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"A New Rector, A New Congregation" by the Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade


A New Rector, A New Congregation: Realistic Expectations for Each

By Francis H. Wade


Jesus said: “If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – John 8:31-32

It is no secret that our church suffers from too many impaired clergy-parishioner relationships. Has it ever been thus?

Some shift in authority, or our view of it, has raised barriers and walls between our priests and the people they seek to serve. Lay persons have initiated some of the consternation by misinterpreting their role and mission in the new Canons and understanding of the Catechism. Clergy have muddled things, too, finding themselves subject to a scrutiny they may not have been prepared to deal with in pastoral ways. Is the answer to throw our hands in the air and surrender?

No, says the Reverend Dr. Francis H. Wade, rector of St. Alban’s Parish, Washington, DC. The answer lies, Dr. Wade writes, in finding the truth of the Gospel, as well as the truth of the congregational-priest relationship, and then living and working together for good for God, his Church and all his people.

The expectations involved from both priest and parish leaders in living the Great Commission together requires firm grounding — more so in love than in mission statements, contracts or working agreements. The church has, in many ways, sold its soul to corporate models. The truth is the church is a human enterprise, but it is also, by definition, overwhelmingly conscious of God’s will for his people to love one another.

The ever-growing number of horror stories of parishes turned into battlegrounds — littered with broken hearts and dreams — does very little to promote the Gospel, feed the faithful, or serve as compelling evangelism.

In these honest, direct letters “To a Congregation” and To a Rector,” Wade makes the argument that the case for healing is more important than staking out territory.


Dear Friends,

I am delighted to hear that you have called a new Rector, and I am grateful to you for the opportunity to share some thoughts about this relationship that is just beginning to become real. Over the years, I have seen congregations and clergy live out every farming illustration in the parables of Jesus. Some have been barren like the fig tree, most have been mixed like the wheat and the weeds, and many have borne fruit a hundredfold. No one person — not even the Rector — is able to control that outcome. But in my experience, there are some basic principles to which all have access as the relationship plays out.

Some will tell you that a good Rector-congregation relationship is like a good marriage in that it is blessed with mutual commitment, honesty, common purpose and love. That may be true later on, but not at the beginning. In our system, few in the congregation have played a direct role in choosing the new clergy leader, and most of you have not met him or her. Right now, it is more like meeting a prospective in-law. The approach in such first encounters is generally, “I am going to love you because someone I love loves you.” The trick with in-laws, as well as new clergy, is falling in love with a “given” rather than a “chosen.” The search committee, the Bishop and the Vestry have done the choosing. The rest of you are called on to do the loving.

The key to this role is attitude. Look for the best in this person, cheer lustily as he or she arrives, establish an atmosphere of caring and trust on a firm foundations of listening, sharing, caring, interest and hope. Most of you do not get to decide who comes to be the Rector, but all of you get to set the tone that largely determines whether or not this will be a successful relationship.

One way to think about setting this tone is to make a distinction between function and role. Function is what needs to be done: sermons written, liturgies shaped, Vestry issues addresses, hospitals visited, and so on. They are important but tangible. These things can and should be made clear in a work agreement and, when possible, priorities should be assigned.

Role is a different sort of thing. It is the soft spot that cannot be reduced to paper and quasi-legal prose. Role is about the chemistry of your life and work together. That chemistry gets its nature from memory (not only the way dear old Dr. So-and-So did it, but more importantly the way I felt about Dear old Dr. So-and-So); hope (what this church really needs …); and reality (often the least important ingredient but often claimed as the sole reason for one’s position).

Your priest is arriving with his or her own set of memories, hopes and reality claims. And, everyone has a unique personality, a list of likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, interests and enthusiasms. They are not alike and are often basically incompatible. It has pleased God to ask us to make a vibrant faith community from these variables. The manner in which we carry out that God-given task is the meaning of “role.” It is not just something clergy do; it is what clergy and congregations do together.

