If, in the life cycle of a church parish, there are times of high energy and low energy, two years ago "we were in a trough," recalled Randy Cooper.
Cooper is senior warden at the Church of the Holy Comforter. Consecrated in 1889, the Episcopal stronghold with traditional red doors and a relatively affluent parish sits on seven acres at Bellona and Seminary avenues in Lutherville.
The church's "trough" came following the retirement of Holy Comforter's former rector, Janice Gordon-Barnes, after 20 years. Average Sunday attendance had dropped in a decade from 222 to 136. The church has always had a strong core of lay leadership, but the leaders had grown older and there were few younger people stepping up to the plate — or filling the collection plate.
"People pass on or die or move away," Cooper said. "Looking down the road you have to prepare for that kind of shift. Without replacing them with a younger demographic, you at some point are going to run out of people."
Cooper summed it up in The Cupola, the church newsletter: "Continuing along the same path is an easy route. However, if trends from the last 10 years continue, our same path will quickly become a dead end."
The church's journey ultimately led to the appointment of a new rector this summer — the Rev. Christopher Tang, who had actually served as associate rector at Holy Comforter in 1999, and now returns to a mission to engage both young and aging members.
The selection process was a path that saw the church challenging itself to chart a new course for its flock, and also engage members in that mission.
"We didn't want to become the Church of the Highly Comfortable," quipped Robin Vahle, who has been a parishioner for more than 15 years.
Vahle, a registered nurse who is director of compliance and ethics with Blue Cross-Blue Shield, chaired a 10-person search committee charged with finding candidates to replace Gordon.
But, "the reality is that churches need lay leadership, as well as clerical leadership," Vahle said. "It was time to grow that core of lay leadership, to get more folks involved.
"People stay in churches — or places — when they are actively engaged," Vahle said. "They need to feel that what they are contributing makes a difference, whether it's time, talent or money."
The committee had to determine where parishioners wanted the church to go before they began the process of finding a new rector to lead them there, so they surveyed members with 80 questions.
Noting that Holy Comforter's mission statement is, "to be Christ's arms of love reaching out to this broken world," Cooper said the church needed to implement programs "that serve our community, our neighbors and ourselves in ways that emphasize and demonstrate our beliefs as Christians."
Still, parishioners said they wanted a good leader and a strong preacher, interested in working with a broad spectrum of age groups — including young and the old — and in strengthening pastoral care.
The committee received 79 applications — from as far away as Colorado, California and Canada — and working in three-person teams, conducted 79 separate 45-minute telephone interviews, even though it was obvious from the beginning that some applicants wouldn't be a good fit.
"If they cared about us enough to apply, they deserved that," Vahle said, who noted that the field was eventually narrowed to nine. "We were really blessed with a number of strong, strong candidates."
Tang, who had been rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Hampstead since he left his position as associate rector at Holy Comforter in 1999, had no plans to apply.
"I was happy where I was," said Tang, 45, a computer analyst with a degree in economics from University of Maryland before he was called and entered Virginia Theological Seminary in 1996.
But Bishop John Rabb wanted him to put his name in. "He thought we might be a good match," Tang said.