The Withering of a Church Between Pastors

My Episcopal church is fading before my eyes. Several months ago, (because I usually arrive late for services) I would find myself wedged into the last few seats in the back of the church. Then, a few months ago, I began to find plenty of seats, even for a latecomer. Now, there is row after row of empty pews as I walk in. The service is short, in large part because the offering is taken and communion distributed in record time. My church is emptying out.

We are in the interim between the unexpected departure of our rector and the hiring of a new one. The departure of the last rector was messy, and in short order the other two priests on staff left, as well. Now we rely on an interim (or "transitional") priest and the vague hope that people will patiently wait for a new leader to arrive. That hope is poorly rooted in fact.

The lengthy interim seems to be a popular tactic in some denominations. The theory, as I understand it, is that a longer interim period allows for more deliberation. During that period of deliberation, a church can complete a "self-assessment" of its needs, and then spend months examining those needs and how they might be met by the new hire. Also, with more time between pastors (as this theory has it), the liturgical habits of the old minister can be washed away, so that the new one can establish her own.

I'm not a fan of this theory.

The benefits of lengthy self-assessments and clean slates are easily overwhelmed by the tendency of a church to lose air speed during the interregnum between leaders. Let's speak plainly: American churches don't have much margin for error, and a long gap without coherent programing or a consistent voice in worship risks being the faltering step that leads to a fall. Certainly, there are churches that thrive through an interim period, even a lengthy one, but there are many others that don't. For them, this can be like the broken hip that leads to a slow and steady decline at the end of a human life.

A lengthy transition is also out of pace with the rest of American life. We have become a mobile society, and many of the people in our churches have come from other places and already made a rapid transition to a place where everything is new. At work, our bosses change with regularity. Our political leadership lurches from one party to another every few years. The idea that in church people need a long time to deal with a transition ignores what is going on in the rest of our lives -- we are now wired to adjust to rapid changes. We don't deal well with slow movements.

Leadership changes, too, may not always be as important as we think. Author Robert Darden once told me a deep truth: That many churches have animating spirits that transcend the temporal leadership. Often, that soul of the church is rooted in and revealed through traditions, formal and informal. That was and is true of the church Bob and I shared in Waco, Texas. We have both moved away and there is a new senior pastor, but that church is still there doing the same things that are true to its soul. It needed continuity more than self-assessment.

To me, this isn't an abstract debate. It's a reality that is choking off something that I love. I hope that a new rector will arrive, capture the imagination of the church's once and current members, and lead us to growth and health. At the moment, though, that can be hard to imagine, as I sit nearly alone in any seat I wish. In a pew several ahead of me and on the other side of the aisle, a child drops a small green ball with bells inside. She turns to watch from her father's arms as it rolls, unimpeded by feet and bags, slowly toward the back of the church. She reaches out but is helpless. Soon, it is out of sight and gone, and in her eyes I see a familiar sad resignation.