Nine years ago, Gary and I packed a fourteen-foot U-Haul with the substance of our youngest daughter’s life. After ten straight years of moving kids, furniture, clothing, and “stuff” back and forth, we anticipated being done with college and graduate school—at least for the moment!
As Gary drove the U-Haul from Ann Arbor back to Grand Rapids MI, 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 2016) We sometimes forget that clergy are appointed year to year, even though bishops and cabinets “should work toward longer tenure local church appointments to facilitate a more effective ministry.” (BOD, ¶429)
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 “traveling from place to place” or “covering a circuit; as in itinerant preachers.” Year after year, the question, “Where Will U Go Next?” is very real in the lives of pastoral families in the Iowa Annual Conference and around the United Methodist connection. Many clergy are packing right now and will soon be on the move.
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 our daughter would have had everything packed and ready for us to simply throw into the U-Haul. Ha! We ended up in Ann Arbor for four hours rather than the one hour we had anticipated.
As our clergy who are moving are already thinking about building ministry in a new setting, I’d like to share a few tips that 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 United Methodist bishops 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 have been done or are 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 or another small gift to the house?
- Give your new pastor the opportunity to unpack and adjust before U ask him/her to jump right into ministry. The cabinet has set the last two weeks of June and the first week of July as the primary move window, with six trucks in operation around the state. Of course, there will be other moves before and after the move window as well. You might want to have someone else preach that first Sunday so that your new pastor can focus on saying both good-bye and hello. Pastors need time to get settled so that they don’t begin tired, off-balanced, and cranky.
- Meet regularly. It’s wise for the SPRC to meet with the new pastor monthly in the first year to facilitate good communication and establish mutual expectations.
- Recognize the range of emotions that church members and pastors navigate when transitions occur. Just as U may be experiencing feelings of loss, separation, fear, and even anger during this transition, remember that your new pastor may have the same feelings. When U love someone deeply, U also grieve their departure deeply. The congregation celebrates the ministry of their pastor who is leaving. And then, within a few days, they are supposed to be prepared and happy to welcome their new pastor. When I was a district superintendent, I remember the tender words of a SPRC during an AIM (Appointment Introductory Meeting). They 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 six months. U can be part of hosting an all church welcome event in the summer. Plan small groups meetings where the pastor can get to know people in a short amount of time. Be clear about important events in the life of the church and community and how they are celebrated. Encourage your pastor to engage in spiritual disciplines and take regular time off every week.
- Allow the new pastor to find her/his voice in your congregation. The strengths of your previous pastor will likely not be the strengths of your new pastor. Empower your pastor to discover his/her greatest assts in your church, then identify lay people with gifts that 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, she/he 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 for our daughter, “Your helping hands along the way.” Fortunately, Gary and I had the helping hands of one of our daughter’s friends the day of the move. 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 that 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, clergy 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 pastors. 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!