Things that anyone considering calling a priest should be sensitive to

Things that anyone considering calling a priest should be sensitive to

Article on Church Deployment

The Reverend John Quintard

Since the fall of 1993, I have been engaged in an active search for full-time employment in the Church—and since February 1995, that search has been on a full-time basis. As a result, I have had extensive and varied experience of the way the Church’s present deployment system works—at both Parish and Diocesan levels—over a relatively short span of time. Positions that I have pursued have included Rectorships, Assistantships, appointments to be Vicar of a Mission, Diocesan Staff positions, Chaplaincies in colleges and universities, and teaching positions in Seminaries.

What perspectives, growing out of searching for a Church job for the past five and one-half years, are worth noting and sharing? My experience points to two categories. The first looks at (a) the realities of the way the Church deployment system currently works, and (b) an important—and usually overlooked—theological context that will keep the flaws of the system in check. The second category considers small-seeming courtesies to candidates in any search process that should not need to be articulated, but which, sadly, those conducting searches rarely observe. These are courtesies that—when observed—make any search process as pastoral and stress-free for the candidate as it ought to be.

- I -

First, some realities of the way the present system works.

1. Notwithstanding the intent by the Church Deployment Office to make it possible for any priest successfully to pursue any vacancy, the "it’s who you know" factor continues to carry far more weight for a candidate than any other single consideration.

A. In the case of searches for a new Rector: When Search Committee members sit down to begin their initial evaluation of candidates, the prospect of a stack of possibly 200 résumés is, at best, daunting. In such a situation, any candidate of whom it can be said "I know/the Senior Warden knows this person and can speak personally to his/her credentials,"—that candidate will have an immediate advantage over all "unknown" candidates. Firsthand acquaintance with a candidate, however, is no guarantee that he/she is de facto more qualified for a job than the others. Many Parishes have made catastrophic mistakes by allowing the "it’s who you know" factor to be determinative. In spite of that fact, clergy who are known—particularly to someone perceived to be of influence—are far more likely to survive the first cut than those who are just one more résumé in the stack. Ask nearly any Rector, "How did the Parish you are presently serving first hear of you?" and most will respond, "Someone who knows me gave them my name."

B. In the case of clergy positions that Bishops, Archdeacons, or Rectors fill: it is equally true that cronyism at some level usually influences, if not determines, the outcome of such searches. The patterns tend to be:

(a) Diocesan Staff positions are generally filled by someone the Bishop knows, or knows ofusually from within the Diocese,

(b) Vicarships for Missions are generally filled by someone the Archdeacon knows or knows of—usually from within the Diocese’s existing pool of Mission clergy, and

(c) Unless all a Parish can afford is a recent Seminary graduate, an Assistantship is generally filled with a Priest whom the Rector already knows, or knows of.

Again, this is no guarantee that the "known" factor automatically renders a candidate more qualified for a job. Again, too many bad appointments have been made for that wrong reason. Nevertheless, clergy whom the Bishop or Rector know are again far more likely to survive the first cut than those who are just one more résumé in the stack.

The Church Deployment Office does an commendable job seeking and intending to make it possible for any Priest and job to find each other. However, the fact remains that almost never is a position—at any level—filled by an "unknown" whose name came out of the computer. [James Wilson, jwilson@dfms.org, Executive Director of the Clergy Deployment Office, responds: "That is just not true. Substantial feedback from the dioceses indicates that in 40% of the calls the CDO was the source of the name."]

2. Absent (and, sometimes, in spite of) the "it’s who you know" factor, those conducting a search will also remove clergy from candidate lists for subjective and often arbitrary reasons. The reasons have nothing to do with candidates’ qualifications—but are usually because they fall outside certain "guidelines" that those conducting the search have decided—off the record—to cast in stone.

A. In the case of searches for a new Rector: the aforementioned Search Committee—having now decided which "known" candidates to leave on the list for the present—then makes the "first cut." This is most efficiently accomplished by removing all candidates who fall outside certain perimeters set by the Search Committee. These perimeters—almost never of record—generally boil down to the fact that viable candidates for Rectorships really do need to be (a) married (b) white (c) males, (d) within a certain age range, and (e) with a minimum number of years’ experience. Regardless of their credentials, clergy who fall outside these boundaries will be at an immediate disadvantage, and their candidacy seldom goes any farther. This may be one of the Episcopal Church’s "dirty little secrets," but Search Committee members will occasionally admit, off the record, having used such perimeters—and using them simply because they are convenient.

