Monday, 10 October 2011

Exit Strategy

In church life, or more specifically in that eight minute slot of time after the main Sunday Service before we fall behind the next cup of Fairly Traded Tepid brown fluid, many transactions take place. Sometimes those transactions are about the sale of the Parish Staple - the raffle ticket (where you are apt to win some Parish Lavender Smellies). Other times those transactions revolve around the Post Mortem of The Parish Microphone and Its Vagueries. 

Early spring sees a new, intense, purposeful transaction: it is the 'Will You Stand for Election at the next APCMPCPMCPM [the big annual church meeting] - there is a vacancy for X, Y or Z'.

When I was younger (hard to imagine that I was younger than I am now, but it is a fact that mother didn't give birth to a 6' hard man of God), I used to be on a PCC, and when I approached that momentous time, had to go through (wait for it, I am not going to lie here) an election. The first time I sought a place on a PCC, in excess of thirty people put themselves forward for election, submitted little biographies (I had no idea so many people in church life could claim time as Sidespeople), and the tension was amazing at Results Time. Sod X Factor - PCC elections were far more tense. I digress.

Among those elections, from time time, were those for Officer Roles in the Parish (warden, secretary, treasurer - that sort of thing). To be there they had either worked a long time to impress the right people, were there through merit, or simply weren't as fast as the Vicar when he came calling (let it not go un-noticed that pre-APMCMMPDMPMCCMP Vicars are like the rutting stags in Bushy Park that are currently hounding the tourists at the moment - "we must find our next Officers for the circle-of-life to keep turning"). Candidates are pursued, persuaded, elected, enthroned, sworn in before  Archdeacons and set to work running the show while the Vicar takes the glory services. Oh yes, it is true! And so the Tenure begins.

But all good things come to an end, and here we have a problem in the church. Eventually the need arises for the once-hunted willing volunteer to lay down the chattels of their Office and withdraw from it and its appurtenances. Personal experience (professionally and non-professionally speaking) has taught me two things:
1. That it is or can be very painful to make that withdrawal if you have assumed significant authority2. "Church" and "Succession Planning" are rarely things that you will ever see in the same sentence (barring the ironic or negative)

I know people who have felt a great pain, or anticipate it, when they stop or are about to stop doing what they do. I am not sure that Mother Church has ever cottoned on to that fact, simply because that pain is lost or obscured by the next season of the Vicar Rut. I think it revolves around personal validation and all that - that once someone was 'Somebody', but then after elections, feel like 'Nobody'.

Then we have the great Vicar Rut. Mother Church rarely thinks ahead because we tend towards the Great Lurch (from one circumstance to the next). I am already guilty because I have no earthly idea who my next Treasurer or Warden is going to be (I could blame the 'being new' thing, but it won't cut it for long). I should know, and in the next cycle, should know at least a year in advance and have that candidate working towards the role in some other constructive way (yes I know they are elected, but I am in the real world here). 

I will ponder the solutions to these perennial problems, together with every cleric who has a duty to a PCC. However, what we need to learn very quickly is that those who held the keys once, don't automatically sign with joyous relief when we wrest them from their reluctant clasp!


  1. I've also noticed that it's easier to hang back before signing up for some volunteer position in church, and have always thought that some posts could come with a "doing this for 3 years then going to give up whether there's someone else to replace me or not" ... one day, maybe?!

  2. Oh yes, I am sure you will get many sighs of recognition among your readers for this post.

    In a far off land in distant memory there was a female dragon of a church warden. In theory she shared the role with a man of some distinction, but he knew his place. Every week she read the lesson (somehow she never got around to asking for volunteers) but, most impressive of all, persuaded the best way to treat the notices was for her to head for the chancel steps before the service begun. She then delivered herself of various snippets of jealously guarded news before announcing the introit hymn and nodding to the vicar waiting patiently by the vestry that she was ready for the service to start. They don't still make them like that - or do they?

  3. Churchwarden (not on the moon any more)10 October 2011 at 11:30

    Writing as one who will, in the fairly near future, relinquish the enormously heavy bunch of keys I have guarded for the past five and a half years, I an only endorse what you say. Half of me looks forward to it, after all, six years as Churchwarden of a big and busy parish with an interregnum in the middle is a big commitment and one is ready for a break. On the other hand, I have enjoyed every minute of it and it will be very hard to let go of that.

    I am pleased to say that I had a year as deputy in which to learn the ropes and my successor has been identified for a couple of years already.

    I think the answer to the separation anxiety thing is firstly, face up to it, be ready for it, don't pretend it might never happen, plan the next steps. How you as Vicar can help is also to acknowledge the problem (and you are aware of it, that is good) and maybe try to find suitable and appropriate alternative employment for the newly replaced. The other thing is, of course, don't let the replaced person believe they are now useless and unwanted, burnt out. Continue to value them.

    And now I am going to go and try to remove the image of rutting vicars from my mind. I may be some little time!

  4. We seem to have the opposite problem, a lack of people willing to stand for PCC or to take on key roles.

    Loads willing to be sidesmen, or to read, to arrange flowers, to clean church, but not many for local ministry (without encouragement) or official positions of responsibility.

    Our Current Wardens etc do a stirling job, as do the PCC's, not several PCC's are under strength, leaving a tiny minority 'doing' while the rest look on.

    My Vicar has a keen eye for a volunteer (he is a TA Chaplain after all) and volunteered me for positions such as treasurer (twice at one time, now, thankfully only once), Intercessions, Server (often plucked out of the audience to serve) and benefice finance rep on Deanery Synod.

    Off course, I've stepped up as they tie in very much with exploring a vocation, where questions are asked about experience of church, but the issue will be what happens If I'm selected for training, when I will have to relinquish all of this?

    We've tried succession planning and to an extent it has worked in one or two places, others, not so successfully. Church Wardens for instance need a good year to bed in. There is formal training at Diocese they need to attend and just finding their way around the documentation and how things are done is complex in itself. Our experienced wardens make it look easy, but I know how much is done by them behind the scenes.

    As all of our 5 churches are Grade 1 listed, that brings its own problems. Every major repair requires a faculty and fund raising and appeals - through love of their buildings they put in long, extra hours and work for this, but I sometimes feel that we'd be better off locking them and leaving them to rot and to worship in the school or village halls.

    Just seen the comment about what happens when a vacancy occurs - that is another ball game altogether. Church Wardens deserve a medal during those times.



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