'Ministry of transition' captures Church Deployment Office focus for future

Changes will make CDO more open and flexible; Daybook
January 30, 2006

At the Church Deployment Office, the Rev. Rebecca McClain, along with deployment officers across the Episcopal Church, is writing - not the next chapter - but a whole new volume in the history of deployment in the Episcopal Church.

The CDO is charged with helping communities of faith, clergy and lay professionals discern their next call in ministry.

Among the plotlines of this next part of the CDO's story are how to change the language of deployment, create a more open and relational system for connecting congregations and institutions with clergy and lay professionals, value people more than process, and change the belief that "technology alone will save us."

"The process should always be relational," McClain said, enabling people and communities to tell the story of their ministries and skills, their dreams and yearnings.

"The system had previously become, in some ways, very mechanical," she said.

The CDO system, which most Episcopal congregations and other entities use to search for their next clergy and lay staff members, doesn't need to be "tedious and hard when it ought to be a time of joy," said McClain.

Stories about change

When the Episcopal Church's deployment officers gathered in November, they told each other their own stories about life and career changes. They talked about how they knew a change was beginning, what the change felt like and how they knew they were settled again.

Comparing the stories of their experiences, they found common themes, and out of those themes came a statement of their purpose as professionals who help congregations and clergy and lay professionals through their own traditions. They agreed that they were "called by faith to lead the church through the waters of change into the land of promise where all shall flourish."

The group articulated its core values as well. They include: truth telling, respect for everyone involved in the processes of transition, hospitality, and humor. McClain said the group hopes that its purpose statement and stated values will help create an environment that reduces the anxiety inherent in transitions, builds trust and helps people and communities be honest with each other.

Technology a tool, not a replacement for intuition

Somewhere along the way, McClain said, a sense of intuition was lost in the CDO process and was exchanged for many layers of process that took lots of time, as if both layers and time made for a good "match" in the end.

Using computerized personal and congregational profiles assumed that technology could replace intuition. McClain illustrated the perils of relying completely so completely with the story of researching the effectiveness of eHarmony.com, a popular online matchmaking service.

The service's computerized questionnaire, which McClain filled out, asks about 450 questions and asks participants to pick 10 characteristics each from a must-have list and a can't-stand list. It also solicits factual, verifiable data about a person, she said.

In the end, the service tells prospective participants that it can't guarantee a perfect match. It promises only that it can create an environment of choices in which a match might happen.

"How can we develop any kind of instrument that would ever be able to measure all of the richness and complexity of a clergyperson and then match it to a community of faith?" she said. "What it reminds us is that technology is a tool but it cannot save us."

A metaphor too far?

The connection with eHarmony is an apt one on another level. Often congregations and people involved in a search process will talk about the desire to "fall in love" with each other and thus knowing they are meant to be together. It may be a metaphor too far.

"We've even gone so far as to talk about it as like a marriage," McClain said. "I think the language sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment early on. It asks of us something we really cannot give."

While there is an often-unconscious assumption of a certain permanence to a rector's time with a congregation, it is more and more rare that a call will last 30 to 40 years, as used to be the case, McClain said. Such expectations lead to great sadness even when a rector and a congregation part company on good terms.

" 'Grief' is too severe a word when there isn't a real death involved," McClain said.

She prefers the Portuguese term "saudades," which she translates as loss, longing, tenderness toward the missing one, joy over the experience of that relationship and an acceptance of separation.

The experience of a parish without a rector has become pathologized, she said. A heavy reliance on family-systems theory for analyzing the health of such parishes is one way this has happened. Another is to assume that if relationships in such a parish get "scratchy" during the transition, "our tendency is to diagnose dysfunction."

Instead, some research has shown that children who experience major changes in their lives often regress behaviorally but, if they have support, resources, a sense of hope and the basic necessities of life, they will often emerge from the transition at a higher level of functioning. If such insight were applied to congregations, "we might ask different questions of each other," McClain said.

That might include developing tools to define and assess more clearly a congregation's health and to help it navigate times of transition. Those tools would include appreciative-inquiry methods to uncover what is working well and what can be taken along for the next part of the journey.

Such a change of language might help communities and clergy and lay professionals "learn to speak and think in ways that allow us to live a little more lightly" in the midst of change and transition.

Language of pilgrimage

"Transition" is a better way to describe what McClain hopes her office will be able to help congregations and clergy and lay professionals go through, rather than "deployment."

"I am more comfortable with the language of pilgrimage and journey," she added.

Using that vocabulary, the questions become ones about how to help a community go where it believes God is calling it to go and about how to help connect the community with someone who has skills and passions that will help the community and ensured the person's continued growth and flourishing.

"I think that it is the intention of God that we flourish" even in the midst of change and loss, McClain said.

Rectorships would not be "vacant." Congregations would not be "waiting for our new rector." They would be considering themselves ministers of the Gospel by way of the Baptismal Covenant who seek to find out where God is calling them to next and who God might be bringing to them to help them achieve their dreams.

Such a stance would still require some tools to help communities and clergy and lay professionals understand and articulate their skills and their dreams.

And rather than lengthen the process, McClain sees just the opposite. We have come to believe that decision making dragged out over along period of time is better decision making, she said.

"I really believe that this process should not take as long as it does," she said.

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