B. In the case of clergy positions filled by Bishops or Rectors, the perimeters referred to above may be—and often are—safely ignored. The thinking goes, "As long as the Bishop/Rector is, himself, within our acceptable guidelines, then his clergy staff need not be." Sometimes, however, this greater flexibility in the scope of a search becomes an occasion for a Bishop or Rector to follow a perceived need to fill the vacancy with a "politically correct" Priest, regardless of the qualifications of other candidates. For example, one Priest recently applied for an Associate Rectorship at a large Parish. When an influential colleague of his went to bat for him with the Rector there, that colleague was told—off the record—that the only candidates actively being sought and seriously being considered for this position were black women.

3. In addition, there will be many occasions when those conducting a search will remove candidates from the list based upon assumptions or sweeping generalizations that have not been, nor are they, verified.

In the case of searches for a new Rector: our Search Committee is still facing a too-long list of "known" candidates, and others who fall within the acceptable limits. The Committee then makes the next set of cuts based on sometimes-admitted criteria that "Look, if we don’t start getting arbitrary, we’ll be here all week. Therefore, anything, no matter how off-the-wall, that even looks like a red flag is going to be reason enough to drop someone from the list." Search Committees have routinely concluded the candidacy of many clergy based on such inappropriate factors as:

A Assumptions regarding socio-economic compatibility ("Do you really think that someone who grew up in Montana could be ‘our kind’? I certainly don’t.");

B Regionalism ("Since one of the reasons the last Rector didn’t fit in was because he was a Yankee, let’s confine our search to Southerners this time.");

C Geography ("We can’t afford to send a Search Committee team across the country to see this person. Besides, do you know what the moving expenses from there to here would be?");

D Even climate ("Do you really think that someone who has spent his entire ministry in Maine could stand living year-round in Florida? I certainly don’t.").

For a Search Committee to make, and to act on, assumptions about a candidate—especially when those assumptions may be unfounded or wrong—is unfair, inappropriate, and unchristian. Nevertheless—for the sake of a quick and convenient way to trim their list further—Search Committees do make and act on such unverified and inaccurate assumptions. Short of being less-than-honest in the way he presents himself, there is nothing a candidate for a position can do about this.

The reader—lay or ordained—may regard these observations of the way the system works nowadays, and say "So what else is new?" But what these tendencies share in common—and is worthy of concern in any institution that calls itself Christian—is that they all reflect an increased unwillingness by those conducting a search to take "a risk." Certainly, the number of pastoral relationships that do not work out, as well as instances of clergy misconduct, are cause for those conducting a search to do their homework with greater care. However, this appropriate concern has led most individuals and committees conducting searches to respond in a reactive way. Those conducting a search have become (with a little help from the Church’s liability insurance carrier) so worried that they might make some terrible mistake, and so determined not to let that happen, that—as a perceived safety measure—they make the scope of their search more narrow and more inflexible than ever. In so doing, those conducting the search factor out the possibility that God may be trying to lead them to some new, exciting and unexpected place, through a candidate who may not fit their overly-rigid definition of "safe." By summarily dropping such candidates, those conducting searches may be thwarting the Will of God, inhibiting the work of the Holy Spirit, and short-circuiting a new and life-giving ministry that God intends for their community.

A theological truth that is lost to most individuals or members of committees searching for a Priest nowadays is the fact that what they are about is not to "decide" whom "they" are going to "hire", but rather to discern whom GOD is calling to be their next Priest. It is a Search Committee’s task prayerfully to determine whom God is calling, and then—having done so—to obey God’s Will. Most Search Committee members are startled when reminded that their task is to be agents of God’s will. Yet, once those conducting searches understand and accept this theological perspective, it is no longer possible any longer to "play it safe" on their terms. Once Bishops, Rectors or members of a Parish Search Committee understand and accept that they are not corporate "head hunters", but representatives of the Living God, then all the inappropriate factors listed above should cease to be considerations in any search. For anyone conducting a search who seriously takes to heart that the task is to discern whom God is calling to fill the vacancy cannot avoid facing the following truths, and allowing these truths profoundly to inform the search:

