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Church Work: The Nuts and Bolts of a Dean Search

The position of dean’s warden in a cathedral is analogous to senior warden in a parish. This warden is the first vice-president of the corporation, and responsible, along with the chapter (which is analogous to a vestry or bishop’s committee) for the cathedral’s finances, buildings and grounds. Most of the time, when there is a serving dean (the main clergy person in charge at a cathedral), the dean’s warden works as a team member with the dean and people’s warden. But during a vacancy, the dean’s warden serves as corporate leader of the cathedral or parish. In addition to conducting chapter meetings, the warden-in-lieu-of-dean is responsible for administrative oversight of the ordinary business operations of the cathedral. Plus, the warden works with the bishop and diocesan staff to engage an interim dean, and begins the process of looking for a new permanent dean.

A dean search is very much like the search a parish conducts for a new rector. It’s a careful and reflective process that shouldn’t be rushed. The first step, which is really foundational for the rest of the process, is for the congregation to do a self-assessment. The questions answered through this process are not just demographic, but also relate to the spiritual and organizational health of the congregation. It’s a discernment process wherein the faith community prayerfully seeks to ascertain God’s call for the future. A profile committee conducted a congregation-wide survey and our interim dean, the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain, facilitated the congregational assessment tool.

Formation of the calling committee is crucial for the success of a dean search. Chapter started by appointing a chair for that committee, Ms. Laura Gunn, who worked with me and the people’s warden, Ms. Judy Moore, to develop a slate of search committee members. The selection of calling committee members needs to be more than demographically representative of the congregation, for it must take into consideration the ability of a particular group of people to work together as a team, laying aside personalities and special interests. Because of St. Paul’s role as cathedral, Bishop Mathes also suggested several names for a diocesan representative. We were fortunate to have an outstanding committee whose members and chaplain bonded deeply through their mutual love for the cathedral community, and whose friendships continue beyond the process.

During the transition between deans, I functioned rather like the conductor of a symphony. While I wasn’t playing an instrument, I was trying to make sure that everyone was on the same page, at the same time, and was blending their unique voices together into a fabric greater than the individual parts. This was both challenging and extremely rewarding. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that of trust. I needed to trust both the cathedral staff to keep things running, and also to trust the work of the calling committee to present the chapter with the right person for the dean’s position.

Once the committee reached its prayerful recommendation, chapter was introduced to the nominee, a Skype interview took place and we voted unanimously to elect and call the Very Rev. Penelope Bridges as the fourth dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The year-and-a-half of transition presented major challenges both to the cathedral and to me. But I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have served in the role of dean’s warden at that particular time. This period of service was undertaken as a discipline. The cathedral has spiritually nurtured me for over 20 years; this was God’s call to me to prayerfully and thankfully serve the community I love. +

Mark Lester, dean’s warden, led the cathedral community through its recent dean search. The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges is the new dean.
A dean search fundamentally differs from a job search in several ways. This process is about listening for God’s call. A great deal of soul-searching and reflection happens both on the part of the cathedral and by those who apply. There is a lot of prayer involved, and a lot of listening. Frequently priests will feel called to a place they never imagined working. Searchers find themselves excited about someone they never imagined.
Not all cathedrals have the same process. In some places, the bishop names a dean without much input. We are fortunate in San Diego to have a bishop who welcomes and encourages our voices.

The Office of Transitional Ministry (OTM) is an online resource for searching churches and priests. Both the searching church and priest candidates post portfolios that include answers to a dozen essay-type questions about their experience, liturgical style, and outreach. This gives both churches and candidates a chance to size each other up and take stock of whether a situation feels like it warrants further investment.

In addition to reviewing their OTM profiles, we asked candidates how their spiritual journey had shaped them, what attracted them to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and how they have been influenced by their current ministry. We also asked them to discuss the gospel and social justice.

The process included lots of search committee meetings, Skype interviews, meetings with Bishop Mathes and his staff and face-to-face visits.

One of the hardest challenges is staying open. Committee members are all human, and it’s hard not to get excited about a favorite candidate even if it’s early in the process.
Another challenge is remembering that this is a calling process and not technically a search. People who seem ideal might accept another call, or drop out. People who are absolutely wonderful priests may not be right for our community at this time. This is all part of the process, which requires lots of prayer and trust.

At times, even devoted and well-intentioned people can clash over things like process. We had the good fortune to be able to work through our differences and treat each other respectfully and compassionately throughout.

It is wonderful and humbling to be asked to serve on a committee of this magnitude. An opportunity to work with a group of exceptional people in the service of God is an extraordinary gift.

Of course the other reward was (and continues to be) watching the new dean and the cathedral responding to each other with such warmth and enthusiasm! I will always remember our new dean’s first Sunday. My face hurt from smiling so much!

It is heartwarming and humbling to realize how many wonderful priests there are in the Episcopal church, and how much great work is happening. Serving on a calling committee provides a unique opportunity to see what an amazing array of people are called to serve God, and how loved they are by their congregations.

This kind of service is an amazing opportunity to become more connected to your church, your congregation, and your diocese. It’s a huge time commitment, but well worth it. +

Laura Gunn, chair of the search committee that called the fourth dean to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and her two sons. She also serves as the public relations coordinator.

Category: #Communications

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