Transformative Lessons in Leadership

Almost two years ago, I received an email from our diocesan Canon for Congregational and Leadership Development inviting me to consider applying for a “Boot Camp” for new rectors and lay leaders from their congregations. The Boot Camp is part of the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) Lilly National Initiative, in partnership with the Church Pension Group (a powerhouse combination!). At that time, I was a little over six months into the call to serve as the rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clemson, SC. Let’s just say that this newbie rector was thrilled at the prospect of being equipped “with training and relevant resources to help [our] congregation collaboratively address the challenges of parish finance and administration.”

I knew when I arrived at Holy Trinity that I was entering a complex system: Holy Trinity is a transition-sized parish in a growing University town, located on the edge of the campus of Clemson University. We have a day-school for children ages 2-4 that serves the community, with many of our day-school families associated with the University as students, faculty or staff. We have a Canterbury ministry that is solid, but could expand with additional resources. We are custodial care-givers of our historic “mother Church,” 199-year-old St. Paul’s and churchyard, located three miles away. We are discerning the use of our expanded property in our prime location proximate both to the University campus and the downtown commercial area.

Preparing for and participating in the Boot Camp provided a much-needed opportunity to step back and really take in the complexity of the Holy Trinity system. Having two of Holy Trinity’s lay leaders involved in this process was a pure gift. Together, we gathered materials to bring with us to Boot Camp: financial documents, visioning materials, and pictures representative of the parish and our mission and ministry. We reflected on the “three essential facts that people should know” about Holy Trinity. We wondered about what we would gain from our time at Boot Camp.

The Boot Camp experience

I have vivid memories of walking into St. Luke’s’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta and seeing nine or ten other congregational teams with whom we would spend the next few days. We spent two and a half days in that lovely space learning about visioning and planning, stewardship and fundraising, basics of parish finance and administration, collaborative leadership and personal finance. We networked with other teams, sharing stories and comparing challenges and solutions. And, of course, being good Episcopalians, we broke bread together in worship and in fellowship over meals. There was even singing and dancing at one point!

One of the first things we did was to create a storyboard with the materials we had been asked to gather and bring with us. We were given what seemed to be a ridiculously short length of time in which to create a visual representation of the mission and ministry of our parish on a tri-fold display board. In some ways, that exercise was one of the most fruitful parts of the Boot Camp for our team: as we assembled the storyboard, we began to see the existing connections between the moving parts of our system and imagined new connections, all centered around the upcoming 200th anniversary of the founding of our mother church. This exercise set the stage for the ultimate take-away of the Boot Camp: a step-by-step plan for bringing the various parts of our complex system together to plan a 200th birthday party for St. Paul’s in June of this year.

The plan is very ambitious. As a matter of fact, as I look back over the last year and a half of working towards our goal, I have to smile a bit at the naivete of some of our expectations. Although I sometimes wish I had a magic wand to wave and make things fall into place, it is just a fact of life that aligning the goals and passions of church groups takes time. Lots and lots of time. More time than we had allowed in our planning document that we brought home from Boot Camp. It became apparent very quickly that a plan for transformational change presents very real challenges to parish leaders and clergy in the first few years of our shared ministry.

Post Boot Camp: the coaching component

That’s why I’m so thankful for the coaching that was provided after the ECF Boot Camp experience. I was able to choose an experienced ministry coach with whom I worked for the next six months as part of the ongoing support for this program. The follow up to Boot Camp was an especially fruitful aspect of the whole experience. My coach and I began by identifying some leadership skills to work on as our team began to share our experiences with other leaders in the parish. We met by phone every few weeks to assess both my personal development and our team’s progress in presenting and implementing our action plan. Having that kind of support, focused on my role within our parish leadership, was invaluable. Just in terms of time management alone, those sessions have made a dramatic difference in the way I organize myself for ministry.

The values of leadership that we explored together and the skills that my coaching partner helped me to hone continue to bear fruit in my personal ministry. From time management to pastoral care, my ministry in the parish has benefitted from the work we did together over those six months. When our contracted time ended, I was determined to find a local clergy coach and have been working with an ecumenical cohort in coaching this year. I doubt that I would have made that effort if I hadn’t experienced first-hand the benefits of that particular method of leadership development.

The grand plan that our team brought home from Boot Camp has not unfolded in quite the way that we mapped out. Many of the pieces have not come together, but some have—and in ways we could not have imagined. Unforeseen challenges arose, including a devastating health issue for one of our lay team members. However, the Holy Spirit has done what She often does, guiding us to see opportunities for new life when our well-laid plans fall apart. We are planning a two-day celebration for our Mother Church, St. Paul’s—it just looks somewhat different from our original expectations. We are also embarking on a project to improve our current gravel parking lot into a space that will literally reshape our presence in the community, providing adequate parking for our needs and green space for the community to enjoy.

We are still working on getting all the moving parts of our complex system aligned in purpose and structure—and we’ve made significant changes that are beginning to take root. I can foresee a time when this careful—and painstakingly slow!—work that we began 19 months ago will begin to produce new growth. The connections between the various ministries that we first noted as we were putting together our storyboard are becoming clearer and more robust. We still have a lot of work to do, getting ready for our big party in June. If you’re in the vicinity of Pendleton, SC, on June 8 or 9 of this year, come by and help us celebrate St. Paul’s 200th birthday!

Click here to watch the ECF Boot Camp video.

The Rev. Suz Cate, MDiv., has served as the Rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clemson, SC, for two and a half years. As a function of her role as the Rector of Holy Trinity, she also serves as Priest-in-charge of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in nearby Pendleton, SC, an un-organized mission of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.

Photo credit: Alejandro Montes