A God, in His decision-making, never binds Himself according to the narrow criteria that most individuals and committees—when left to their devices—use to "play it safe." God said so Himself when "candidates" for King of Israel presented themselves to Samuel for their "interview" (I Samuel 16:1-13). One by one, each of Jesse’s sons passes in front of Samuel, and each time, Samuel—using such shallow and inappropriate criteria as looks and physique—thinks, "Ah! This has to be the one!" But God—irritated—says to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Each time another one of Jesse’s sons presents himself to Samuel, God says, "Nope. Not him either." Finally, Samuel says to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And now it is Jesse who makes shallow and inappropriate assumptions, and acts on them. He replies, "Well, there’s still the kid. He’s out with the sheep. You don’t want to waste your time with him, do you?" But Samuel—who finally understands what God has been trying to say to him—tells Jesse to go get the boy at once. And as gawky, ruddy-faced David is brought before Samuel, Samuel says, "Him, Lord?" And God says, "Him." The point of the story is that David—who would not have gotten off square one with the average Episcopal Search Committee ("Too young, too inexperienced, unmarried, and besides: that ruddy face may mean a drinking problem")—was God’s choice all along. It was only when Samuel and Jesse put aside their criteria and assumptions, and did God’s will, that there was raised up the greatest King Israel ever had.

B All aspects of the Christian journey—including that of searching for a priest—call on us prayerfully to take what we perceive to be risks. The Bible is filled with people who—against their better judgment—took immense risks to do God’s will, and whose risk-taking God blessed by God beyond measure: Abraham, Moses, the Virgin Mary. The ongoing life of the Church itself is grounded in the truth that, in the act of prayerful risk-taking, the Christian allows God to release again into the world the very power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. To "play it safe" is to guarantee that that power will remain safely in the bottle.

Bishops, Rectors and Laypersons searching for a priest have a duty to God and to the Church to regard their task as one of discerning whom God is calling to the position, and then obeying God’s will. If any search is placed—first and foremost—into this context, and those conducting the search keep this perspective before them, then the many and positive consequences will include:

1. Those conducting the search will be constantly reminded of their dependency upon God to bring the search to its intended conclusion;

2. It will no longer be possible for those conducting a search to avoid risk-taking under the auspices of "trying to streamline the search process";

3. As a result of (b), the search will probably take longer than the "streamlined" method would have; and

4. The outcome of the search will be that much more satisfying to all—including to the God who was allowed to consult!

 

- II -

It is universally acknowledged that we are (a) living in a culture that is becoming increasingly rude, and (b) learning to live with that reality. It should also be universally acknowledged that the Church, above all, must avoid falling prey to this phenomenon. Any institution that professes to be pastoral has an obligation to treat those with whom it deals pastorally and courteously. While Episcopalians may aver that this goes without saying, nevertheless, one area of the Church’s life in which the faithful often ignore these courtesies is when a search for a priest is under way. However much Bishops, Rectors, and lay Search Committees may assume that they are treating candidates for positions in a pastoral and courteous manner, there are many instances—mostly sins of omission rather than commission—that needlessly aggravate the anxiety level of candidates. Perhaps naming these "sins"—which may lead to a "Gee! I never thought of that!" response—may become a first step in eliminating them.

Observation of the following courtesies—however minor they may seem—contributes greatly to the pastoral care of all clergy who are candidates for Church jobs.

A. Acknowledge every piece of mail you receive from a candidate. It only takes a postcard saying "We acknowledge with gratitude receipt of your inquiry/application/materials..." Yet it is sad to note that this is almost never done. When candidates send materials and receive no acknowledgment, this silence leads to wondering whether the materials arrived at all, whether they became buried in the wrong person’s "in" box, etc. Most candidates, however, are reluctant to telephone the Chair of the Search Committee to ask if the materials arrived, lest the failure to acknowledge their arrival be taken as a judgment or criticism. A brief acknowledgment by the person in charge will allay any concerns immediately.

