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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Vocational Risk Management

Vocational Risk Management:
Some Thoughts on Parochial Discernment of a “fixer-upper” parish.

So, the question was asked on a private FB page for ordained women:
Seeking the wisdom/experience of this group. In discerning my next call - as first-time rector - I'm considering two very different places. One, is a church with incredible potential, but a real fixer upper. It's a risk, but in the neighborhood in which I've lived for a decade. (I've been serving as associate at a growing and thriving church across town all these years.) It will be a tremendous amount of work, faith, and trust that God's love will shine through and this place will climb out of its decline.

The second option is a stable, steady, healthy church with many similarities to my current ministry context. It's a decent size with stable finances and lacking a lot of potential to grow in any significant way due to demographics and location.

IF I were to take a risk and be successful and lucky in turning around the declining church, it would be fabulous. BUT, if it didn't happen, I would fail as a middle-aged woman in our church.

The second option is the safe choice.

In my experience, I have seen lots of men recover from failures like that, but women's careers seem to sputter out or die.

What thoughts, advice, suggestions do you have as I enter deeply into discernment with both of these congregations? 
Here’s how I responded

It was requested that I put it in a document for wider distribution. You have my permission to share this with those you think may benefit from it - colleagues, deployment officers, bishops, etc. - with proper attribution, of course.(It's fine. I'm happy to take the hit from your bishop.)

So, here’s what I wrote:

Having taken risks all my adult life and most of my vocational life (one I thought I'd never recover from which turned out to be the BEST thing to ever happen to me), I have learned that it is important, right from the start, to "manage risks".

Here's what I've learned about managing the risks in a "fixer upper".

1. Do not be seduced into thinking you and Jesus can do this.  It took YEARS of neglect by LOTS of people for them to get into this shape. It's going to take YEARS and LOTS of people to get them out. And, you. And, Jesus. 

2. Here are some more specific suggestions:  
+ Do not consider taking this on without a plan that involves the Wardens, Vestry, congregational leaders, appropriate Diocesan liaison and the bishop.

+ Make sure the concerns/problems are articulated and written down on paper (letter of agreement/plan of ministry action/business plan) with a plan to address each concern/problem and the person/people who are responsible and the task they are assigned.

+ Develop a "business plan" with an estimate of what each problem will cost to repair/fix. I’m not just talking about problems concerning the physical plant. What are the “problems” that have prohibited or stalled growth or thwarted the achievement of goals?And, what will it cost - monetarily and in terms of human capitol - to address them?

+ It's also a good idea for you to articulate what your skill sets/gifts are for this ministry project as well as your learning curves and some possible resources/places for help and assistance.

+ Where is this congregation in their life cycle? What skill sets and gifts do you have that match with where they are right now and what they need? Know that there is a difference between skills of initiation and skills of management as well as skills of maintenance. How do the skills you possess and the passions you have serve the needs of this congregation at this point in their cycle of life?

+ If you have had a course in Family Systems or studied anything by Ed Friedman, get out your books and notes and brush up on them. You’ll find the information absolutely invaluable. 

If you haven’t studied Family Systems, get the Friedman book GENERATION TO GENERATION. Read it. Talk to people who have studied Family Systems. Keep them in your circle of support and advice. (Note: This is especially important if you are an ACoA (adult child of an alcoholic). If you’ve been thinking you should get into an ACoA support group but haven’t, this would be the time. Now. Today. Go online and look for the closest group in your area. Don’t think you really need it? Do it anyway. Trust me on this.)

+ When you’ve developed your plan of ministry, which, to review, includes, but is not limited to
*a fair, honest and accurate assessment of where the congregation is in their life cycle

*an articulation of what it was that brought them to this point, including any congregational conflicts with themselves or former rectors/bishops - ask specifically about theological conflicts, or crisis like abuse or boundary violations or destruction of property through fire, flood or other natural disasters.

*the challenges they presently face with realistic, measurable, achievable goals

*the skill sets you possess to address their needs.

