For 17 years, the diocese’s Fresh Start program has supported hundreds of clergy to make successful transitions from one parish to another. Now, the program is going through a few transitions of its own.
After a survey of the clergy who have gone through the program in the last five years, the diocese learned that they enjoyed and appreciated the support and opportunities to build collegial relationships with fellow clerics, but many of them found the program to be a large time commitment and contained a lot of content to digest.
“So, we decided to revamp the program,” says the Rev. Canon John Wilton, who led the program’s redesign.
Among the changes to the program are a reduced number of modules, dropping the length of the program from two years to one with the number of monthly sessions now 10. The revamped program will run from September to June, but clergy can join the program at any point. Another change is that the topic of the June module will be chosen by the participants themselves, giving them more control over what they focus on in the program.
“We’ve pared it back to the essentials,” says Canon Mary Conliffe, who also worked on the program’s revamp.
The essence of the program is a focus on sharing, problem-solving as a group and building relationships. To do that, the program is keeping a critical-incident section for each module, in which a member of the group gives an example of a problem they are facing in their ministry, and the presenter listens as the rest of the group discuss their reaction to the issue presented and what insights they may have about what is going on.
“Every time people go through the program, I hear how grateful they are for that support,” says Canon Wilton. “It lets them know they are not alone, and it also lets us celebrate their accomplishments.”
That approach to problem-solving is part of appreciative inquiry, which is a guiding principle of the program that looks at what works and how resources could best be used to implement solutions, rather than focusing on the problem.
“It’s a much more positive way to look at transitional issues,” says Canon Wilton. “It shifts the focus from what’s the problem to what’s working.”
Those supportive experiences form the basis of relationship-building, which is at the heart of the Fresh Start program, says Canon Conliffe. “The relationships are the product,” she says. “And we’ve seen the payoff for that in the life of the diocese.”
The Fresh Start facilitation team spent two years reworking the content of the program, deciding what modules to keep, compress or remove. Updated graphics and presentation slides have also been created. Finding the balance between providing participants with informative content and creating more space for participants to interact with each other was key to successfully revamping the program.
“While this is a mandatory program for clergy, we also want to make sure it’s worthwhile” says Canon Wilton. “We’ve listened to our clergy, cut down the content and increased opportunities for support.”
While the program is mandatory for clergy, there are also valuable and meaningful ways for congregations to support a new cleric entering their church. In workshops such as history-sharing, facilitated by volunteers, members of the congregation have the opportunity to tell their stories and new priests can see what challenges and opportunities exist in the parish, says Elizabeth McCaffrey, the diocese’s Volunteer Resources Coordinator. The stories often bring out themes of resiliency, and people see themselves as being able to withstand trials and hardships, she says.
“Fresh Start reminds us of the importance of our stories, and we are people of the story,” she says. “I think history-sharing is the most helpful and fun workshop, and it can be transformational.”
The revamped program launches in September with groups in each of the diocese’s four episcopal areas. With the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, these first participants benefit even more from the program.
“In uncertain times like these, transitions will be more difficult, which makes Fresh Start more important,” says Canon Wilton.