Pastoral transitions

Like many parents around the country, Gary and I spent last Friday packing a 14 foot U-Haul with the substance of Talitha’s life.  After 10 straight years of moving kids, furniture, clothing and “stuff” back and forth, we seem to be done with college and graduate school – at least for the moment! 

As Gary drove the U-Haul back from Ann Arbor, and I followed in the car, I couldn’t help but notice the slogan splashed across the back of the truck, “Where will U go next?”  How well that sentence summarizes the itinerant life of United Methodist pastors.

When elders in full connection are ordained in the United Methodist Church, they “offer themselves without reserve to be appointed and to serve, after consultation, as the appointive authority may determine.” (¶333, The Book of Discipline 2008)  We sometimes forget that clergy are appointed year to year, even though cabinets are charged to “work toward longer tenure local church appointments to facilitate a more effective ministry.” (¶434) 

United Methodist elders and local pastors are sojourners, just as the Bible is full of stories about wanderers and strangers without homes.  We are itinerant, which means “working for a short time in various places.”  So the question “Where will U go next? is very real in the lives of pastoral families in the West Michigan Conference year after year.  Many United Methodist pastors around the connection are on the move right now, some just finding out where they are going next.

As with so many other transitions in life, moving always seems to take longer and is much messier than we think.  Gary and I had hoped that Talitha would have everything packed and ready for us to simply throw into the U-Haul.  Ha!  We ended up in Ann Arbor for 4 hours rather than the 1 hour we had anticipated. 

Last year I offered advice to pastors as they build ministry in a new setting.  This year I want to share some tips which I hope will help churches and lay persons support their pastoral family and alleviate some of the inevitable stress and anxiety of moving. 

  • Help your congregation understand how pastors are appointed by Bishop Keaton in consultation with the cabinet.  Church members from non-United Methodist backgrounds may not know why their beloved pastor is moving unless U regularly explain the nature of the appointive system, preferably before your pastor is reappointed.  Most times either the pastor or the church requests a move.  Occasionally, however, a move is initiated by the cabinet.
  • If your church has a parsonage, make sure that it is clean and that appropriate repairs and updating has been done or is in process.  The condition of your parsonage reflects the value U place on pastoral ministry.  At the same time, remember that the parsonage is the pastor’s home as well.  Please respect their privacy and honor their family time.
  • Plan to have volunteers ready to help your new pastor and family unload the moving van when it arrives.  How about stocking the refrigerator?  U can do that even if your pastor has a housing allowance instead of a parsonage.  Offer child care for young children.  Provide a picnic lunch on moving day and dinners for the first week.  Have U ever heard of an old-fashioned pounding?  Why not encourage people to bring a pound of something to the house as a gift?
  • Give your new pastor the opportunity to unpack and adjust before U ask him/her to jump right into ministry.  Pastors need time to get settled so that they don’t begin tired, off-balance and cranky.  In recent years, the cabinet has set the last 2 weeks of June as moving time.  Pastors are not expected to preach either of those 2 weeks and can focus on saying good-bye and hello.
  • Acknowledge the reality of grief.  Just as U may be experiencing feelings of loss, separation, fear and even anger during this transition, remember that your new pastor probably has the same feelings.  When U love someone deeply, U also grieve their departure deeply.  Grieving well includes honesty, courage, prayer and hope.  In one recent introductory meeting, SPRC members were open with the incoming pastor about their grief, but then said this, “Our grief is natural and good.  We love our present pastor, but we will learn to love you as well.”
  • Don’t create an awkward situation by asking the previous pastor to come back to perform pastoral functions like weddings, baptisms and funerals.  U honor him/her when you welcome the new pastor warmly.  Your former pastor can still be your friend but will no longer be your pastor.  Remember Paul’s words regarding Timothy in 1 Corinthians 16:10, “If Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.”
  • Be intentional about caring for your new pastor and family during the first 6 months.  U can be part of hosting a nice all church welcome event in the summer.  Plan small group meetings where the pastor can get to know a large number of people in a short amount of time.  Encourage your pastor to engage in spiritual disciplines and take regular time off every week.  
  • Allow the new pastor to find his/her voice in your congregation.  The strengths of your previous pastor will not be the strengths of your new pastor.  Empower your pastor to discover his/her greatest assets in your church, then find lay people to complement your pastor’s abilities.  Remember that even though your new pastor has been called by God and the church to be in professional ministry, he/she is human, just like U.  Your new pastor is a servant leader but won’t be your savior.  Jesus is your Savior and desires for U to work alongside your pastor to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

There was one more slogan on the U-Haul we rented last week, “Your helping hands along the way.”  Fortunately, Gary and I had the helping hands of Talitha’s friend, Ashwin, on Friday.  Otherwise, we’d probably still be packing!  Yes, moving companies haul a pastor’s stuff to the front door of the parsonage.  But it’s the helping hands of church members like U who greet the pastoral family with graciousness and hospitality and enable both pastor and congregation to get off to a good start.

Where will U go next?”  As sojourners, I and my colleagues never know when “the call” will come, so we continue to wonder as we wander, amazed at the privilege of our call to itinerant ministry.  As July 1 approaches, if U are receiving a new pastor, may God bless your congregation and your departing and incoming pastor.  If U don’t anticipate receiving a new pastor on July 1, please pray for all those in transition.  And for all: offer to be helping hands along the way.

Blessings, Laurie

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