Some time ago I met up unexpectedly with James Lawrence from CPAS at the 2011 CRE. At the time I was in my first year of a new post, having finished my curacy and taken the role as team vicar in my current parish. James asked me if I could write a few things about transition and some of the issues involved.
Well just over a year has passed since that meeting and despite attempting to write eloquently on the matter I have been unable to formulate what my experiences have been.
In a period of reflection I am now perhaps able to form some thoughts.
The curious nature of the training the Church of England gives to those called to be priests in its churches, mean that one spends a considerable amount of time and energy working towards the goal of being the church leader you are called to be. Two or three years theological training at college is followed by a 3 or 4 year curacy or apprenticeship with a minister chosen by your diocese (usually by the bishops and DDO together). Experiences as a curate are mixed and varied, I was blessed by my time as a curate in a parish I adored and who, despite everything seemed to like me, with a training incumbent who I got on very well with doing things I loved to do. Of course there were frustrations and many of them down to the nature of my own calling to lead independently – it seems odd that the church invests so much training leaders and then clips their wings in the very first role they take. That said I would not have swapped my curacy for anything, even if there are things I wish had worked out differently.
None the less I was keen, eager even, to move on when the time came.
The culture shock of moving to a new parish and taking the role of leader is one that is hard to describe. There is a sense of leaving and grieving your previous post as well as the desperate need to integrate and learn to love your new role, church and fellowship.
For me the loss of the community I loved from my curacy coupled with the nature of the role I had taken on was a source of much grieving. More than once in those first months I found my self awake a 2 or 3 am weeping at the situation we found ourselves in. The imagery the Old Testament uses if a bride ‘leaving and cleaving’ is the one that springs to mind. We leave the comfort and apparent safety of our curacy and cleave to the new church situation.
For me the cleaving took a while, for others perhaps it is an easier process. But there was a sense of loneliness and lostness in my new role that took sometime to heal.
The first loss is the ability to identify with the congregation you are serving. It is easy to forget that there was a time when you were new in your previous post because you have grown together. But at your new post you initially know no-one. Your points of reference for peoples reactions to preaching and leading are all gone. The cultural understanding of a shared value system as the church in that particular place are not there.
Of course every situation is different but it is very likely your new post will have a different culture to your old one, and this leads to misunderstandings and difficulties. At my first PCC I made a flippant (if honest) comment in response to a criticism about my preaching style and alienated someone with whom the relationship is still tricky.
The biggest change is one of responsibility. As the new vicar you immediately take on responsibility for the new parish. People expect you to know things you have no answer for. To understand things about the culture of the church that you have not yet learned and to know the back story in a way impossible to a new comer. I found myself out of my depth in history and in relationships with inter-political ramifications I could not hope to understand.
On top of this people’s relating to you changes significantly. As a curate or associate minister you are in leadership but not the leader. You are a step removed, this makes you less threatening to some and more approachable to others. (It can make you a target for one who think you are a way of getting at the leader, mind). As the overall leader though people act differently around you and they have different expectations. In many ways you are more likable before you take overall responsibility. People will openly criticise you and you sill find yourself the subject of rumour and indignation. Last Christmas our choir tried a new, and very good, setting of well known carol. Three days later I over-heard the accusation “and our new vicar has even changed the tune to Silent Night”.
Leadership is different as the incumbent minister.
Loneliness in ministry is also a danger of transition, in a curacy the chances are you have been part of a wider team of ministers and readers and lay workers. The chances are a new post won’t have these. This can be a huge shock. Especially as the buck now stops with you. There is no one to help pass on the identity of the church culture to you, and no one to use as a sounding board when encountering issues and situations that need the wisdom of someone who understands the context.
If you are fortunate enough to have new colleagues in a new post then these situations also have the potential to be difficult. If you’ve had good relationships with colleagues in one post, it is easy to assume they will be good in the new one. This not always the case. In my new situation I have no immediate fellow ministers in the parish, and no readers or retired clergy. But I do now minister within a wider team benefice albeit I am solely responsible for this parish. This has proven difficult and our mutual expectations of how the benefice should work have not been met causing much hurt and disappointment. Again it is a curious model the CofE has chosen to follow, one that I feel is fundamentally flawed because it is so undefined. The boundaries and responsibilities of team ministries need to be clearer from the out set or it is doomed to failure.
All this of course is contextual and may actually only be a reflection of the changes I personally faced through that transition time. But I hope it is a useful reflection.
What are your experiences in transitioning posts? What could you share?