I have joked before that there are two kinds of priests who take sabbatical. The first type are those who use the time, in part, to reflect on the arc of their ministry. They consider whether it’s time to double down for the next chapter of their tenure in their congregations or to wrap up and begin the long process of listening for their next call. The second type of priests are liars.
I’ve often wondered about the “is it time” question, as most rectors do after a few years. Bishop Mathes went through this same process when he discerned his call to join the faculty of Virginia Seminary. Toward the end of his time in the diocese, Bishop Mathes and I had dinner. I shared my own mixed feelings on the subject and asked his advice. As any wise counselor would respond, he didn’t answer my question. Instead he recommended that whenever I discerned that it was time for me to go, I should devote all my efforts to a good leaving. Only a small handful of St. Margaret’s members were here before Brad Hall’s time as rector, and never have experienced a wholly-smooth completion of rector tenure. Bishop Mathes reasoned that a healthy leaving would be a blessing to St. Margaret’s, and I agree completely.
When I went on sabbatical, I deliberately avoided the question for the first two months because I wanted, to the extent possible, to disconnect from the day-to-day, both good and bad. I wanted to look at my own ministry and functioning at St. Margaret’s as objectively and dispassionately as possible, and to consider simply whether my continuing service as your rector continues to call us into growth and spiritual maturity.
I think it’s time for new clergy leadership at St. Margaret’s, and time for me to explore ministry in a new context. When I returned from sabbatical, I notified the Senior Warden before returning to the office. A thoughtful search and exit takes months to complete in a mutually healthy way, and Jan and I have been working on making sure this transition is healthy and builds up the Body of Christ here. I am absolutely committed to leaving St. Margaret’s with care because I love the people here who have, for 8-and-a-half years, affirmed my call and helped strengthen my own ministry, loved me and my family, and given me the desire and capacity to love them back. I’m proud of the work we’ve done together, and want to be proud of the way we handle my departure.
To name the elephant in the room: What I’m describing here is perhaps the worst kept secret in recent memory. I would have preferred to withhold this announcement until I could combine it with news of a new call, but rumors are flying. In consultation with Bishop Katharine and with Jan, I’m addressing it as directly as I can now in order to clarify some things I know many are wondering about.
First, I am not leaving because I’m angry, bored, upset, frustrated, or just don’t like you. Far from it. I returned from sabbatical refreshed and renewed in my desire to continue in ministry. I had one major doubt when considering the possibility of seeking a new call. I felt fear that I would be letting you down if I left during what is clearly a challenge we share with the church at large: We are losing members and revenue, struggling around identity and resource management, and unclear about the particulars of our future. I don’t want to abandon ship, or signal in any way a lack of love or concern for you. But in truth, I think fresh new leadership that sees and is seen with imagination and optimism will help the parish consider these questions as opportunities, and not crises.
In 2015, former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy reflected the court’s decision-making process. “We have to reflect on what these issues mean, and when we have a controversial case — and a very difficult case … — we draw down on a capital of trust, a deposit of trust,” Kennedy said. “We spend that capital of trust, and we have to rebuild that capital. We have to put new deposits, new substance into this reservoir of trust.”
I think the same is true for all rectors, and I know it has been for me. I’m proud of my ministry here. I’ve done some things well, and failed at others. And I’ve led the parish through some times that strained our common life, including the closing of the school and Cellar Door, selling property, cutting staff, introducing gay marriage, the deaths of prominent and beloved members, and other challenges to our ability to hang together with integrity. And these were hard times that required me to draw on my own reserves. I’ve tried to keep them replenished. Two steps forward, one step back. But whether that reserve has shrunk too fast or been refilled too slowly, I observe that the congregation and I are unable to see in each other a genuine hope and joy for the future that we both deserve. And for that reason, I think St. Margaret’s needs new leadership to think expansively, and I need a fresh ministry field.
I’ll say more when I know more. Realistically, I think this will take some months. And until I’m called elsewhere, I’ll continue to serve here faithfully. I’m in conversation with bishops and deployment officers in other dioceses of the Church. I encourage you to talk to each other and to Vestry members about how you and I best can support each other in ministry. I love St. Margaret’s, and am grateful for your own ministry here. Blessings and thanksgiving to you all.
Dear Fellow Parishioners of St. Margaret’s,
I am writing to let you know of some upcoming changes for our St. Margaret’s parish. As you know, we are entering a period of transition due to our Rector’s leaving, and such a time can be one of anxiety for our parish community. I believe very strongly that, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can turn a challenging time into a future of growth and even greater love for all. If we approach this time with trust in God, in each other and in a good process, our future as a faith community will be bright indeed. This process needs respectful communication, reflection, discernment and a trained facilitator to lead the transition. For now, I would like to share with you some things you may want to consider and to expect as we move forward together on this journey.
When Lane arrived at St. Margaret’s eight years ago, our parish was facing many tough decisions. Lane’s contributions to our Parish are many! To date he has initiated seven new or expanded programs, reduced our mortgage balance from $1.9 million to just over $300,000, reduced operating expenses by $350,000 annually, led very difficult transitions in staff reductions, led major renovations and energy projects, led two Holy Land pilgrimages, increased visibility for St. Margaret’s, and improved technology/communication tools.
The Diocese, Vestry and leaders of our Parish are ready to shepherd our community through this transforming time. Both Lane and I have been in contact with the Bishop’s office and we have their total support. Lane and I have agreed that we want to work toward a healthy and thoughtful transition together. We will be meeting on a frequent basis to ensure that goal. I am asking for your support in making this spiritual growth opportunity into a reality by being a positive influence in the discernment activities.
I believe it is a natural reaction to want to rush to have everything in place in order to search for a new Rector. In consulting with the Bishop, I have come to understand how important it is for all of us to take time to learn from the dynamics of the past and discern our parish’s needs for the future. It will be critical for us to use our best efforts to achieve the best possible outcome. The Diocese has advised that we will have an interim Rector to help lead us through this discernment and development process. Our focus while Fr. Hensley is still with us will be upon finishing this time well and learning all we can from each other that will assure a smooth transition. Diocesan expertise counsels us to refrain from beginning our formal transition work for now. We can trust that Diocesan support will be available as it becomes timely to tackle all needed future steps.
I would like to ask you to consider this question as you read this letter and in the days and weeks to come: How can we each nurture our relationships within our faith community during this transition time?
Good communication will be so important as we walk this journey together. I will send you updates as soon as further information becomes available. I welcome your questions or concerns; I prefer direct communication as I’m amazed by some of the rumors I have heard lately (very creative!). My direct line is: 509-990-5651.
Wishing you God’s peace and blessings,