Also, if a Search Committee receives the materials from someone other than the candidate himself—such as the Diocesan Deployment Officer—again, let the candidate know. Ideally, the Deployment Officer would first send a postcard to the Priest saying "Saint Swithen’s is now receiving names, and I have forwarded your materials to them. You should be hearing from them soon." Then the Search Committee would send another postcard saying, "The Diocesan Deployment Officer has forwarded your materials to us, and we will be reviewing them soon." Both these steps are important, because even though some Deployment Officers say they will forward a Priest’s materials to the Search Committee, this does not mean that they always do. Similarly, just because a Deployment Officer does forward a Priest’s materials to a Search Committee does not mean that they consider that file.

B. If those conducting a search are absolutely determined—whether appropriately or not—to confine the scope of the search to clergy who fall within certain limits (i.e.: white, married, male, within a certain age range, with so many years’ experience), then make and announce the first cut before asking candidates to spend time and energy writing essays and filling out long questionnaires. It is both routine and appropriate nowadays for a Search Committee to ask candidates to respond in writing to a number of questions. However, the Search Committee should only ask this of candidates whom it regards—really and truly—as viable. If—usually because he falls outside a Search Committee’s perimeters—a candidate does not have a prayer of being seriously considered, then the Search Committee has an obligation not to lead him on, and to remove him from consideration before asking him to write a set of essays. Many clergy spend hours thoughtfully responding to a Search Committee’s list of questions, only to learn by return mail that they are no longer candidates. Frequently, the response is so immediate that one cannot help concluding that the Search Committee did not even read the essays, much less think and pray about them. As an extreme illustration of this practice, a Search Committee in one Parish sent their questionnaire to all applicants. The questionnaire—in addition to several pages of fill-in-the-blanks—required each candidate to write forty-eight essays. One candidate who wrote and submitted nineteen pages of responses received the Search Committee’s rejection letter less than a week after posting this application to them.

In this vein, no matter how quickly and decisively a Search Committee may have decided whom to eliminate in the "first cut", it is inappropriate so to inform candidates until the Search Committee is officially—and genuinely—no longer accepting applications. If a "close-out" date for receiving names has been set, then a Search Committee cannot continue to receive names after that date has passed. One Priest applied for a position, was informed that he had been removed from the list of candidates, and later discovered that the Search Committee was still actively soliciting and receiving names. The unavoidable message that this action conveys is, "We don’t know whom we want, but—even though we’re still receiving applications—we do know that we don’t want you."

C. At some point—preferably early on—it is appropriate for those in charge of a search to outline to all candidates both the process and the timetable that you intend to follow in filling the position. Again, all this need say is something like, "We expect to narrow the list down to 35 people by March 1. When that has been done, those still on the list will then receive the questionnaire. Therefore, if you do not hear from us during the month of February, don’t worry; this simply means that we have not yet moved into the next phase of the process, and it also means that no one else has heard from us either."

Candidates for jobs do not know how to interpret silence from the decision-makers, and do not wish to seem "pushy" by asking what that silence means. However, if the candidate already knows ahead of time that the search will not move into its next phase before a certain date, then at least the candidate will not start wondering what the silence means.

D. When delays occur in a search process—as inevitably they do—then let the candidates know that this has happened. Send another postcard saying something such as, "We are experiencing a delay in moving on to the next stage of our search, and our best guess at this point is that we will be ready about April 1, rather than March 1 as we told you previously." Again, when there are silent delays—particularly after a previously stated target date has passed—candidates can and do begin wondering what that silence means, and often assume the worst. If the reason for the delay is simply because the search committee is not yet ready to move into the next phase, there is no end to the amount of stomach lining that may be spared by saying so to all candidates, and giving them the revised timetable.

E. However obvious this may sound, when someone is no longer a candidate for a position, those in charge of a search must have the courtesy to tell him when they have made that decision. Far too many clergy end up discovering that they are no longer candidates only when they read—in the "Appointments" section of The Living Church or some other periodical—that so-and-so has not only been called, but has accepted, relocated, and started up. There is no excuse for such a failure by a Search Committee to communicate. Any candidate who has taken the time to learn about a position, to seek out the search committee, to send materials, and to spend hours preparing thoughtful responses to a questionnaire, deserves to know—and promptly—when his candidacy is resolved. There is no Bishop, no Rector, and no congregation that busy and that important to let this common courtesy slip through the cracks.

