On Being a Locum Tenens: Some Ideas

As a person who is now being a Locum Tenens, I tend to attract the horror stories of locums, in order that I might not repeat them, or learn from them.


Two stories that I have heard come from both ends of the spectrum about who is responsible.


One story tells of a locum who went into a struggling congregation and acted just so high handedly that everyone was put off side immediately.


Another tells of a priest who went into a congregation, where he was very pleased to be because he had grown up there. But this congregation was very distinct in its emphasis, and tended to use more of the Roman Rite than the Anglican one. According to my source, the locum made one or two changes which brought the liturgy more into line with the Anglican prayer book. All hell broke loose among some members of the congregation.


So how is the relationship between a locum tenens and a congregation to be understood? What is the role of both congregation and locum during the time of interregnum?


What I have noticed is that at the beginning, some important parameters are set. Of course everyone is on their best behaviour, but at the same time there is some significant negotiation, among strangers, going on. Questions like “Who may enter the rectory’ have to be decided because if the priest is not present full time, then members of the congregation who will have keys will also have to have access. How will services go? The locum’s job is not to change the direction of the congregation, but to maintain its life till a new permanent priest arrives. This involves a degree of humility on the part of the locum too. I am reminded of my pastoral care mentor reminding me ‘Always tread gently into another person’s stream.’ At the same time, the priest remains the person responsible for the liturgy, so he or she has a role from the beginning.


In my experience (just one week) so far, there is a lot of ‘How do you do it? It’s your call’ kinds of sentiments being exchanged.


There is also a lot of grief going on. If a priest is anywhere half ‘ok’ then to lose someone like that is very sad. Often people in congregations feel either betrayed or sad that their priest has gone. The locum has to establish their presence, for sure, but this cannot be at the expense of allowing for the grief or anger of the congregation. How they allow for that process to go on is also an important role for the priest who oversees the transition from one priest to another.


There are two pieces of theory which I know about that I think will stand me in good stead. Both have to do with the application of good thinking to a situation, which can overcome fear.


The first idea is one proposed by Joseph Overton for the political world. It describes the range of ideas that when proposed, the public will find acceptable. Here is a link for it https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window


Some places have very broad ‘Overton Windows’ and some places have very narrow ones. A broad Overton Window means that within the ‘reasonable’ range there is a fair amount of give and take. But in places that tend to be anxious or fearful, there is a narrow Overton window so that any change at all is policed very strictly, because any change represents ‘the end of civilisation as we know it’ or ‘the beginning of the slippery slope which leads to disaster.’


In places where there is a very narrow Overton Window the locum has a more difficult job than in more secure places with a wider Overton Window. Being able to have a discussion about the Overton Window might be a good way of lessening the anxiety among some particularly fearful people.

At worst, a narrow Overton Window can represent the way that those in power hang on to it, so that with the arrival of the locum or new priest, there is no flexibility or at all.


The other idea that I like is the idea of ‘temporal band width’. This idea talks about ‘how long an historical overview’ a person has. I remember one story about President Nixon visiting China. He is said* to have asked premier Zhou Enlai about the impact of the French revolution in 1789. “It is too early to tell” Zhou is reported to have replied. Now of this is true, this shows a wide ‘temporal bandwidth.’ People who are secure in their future, and know where they come from have a ‘wide temporal band with’. They are able to give an account of why it is that they do certain things and what the meaning for them is. Having a wide temporal bandwidth in congregations, and in locums allows them both a bit of give and take in the process of both negotiating their relationship between them, and in giving an account from both sides about what is important. This discovery of what is important will also be helpful to the congregation in their discovery of what kind of a person whom they would like to call to be their priest.


Above all, the application of thinking to a situation is what the human brain has developed to do, in order to modify the passions and fears of our more primitive selves. This kind of thinking may be about theory, or it may be directly about the life of a congregation. Either way, it is a concrete form of love, since perfect love casts out fear.

* This story is too good to leave out, but it is now thought that Zhou had mis-heard Nixon, and was referring to the French upheavals of 1968, not 1789. Still, it’s a great story!


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Religion and Society, Uncategorized, Weekly Reflections From Coller Crt. and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On Being a Locum Tenens: Some Ideas

  1. Pingback: Daniella Melser

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