions where they're stretching a little bit. I tend to not take volunteers as much as I recruit people, to give them an opportunity to serve and see how it plays out. For me, we have to play a bit."

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