F. Search Committees at some point generally divide their list of candidates into an "A" list and a "B" list. They regard those on the "A" list as "persons whom we regard as leading candidates, and from whom we hope to find the one we will call." They regard persons on the "B" list as "candidates who may not be of the caliber of the ‘A’ list, but whom we don’t want to remove irretrievably from consideration just yet—because we may need to get back to them if the ‘A’ list doesn’t work out." This dividing of the candidates into "A" and "B" lists is widely practiced, and all clergy know that it goes on. What is unpastoral when Search Committees do this is that once a candidate is put on the "B" list, he usually hears nothing at all for the entire time he is on hold—often a period of several months. Thus, if a Search Committee has put someone a "B" list, it is both pastoral and appropriate to say so to the candidate. One Priest received such a letter—from a Seminary Dean—whose honesty and candor were so refreshing that it bears repeating:

We have agreed on a "short list" of three candidates whom we are inviting to come for an interview. I am sorry to tell you that we do not plan to invite you for an interview at this time. There is the possibility that, after the first interviews, we would go back to the file of applicants and want to see more candidates (that has happened to us in the past). However, I would not want to mislead you about the fact that we hope that we can make a choice from among those whom we are inviting now.

There is not a Priest in the Church who could take offense at receiving a letter such as this. It is a pity that such letters are so rarely sent.

G. When it is time for finalists for the position to come to the parish or Diocese for final interviewing, most all Bishops, Rectors, or Search Committees know and accept responsibility for paying expenses—travel, as well as room and board—for the candidate (and, often, spouse) while he or she is in the community. However, those conducting searches often overlook some not-always-thought-of expenses that, for many candidates, can be burdensome. Examples:

1. In the case of candidates for whom it is easier or more practical to drive to the interview, those conducting the search should reimburse them for their mileage.

2. If it is necessary for the candidate and spouse to hire a baby-sitter for the entire time they are away from home, the interviewing institution needs to pay these expenses. Similarly, if a finalist and spouse are parents of a nursing newborn who must therefore accompany them to the city where the interview is taking place—thereby requiring a hotel baby-sitter or some other arrangements—the interviewing institution needs to pay these expenses as well.

3. Airport parking, tolls, and other incidentals that may be unavoidable expenses associated with the interview.

Those conducting a search should remind themselves that, unless they make the offer to assume these and other expenses associated with a final interview, many candidates are going to be reluctant to initiate that request. Finalists want to avoid anything that might even seem like a "downer" at a final interview. Accordingly, many clergy will simply "eat" these expenses rather than ask to be reimbursed for them. Therefore it is the search committee’s responsibility to state its intention to reimburse the finalist for all expenses associated with the interview before travel begins, so that the candidate may maintain records and receipts, and submit them—without embarrassment or awkwardness—to the treasurer at the end of the interview.

H. When a candidate reaches a point in a search process of being a finalist (one of 2 or 3 candidates), then—when the Search Committee makes the decision of whom to remove from this short list—the also-rans should hear that news either in person or by telephone, and not in a letter. By the time any priest is that far along in a search process, a relationship has been established with members of the Search Committee. This is no longer a situation involving Search Committee members and résumés—this is people interacting with people. That being the case, it is appropriate that subsequent news of the search—even if it is news that is upsetting to convey and to receive—be conveyed in as personal a way as possible. A telephone call is the absolute minimum.

I. Related to (H): Search Committee members (and particularly, Chairs) need to be sensitive to the fact that many find it difficult to telephone a candidate and tell him that he is no longer on the list. Therefore, if someone really does not want to be assigned to make the phone call, then don’t force the issue, but assign it to someone who is less likely to put it off/not do it. One Priest was a finalist at a Parish, and much later learned that when the Search Committee decided to remove him from the list (a) a member was instructed to telephone the Priest with that news, (b) he reluctantly agreed to do so, (c) he did not make the call to the Priest at all, and (d) when asked by the Chair if he had made the call, he lied and said "yes." When confronted by the Chair with the Priest’s report that no such call was ever made, the Search Committee member admitted that he had lied, simply because he could not handle making such an unpleasant telephone call.

There are, throughout the Church, many individuals and/or committees who do conduct searches with sensitivity to the courtesies listed above. More than they know, they make any Priest’s search for a position pleasant under the circumstances. As those who conduct searches realize the effects and consequences their actions or inactions have on candidates, the area of Church Deployment will become as pastoral as God calls all other areas of the Church’s life to be.


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