Some more thoughts on pastoral transition away from a congregation. There will also be others about moving to a church as well....don't worry!
There is a danger in comparing the pastor/parish relationship to a romantic relationship. There are in fact, many disturbing ways that a pastoral relationship can go off the rails with this metaphor. However, at times, this metaphor can be helpful in describing how people behave in churches and as pastors. Two of those times are during pastoral recruitment (courting, proposing, the honeymoon period as you begin a church) and during pastoral departure (dissolving of relationship). Today I want to talk about the dissolution of pastoral relationships, and how persons and churches can be "good break-up" churches and "bad break-up" churches, "good break-up" pastors and bad break-up" pastors.
I think we all know people who are good folks, but bad break-up people. You know how it is. They get into a relationship with a significant other. The relationship goes well. But then, it is time to end the relationship. And, when it is the time to end the relationship, they cannot help but going nuclear. They can't just leave the person, they must destroy them in the process. They can't come to the point after three weeks of dating where they decide they are not right for each other, they also have to get angry or rude in the process.
I have friends who are good pastors, but they are bad break-up pastors. They love people. They grow churches. They make a difference. Then they decide to leave. When they leave, they decide to let everything hang out. Those conversations where they might have held back before, they now just let loose in. They make a point to make the church feel bad for their part in the dissolution of the relationship. They tell people they have tolerated during their tenure how they "really feel". Their departure causes divisions. This is often true when the dissolution is exclusively the pastor's decision, because many pastors, one way or another, believe that they were pushed into making a transition due to circumstances in the present congregation which made it difficult to live in, or be effective in ministry.
Another type of bad break-up pastor is the one that is not willing to walk through the transition phase with the church in a way that equips them for what is ahead. They focus on the relationships, but they don't do the necessary behind the scenes work or challenge the church to ask the necessary questions to effectively face the change that is ahead. They want to leave popular and happy, and they do not want to equip the congregation for life without them. They leave, and they take stuff with them. The church sputters in their absence because of this bad break-up.
Then there is the type of bad break-up where the pastor who leaves, but never really lets go. They don't want to pastor the church anymore, but they want all the attention and accolades that come from being a beloved pastor. These pastors want to do funerals of prominent members, but not board meetings. They run to beat their successor to the hospital for hospital visits. They talk freely with former members about how things were when they attended, and how they did things, and they question the policies and preaching of their successor. They want to be seen as the current pastor without doing any of the pastoral work.
This is very hard for the pastors that follow. I remember a pastor that constantly had to fend off a pastor from funerals and hospital visits within her congregation. He had connections with the hospital and the funeral home. For the first 3-4 years, he was always the first to know anything, and the former pastor used his history with the church as a bludgeon to punish my friend with for being pastor instead of him.
This kind of bad break-up pastor is like the boyfriend that breaks up with a gal, but then keeps stalking her and harassing anyone she dates next. They don't want to be committed as pastor, but they can't handle seeing anyone else in their place either.
I don't want to be a bad break-up pastor, but there are moments where it is a temptation. And, nobody is perfect in this regard. This is because both a pastor and a congregation are grieving during a pastoral transition, and it is easy as hurt people to lash out and hurt people.
I think most of my career I have done a good job during pastoral transition as being a good break-up pastor. This is how I do it, and am striving to continue to do so:
- I share stories and encourage others to share stories that celebrate what we have accomplished together--trying to articulate a beginning, middle, and healthy end to the ministry narrative. I seek to not use the attention I get during the transition to grind axes about things that I was not listened to about while I was committed to being the church's pastor. I try to not wear my hurt on my sleeve--and even in the best transitions in the best pastor/parish relationships, there is hurt.
- I try to establish healthy boundaries for the future in my relationship with the church that will allow for healthy positive regard and a few meaningful friendships, while severing professional and pastoral ties. I don't always do that right, but overall I think the churches I serve and I have done things well.
- I use my transitional time to equip the congregation for change. I help them know who to contact, how to find stuff. I give them permission to take leadership. I advise them on some of the challenges they are going to face. I help them to find people to fill important roles after my transition. This was particularly effective leaving Montana, where I was able to continue to equip my youth ministry team to carry on in my absence.
What kinds of things have you noticed about this process. What do you find most and least helpful?