*the resources you’ll need for the skills you - and, they - don’t have
*who is responsible for what - bishop, diocesan liaison, priest, congregation.

*a realistic, attainable budget. Don't hesitate to ask for the last 5 years of Parochial Reports. If the church or diocese don't have them, you can get them online through 815.
make sure the bishop sees the plan and signs off on it as well as everyone else.

Make sure there's a provision for everyone - including the bishop - to review and reevaluate the plan at least once a year.

Wait. Did I mention that it's really, really important to have the bishop on board with your plan and that the bishop promises to have your back when you get serious push-back/acting out/attacking you? It is. Extremely. Because there will be. You can count on it.

Please note: This does NOT guarantee success. This just makes certain that everyone goes into this risk situation with their eyes wide open, and everyone is clear about the responsibility they all share.

Yes, you’re absolutely right. This all should maybe have been done in their interim period. Maybe some of it already has. Probably most of it hasn’t. So, look: This won’t be the first thing that wasn’t done that should have been done and it won’t be the last. That’s part of why you’ve been called to this place. You can’t change the past, and you can’t control the future; all you’ve got is the moment in front of you. Use it to move forward into the amazing future God has in store for everyone when you risk something big for the Gospel.

3. Remember: You are not the savior. Neither is the bishop. Neither is the congregation. Jesus is. (Have I said that too much? If you’re thinking that, perhaps I haven’t said it enough)

4. Remember the three C's: You didn't cause this. You can't control it. And, you can't cure it. (You’ll learn that in an ACoA group) That takes Real humility to admit. Together, however, you and the congregation and the bishop can manage the risks involved to discern what is in the heart of Jesus for this work of ministry. See also: Jesus is the Savior. Not you.

5. Personal resources/support: Make sure you have a mentor with whom you meet at least every other week. A support group is wonderful. A spiritual director/guide is important. A therapist is absolutely essential. All four will help you manage the spiritual, psychological and vocational risks you’re about to take on.

6. Remember this: In an experiment, there are no failures. There are just lessons learned. This HAS to be the attitude of this ministry project. For everyone involved. No failures. Just lessons learned. This allows you and the congregation and the bishop enormous freedom to be creative and imaginative, to risk something big for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It allows you – when you leave, whether the church is growing or not, and the congregation and the bishop to allow you – to leave the project with your sense of dignity - and vocation - intact.

7. Finally - (I would have said it first but you might have stopped paying attention): Pray. Without ceasing. I’m not kidding. Start every meeting - even if it’s just with one other person (even if - no, wait, especially if - it’s with the bishop) with prayer. Just the two of you. Every time. It’s okay if you have a prayer - or write a prayer - to use that same prayer before you do anything. Begin and end your day with prayer. Even if it’s just Anne Lamott’s Morning Prayer ( “Help, help, help.”) and Evening Prayer (“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”). Humility and gratitude are essential components of mission and ministry. So is a great sense of humor. Prayer will help you laugh at the absurd - and, this sort of ministry will often bring you face to face with The Absurd. In fact, laughter is the greatest statement of faith there is. Think about it: You’d be a fool to laugh in the face of The Absurd - or Danger or Evil - without having faith in God. And faith is always strengthened by an active prayer life. One thing I know to be true: You can’t take a risk for the Gospel without prayer. Well, you can. But you could really hurt yourself. Seriously.

Wait. I almost forgot. There is one more thing. Not essential, but it helps: Get a theme song. You know. Something to sing when you find yourself in the middle of a major pickle and for the life of you, you can’t remember what in the heck possessed you to do this in the first place. Every good team or school or movement has one. It could be a hymn or it could be a contemporary song. You choose. Just make it inspiring and hopeful, something that will lift you out of the muck or the ambush you’ve just walked into and back onto the path. There could be one for you, personally, and one for your congregation. Or, they might be one and the same. Have fun with this. Start with one of your own. You’ll need it. In one ministry project, I used "Searching My Soul" from Ally McBeal which got me through some tough times. Here's my latest theme song for my work in Hospice.