A particular skill to be desired on the congregational side is in the area of followship. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Volumes have been written about leadership, but scant attention has been paid to its companion art of followship. It is an important point for congregations at this stage in our history.

For centuries, we have lived in a clergy-centered church. The reasons are interesting but not the subject of this letter. The fact of clergy-centered church life is what we must address. I submit as one indication of this lopsided orientation the question asked in Catechism of The Book of Common Prayer, “Who are the ministers of the Church?” You will find that the answer is “lay people, bishops, priests and deacons.” In every Catechism prior to the 1979 edition, the answer was “bishops, priests and deacons.”

The point it the church did not even recognize your role until very recently. The old saying was that for a minister and congregation, one was supposed to minister and everyone else was supposed to congregate. We have a lot of catching up to do, and many of the tensions in congregational life today come from trying to work out a new set of rules for clergy and congregation. Followship is one element in that work.

The role of followers includes empowering the leaders (both clergy and lay) by giving them essential gifts of trust and authority. No community can function without granting these laurels to a central few. And the only ones who can give them are those who will be playing the role of follower.

It is done in the same way it was done in the Parable of the Talents in Mathew 25. Give someone authority over a little bit and when that is well carried out, give them authority over more. The process is slow but the rewards are great — and the process can only begin when followers give the leaders something to be trustworthy about.

Followship also means taking responsibility for one’s own role in the life of the community, recognizing that most of our roles are played out in a wider context that is ultimately someone else’s responsibility. That is, the altar guild and choir are not individual fiefdoms at war with competing interests, but organizations that are part of a larger whole (consider Paul’s image of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12).

Followship also requires careful attention to process. In any significant and long-lasting relationship, how we decide is almost always more important than what we decide. It is true in churches the same way it is in families. Attention to process means making sure that the people who need to be included are included, that those with a right to speak have a chance to do so, and that listening is elevated from a search for the flaws in another’s thinking to a basic way of loving.

It is important to remember that accountability is an essential ingredient in community: People have to do what they said they would do, be affirmed when they do it and lovingly confronted when they do not. It has been well said that love without truth is sentimentality and truth without love is brutality. All of these are part of the work of followship.

This may begin to sound complex and fragile, but in fact it is not. This is still God’s Church, and the Lord is present and active in it. We do not have to do these things alone. Your new rector is a human being as much in need of a savior as you and as grateful as you that we have one.

Let me remind you of the musical Camelot in which King Arthur comes to Merlyn with a vexing question: “How do you handle a woman?” Arthur goes through a litany of inept possibilities but is finally told by the wizard, “Love her …. simply love her … merely love her.”

By God’s grace, if that is at the heart of what you do, you will undoubtedly play your part in making this a relationship that bears a hundredfold. I hope that you will approach it with joyful anticipation.


Your Brother in Christ



Dear Friend,

Congratulations on having been chosen to lead a congregation. Ours is the worst of professions but the best of all lives! If we looked only at the years of scrutiny and preparation we must have in order to set up our own folding tables in the parish hall and sit through meetings that would bore a goldfish, we could wonder why anyone would agree to the generally paltry income that results. It is a foolish profession. But as a way to live, it has no equal.

There are few roles in life that can be compared to the one waiting for you. You have the high privilege of being invited into people’s lives at intimate moments of both joy and pain. You will be representing the majesty of God in the repetitive joys of Easter and in the multiple experiences of Good Friday that touch every life, home and congregation.

You get to read and think and wonder and then (miracle of miracles) people will gather to hear what you have been reading, thinking and wondering. You have a leadership role in what God is doing in this world and in what this world is coming to.

You are in a position that can convert you to Christianity a dozen times a day, and you will be exhausted by the things that are worthy of your energy. I hope that you never lose sight of the joyful, purposeful absurdity and profundity of what you are doing in God’s name.

I am grateful to you for letting me share a few thoughts as you prepare for this new adventure. My counsel to you will be somewhat different from the prevailing mythology of pastor-congregation relationship.

