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Surviving a parish interregnum

07 August 2015

A parish interregnum can prompt valuable reflection on maintenance, leadership, and purpose, says Noreen Wainwright

EVERYTHING is thrown into sharp relief when your vicar moves on — as ours did more than a year ago from our village church in the Staffordshire Moorlands — and when you are without a replacement for far longer than anyone envisaged. The dynamic of the church council changes, and one of the main concepts you question is that of leadership itself.

In the past 12 months or so, I have noticed three distinct phases in our dynamic as a church group. Initially, there was a real will to pull together, in the keen awareness that, for now, we were without a leader. Officials, churchwardens especially, quickly have more responsibility in these circumstances. Some of this is onerous, and the fallout is serious if something is overlooked or done incorrectly, particularly over weddings and christenings.

At the start of the period of vacancy, however, there was a mixture of excitement about the next appointment, and an enthusiasm to keep things going. This swept us along for the first few months. Perhaps unspoken was the assumption that a new vicar would soon be appointed, and everyone could return to their former positions, but with what we hoped might be a beneficial shake-up.


THE second phase is when the structure of the group begins to waver. Underlying tensions between personalities find expression. Being without a leader means that the brakes are off, and clashes easily escalate.

The politics of even a small village church can be off-putting for many — perhaps particularly for the very volunteers you might wish to attract and keep. Ironically, this antipathy can be felt by people with great potential for the job. Groucho Marks said that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

Perhaps the fair-minded, diplomatic people with a sense of humour in any community are the very ones who run a mile from becoming involved in committees and church councils. Possibly they see these bodies as consisting of people who like to talk rather than listen, and who get too bogged down in the minutiae of church life.

So this second stage is when you can lose good people, and when many may question the purpose of the church in the community. Are you there to raise money and maintain a beautiful building, or are you there to reach out to people in need? The quick answer is that you have to do both. The problem is that the only part that most people see is the fundraising, building-maintenance bit.

This second phase can last a long time, and is when you feel most disenchanted. It is difficult to imagine things getting better.


THINGS do get better: you reach the third phase, where our church is now. It is a calmer time. People have recognised that the survival of the group depends on finding compromises, and that everyone needs enough good will to see them through to when a new applicant comes along and is successfully appointed.

Against the odds, the group has bonded (you hope), and some members have perhaps even become more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses.

It may be that the group’s views of leadership have changed during this process. It is naïve to think that the Church does not bear some sort of comparison to other organisations. An immense body of study now exists on the subject of leadership and, significantly, how it is distinct from management. Several differences have been identified, but probably the most important is the influence that a leader has on other people. Someone can be an effective manager, efficient at maintenance tasks, but lack leadership qualities.


THE period of vacancy has not been all negative and burdensome. Our PCC has successfully completed a grant application —back on the maintenance side. We have participated in a big community event. We have survived a period of challenge and uncertainty.

A rotation of three or four retired priests come to us each Sunday. This has been uplifting, and entertaining at times. A great deal has been learned about the behind-the-scenes laborious administrative work involved in running our church.

You miss a vicar, however —perhaps not in that first, rudderless way, when people simply wanted someone to come along and fill a gap. But there are qualities of leadership that a church needs, even after it has proved that it can survive, and even do quite well, in a period of vacancy.

The administrative position is onerous, and an anathema to many people, but it does not need a priest to do it. A vice-chairman or -woman can take meetings, and Readers can do a great deal. The rota of retired clergy has worked fairly well, too.

The need for a key person has changed over time, and in subtle ways. The new appointee needs to fulfil many positions, but perhaps some of them are difficult to quantify, but easier to feel — a little like faith itself.

We need a person with that element of standing apart from us while belonging to us, and someone who can relate well to members of the community, whether they are churchgoers or not.

In times that are straitened in terms of resources — particularly human resources — it is easy to think that perhaps you can get along all right without that new appointee. But it may well be that, without spiritual leadership, you are in danger of becoming a group of people who belong to a club, and one that becomes increasingly irrelevant to some of the very people whom it would be good to involve.


Noreen Wainwright is a freelance writer, and is married to a churchwarden.


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