Oh, and if you decide to jump into the risk without a parachute or goggles and boots or other protective gear, just know that the ride will be exhilarating and pray for some trees or water to break your fall.

Always remember and never forget, especially in a creative, imaginative, high risk ministry project: You are not the savior. Neither is your bishop. Jesus is.

So, there it is. Broad brush stroke stuff, really. There’s a whole lot more detail, of course, but those are the basics to get you started. If you want to send me feedback or ask questions or share a fabulous experience or insight, please contact me directly at Mother Kaeton at Gmail Dot Com. I’d love to hear how you’re doing.

You’re in my prayers. I really mean that. God bless you.


Unknown said...

I have been reading you site for some time now and this latest one inspired me to write back. It is wonderful advice! I mean it. I have been a priest for over thirty years and an intentional interim for almost twenty and this post would have helped me through several very difficult congregations. If I would add anything the first would be that when the review of ministry takes place it is very clear that it is the review of the ministry of the congregation and not of the priest or pastor.The other advice I would offer is that she not accept the call to a fixer-upper unless that parish has gone through an interim process and that she has had a lengthy conversation with the interim and further that she remains in touch with that person. Avoid triangles if possible but at least be aware of them. Again, wonderful advice! Thank you. Rev. Robert B. Clarke, D. Min. (PS I trained at the Family Systems Center in Chicago in Bowen Theory.)

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Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Robert. There must have been a hiccup in the internet. Your comment appeared three times, so I removed the last two. Thank you for your comment. It's amazing how much information we gain and learning we achieve just by looking in the rear view mirror. And, no longer "dependent" upon a bishop who is dependent upon a congregational pledge. Le sigh.

David Thomas said...

Great article, lots of things to think about on this post.

The only point I hesitate about is the question about where the parish is in it's "life cycle". Discussion about parish "life cycle" seems to be picking up steam the last few years, but I'm afraid it is (in some cases) being used as an easy way out...a way of just giving up and allowing a parish to close up shop. While the reality of large, inner-city parishes with an aging physical plant built for the throngs of members they had once-upon-a-time is real, I often see much more ministry opportunities there than in the wealthier, newer, suburban parishes.

I am reminded of a church in my area that has been in steady decline since the 1950's. They have an ASA of about 40 in a large, aging, deteriorating building that would seat 500. Located in a once fashionable part of town, the church is now surrounded by blight and poverty. Denominational leaders have been putting pressure on them for years to close the church (they're not Episcopal). A few years ago, the congregation decided they weren't going to take the easy way out, to give up and close. They decided to spend their endowment (and their time) in ministering to the community. They opened up their doors to the community and started feeding the flock. Today, the place is alive with pantry, hot meal program, after-school program, and all kinds of community organizations who use the facility to meet in and hold events. The building which once sat locked up 6 days a week is now open and buzzing with activity most every day.

Now, has all this changed the fortunes and future of this parish? Probably not. The magnificent and beautiful building is still crumbling, growth is stagnant, and the funds are almost gone. What has changed is the people, within and outside of the congregation. They commit more of their time (and more of their financial resources) to ministry now than they ever did back in their parish's "glory days". They have committed themselves to be "open for business" with no talk of closing up as long as they have a few souls left in the pews, and a few bucks in the plate.

I'm afraid there is going to be some heartbreak in that congregation one day, when they have no alternative but to close their doors. If something doesn't change soon, the money will run out. But when that day comes, they will have spent every last dime and every last minute doing what Christ has called us to do, sharing the good news and taking care of the lost and the least.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I love that story. And, it does not diminish the perspective of "life cycle". As a Hospice Chaplain, I see people doing much the same thing. We make choices about where we are in our cycle of life. Congregations do the same thing. It's just important to know where a congregation is in their life cycle and where you are in your life cycle so that you can see clearly what they need and what gifts and skills and experiences you bring to help them. Hope that helps you understand where I'm coming from. Thanks again for that story.