Monday, October 11, 2010

The Annual Survey

In the Gospel according to John we find Jesus making this striking statement to his disciples on the eve of his arrest: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15) In these words, Jesus makes clear that his Body, the Church, will work according to different standards and patterns than normal human “institutions,” built on hierarchies of power, mistrust, and secrecy. We are called to be radically equal in our self-understanding, open to mutual critique and insight, taking our cue from a Lord who is willing to call us “friends” rather than insist on our being merely subservient.

The Church has, sadly, often failed to live up to this challenging self-understanding and calling. Too often we have substituted mystification for mission, privilege for purpose. There can be no effective mission if we do not emphasize accountability to that mission in our common life. Because of a fearfulness—often grounded in insecurity—clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Church have shied away from inviting the insights and opinions of parishioners. Not so St. Timothy’s.

St. Timothy’s produces an annual survey of the congregation regarding its general ministry, progress on various goals, the ministry of its rector, and thoughts about the parish’s future. This is the first time I have served in a parish with such an open tool for discussion of these topics, and I am very happy we have it.

So often, Episcopal parishes function in a way that makes them largely opaque to both “outsiders” and most “insiders.” The result is a community unable to discuss either its gifts or its struggles, vulnerable to dissention and often impervious to improvement.

Because many lay people work in environments where there is an annual employee review, it can seem only natural to use the same terminology and thinking in having some sort of review in the parish. Most clergy (and a fair number of lay leaders) bridle at this. The rector of a parish is not technically the employee of the parish. Clergy, in the Episcopal tradition, are not “employees” as much as they are pastors and colleagues in ministry. What is needed is not a review of employees, but a review of ministry, both in terms of quality and character. To do this, many different systems and techniques have been developed. St. Timothy’s employs one of its own devising, revised each year.

The Annual Survey is formulated by a special committee appointed by the Vestry and answerable to it. That committee sends out the survey in the late summer or early fall. The results are then tabulated and sent to the committee members and the rector for initial discussion. The committee then meets to formulate recommendations to the Vestry, which are then formally brought to a Vestry meeting.

Once the survey results and recommendations are received by the Vestry, that body decides how to proceed. Last year, the recommendations were brought the parish at the Annual Meeting and used as the basis for some small group work. Those small groups then developed plans for how to move forward on the recommendations during 2010; various commissions have been working on these issues over the year. A summary of the Survey also appears in the Tidings (our monthly newsletter)

As soon as the results and recommendations are in hand, I will schedule a private meeting with bishop Hanley so that I can take this material to my immediate superior, and lay it before him for his review. All parishioners should know that I do feel accountable to the Annual Survey as a part of my over-all accountability to Christ and His Church. Having our bishop in place will finally make this part of the Annual Review possible. I believe we are the only parish in the diocese that will approach a ministry review with this degree of thoroughness, transparency, and follow-through.

The Annual Survey gets all sorts of responses. Some people love it; other do not like it at all. No one has to take it, but the response rate has been improving over the last three years, so we know many people find it useful—especially if they see it translate into action!

Sometimes, very interesting ideas are expressed in the comments sections. Some people tell of their joys and frustrations at church. Others bring up suggestions for improvement or ask questions which we then try to answer. This is the place we are encouraged to “let it all hang out,” and many folks do so.

While it isn’t always easy to hear what people have to say, I am personally very grateful for the Annual Survey. I like the honesty it encourages, the opportunity for genuine sharing of thoughts and concerns, the way it emphasizes accountability…something our church is woefully short of in some ways.  As a priest, I value heading off problems before they grow into crises, and I like hearing from others about what needs fixing and what needs praising. Would that every dimension of diocesan life had this amount of open and effective conversation!

The Annual Survey committee puts in a lot of time on this, and it is well worth it. Together with the Vestry, the Commissions, the Endowment Fund Board, and other key parts of parish leadership, the Annual Survey is helping us discern God’s call to us a parish. Thanks, Survey Committee—and thanks to all in the parish who took the time to respond this and each year!

When we learn to see each other as friends in Christ, even with differing opinions, we are then free to respond in faith rather than react in fear. Basing our parish’s internal operations on Jesus’ call to openness and mutuality, we hope to be found faithful stewards of the Gospel in our own day.

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