The stories of clergy badly hurt in parish ministry are all around us. We all know some who are among the walking wounded of the clergy ranks. If the abundant images of Jesus on the cross were not enough, these colleagues remind us of the danger in any major relationship enterprise, especially those characterized by faith. This real danger has led some of our brothers and sisters to approach parish ministry with wary caution, a choice that makes the danger even greater.

When I see couples in a troubled marriage and they tell me that they are already talking to lawyers, I tell them they must choose between me and the attorney. The reason for that is that a good lawyer will tell them how to protect themselves; a good priest will urge them to risk themselves. The two are basically not compatible. People must decide whether they are going to take the risks that can allow a relationship to flourish to take the precautions that keep it from hurting. I am for risking.

When I came to my first congregation, there was a lovely custom called a “pounding.” Members of the parish brought a pound of something (flour, butter, meat, coffee, etc.) to our house for us to find when we arrived. In recent years, we hear about new clergy receiving a “pounding” in a different sense of the word. We respond with plans to protect ourselves with barriers that we have anointed with titles like “boundaries” and with arms-length understandings of priesthood that reduce us from servants in community to organizational consultants.

The truth to which we are called is closer to the symbolism of the old pounding. People were acting out a desire to share life with their priest at a level deeper that a contract can convey. They did not stock the meeting room or hospital or the parlor. They stocked the kitchen, the place of bread and wine, of unguarded conversation, where “Can I help you?” is a common question and clean-up is a joint task. That may or may not be what happens in your kitchen, but it is what kitchens symbolized in the rural precincts where I first met this custom.

What it means is that people want intimacy in their faith. The concept of intimacy may vary greatly, but few can sense the nearness of God without some experience of the nearness of those who represent God to them. This does not mean that they should be your best friends, but it does mean that they should be your friends. It does not mean that you have no private life but it does mean that you have a substantial and important public one. It does not mean that you should not be professional in your work, but it does mean that you must always be a person in your community.

You, of course, are a leader in the congregation. There is much to know about leadership, and I commend your studies in that area of ministry. But there is one point that the scholarship of leadership seems regularly to miss. To be a leader, one must first know what or whom they are following. Leaders are seldom all alone in front of the community. We who lead others are also following something. In our work, a leader must know that he or she is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ.

Your role as leader of this congregation is dependent on keeping your eye on Jesus, and where he is leading you and them. Your spiritual disciplines are the key to your role as a pastor and priest. I am told that Martin Luther once lamented that he had so much to do that he could not get by on less than three hours of prayer a day. I am in no position to commend his ratios of prayers and what he had “to do.” But I ask you to admire where his priorities lay.

Remember the wonderful story of Peter walking on water (Mathew 14:28-33)? As long as he had his eyes on Jesus, he could do it, but when he let his awareness of the wind and the waves distract him, he began to sink. There are plenty of waves and much wind before you; keep your eyes focused and look for Jesus in the storms. That will keep you on top of things.

Finally, let me suggest that you approach this congregation with the utmost respect. They have been in business long before your arrival, and will, undoubtedly, be in business long after your departure. What’s more, they had the good sense to call you as Rector so they could not be all bad! You may have been told this congregation is dysfunctional in some way or ways. That may be true, but even dysfunctional systems function. They are doing something to hold themselves together. Find that something and give it honor. This church does not need you to save it. The job of savior is already filled.

Your role is otherwise. You will find it somewhere near the intersection of your hopes and theirs, your fears and theirs, your doubts and theirs. In other words, you will find the key to this congregation and your ministry right where God is usually found. And the first words of God when found — on the water, or outside the tomb, or in the life of a congregation — have always been, “Do not be afraid.”

May God continue to bless you, and to bless others through you.


Your Brother in Christ

"A New Rector; A New Congregation: Realistic Expectations for Each" by Francis H. Wade,  © 2005 Forward Movement. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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