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“A Model for the Larger Church”: Coaching Group Supports New Clergy

The Rev. Helen Svoboda-Barber has been coaching clergy for eight years, during which a variety of organizational trends have come and gone, but she believes the new constellation model Bishop Shannon has brought to the Diocese of Vermont is the real thing.

“This is a model for the larger church in the next few years,” says Barber, who recently facilitated a yearlong clergy coaching group for six Vermont priests who were either newly ordained or new to the diocese. “Everybody everywhere will be doing this work in the next ten years. Vermont will be a leader.”

Constellation is the diocese’s new term for partnerships that involve clergy sharing and mission collaboration. Churches in constellations do not share vestries or governance, but they do share clergy, thereby creating full-time jobs that can attract experienced clergy to Vermont and retain new clergy who are sponsored for ordination in the diocese.

Retaining newly ordained clergy and attracting clergy from other dioceses has been a challenge in recent years in Vermont, but congregations employing this model have already called two new priests sponsored by the diocese and one new priest from another diocese.

Constellation congregations rely heavily on collaboration among lay leaders. Members are supported by training, coaching, and support from the diocese, a dynamic that adds a new dimension to the job of a clergy member serving multiple parishes.

“Constellations have created humble priests in the best sense of the word,” Svoboda-Barber says. “It is always in the forefront for them that different churches do things in different ways; that community makes community. This is exactly the sort of priest that will be needed for the future: those with the ability to reflect theologically on what is important.”

The first New to Calls Clergy Coaching Group Cohort, which also included six priests from  the Diocese of Montana, met by Zoom for two hours each month during the program year, and recently completed the year with an in-person retreat.

Shared case studies allowed what Svoboda-Barber calls “a deeper dive into common ministry concerns like recruiting and supporting ministry leaders; time management; interpersonal relationships and more. ” And each session ended with a few moments of crafting a specific commitment to change toward a more effective or sustainable model of ministry.

The Rev. Bram Kranichfeld, of All Saints, South Burlington and St. Paul’s Vergennes, says he found the cohort “incredibly valuable.”

“It’s an opportunity to compare notes and find help while being reminded that we are not alone in this,” he says. “It allowed all of us to take a step back and look at our own ministry within a constellation.” Of the Vermont members of the cohort, four are in active constellations.

The Rev. Jeremy Means-Koss, of St. Peter’s, Bennington and St. James’, Arlington, found the developing relationships with members of the cohort a “less overwhelming” way to become connected within the diocese. “Helen is an amazing coach and the fact that the bishop trusts her means we can trust her,” he says. “You knew that if Helen was giving you advice, she was coming from a wise and trusted space.”

“I’m glad that the diocese is doing something like this,” Christine Draffin, senior warden at St. James, says. “It’s a really good thing to have a connection to a group of contemporaries who are going through the same things.” Duffy says she is happy to know that those serving constellations can check in with one another to “see how it’s going” and compare notes.  

In addition to Kranichfeld and Means-Koss, the Vermont cohort included the revs. adwoa Wilson, Darcey Mercier, Linda June Moore, and Melanie Combs.

Means-Koss found Bishop Shannon’s commitment to the cohort helpful.  “The bishop meets with us once a month and makes herself available to us. I emailed her recently with questions and heard back not only with answers, but with tools to help my parish understand and discern the path forward.”

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