Sunday, September 19, 2010

Transitions and Light

Yesterday felt good. It wasn't that the congregation was large. But our contemporary worship was cranking and heartfelt. When I preached, my blending of the Gospel and an indictment of compulsive American indebtedness seemed to catch the attention of my flock. Bible study was stronger than usual, meaning the dozen who gathered asked questions. They struggled with the texts. When things didn't make sense, they were willing to say so, and to engage. It felt good.

But the sands, as they say, are running low in the hourglass. At a recent retreat with my session, I confirmed that I would hold myself to my promise of a year ago. In the absence of growth against the metrics I set for the congregation, my departure is now certain. I can't stay at my church long term, because I'm aware that I've finished what I was called there to do. The community is now wholly and completely changed. The congregation that originally called me no longer exists. With a unique congregational character and a new cadre of members passionately commited to growing it, the church has a fighting chance at viability. To do that, it needs to call its own pastor, one who reflects its new identity. So I need to let go, and let it move onward and upward. The question, of course, is how.

The textbook Presbyterian pastoral transition has always felt very odd to me spiritually. Pastors seeking new churches in my denomination do so behind a veil of secrecy and confidentiality. No one can know you're looking, because that could cause all manner of problems. There would be whispering. There would be issues and hurt feelings and draaahmaaah. It's just like looking for a new job in the secular world, quite frankly. You sneak out for "appointments." You make sure your boss doesn't know, unless the whole process is just a way of leveraging a raise, in which case you make sure they do know. That's just the way that the world works. But still.

A few years back, I considered a call at a really wonderful church. They ultimately called someone else...the right person, honestly...but what was hardest on me about that whole process was not the fact that I didn't get the call. What was hardest was all the tiptoeing around. Here I am, sneaking off to preach to someone else, making sure to cover my tracks with a carefully concocted cover story so that my congregation won't find out. Yeah, it was a neutral pulpit, but it felt like a Motel 6 off on some barely used byway. The whole thing felt furtive and a teensy bit adulterous.

Pastoral Nominating Committees also operate inside a Cone of Silence, communicating only with one another, not even sharing the details with their spouses, under penalty of being forced to serve on the committee again the next time a pastor leaves.

If ending a pastoral relationship is about call and not about career, and if as a follower of Jesus Christ you love the sisters and brothers you've been serving, then this whole approach seems off. It doesn't feel like the way children of light should operate. It doesn't feel spiritually healthy. I see no reason my congregation can't look for another pastor while I intentionally help them with that transition. I see no reason why I can't let them know that I'm listening for a call somewhere else, while I pray for and materially support their search for someone who feels God's call to lead them. So far, this totally nonstandard approach seems to have energized my church. Several members, both of old guard and new, have expressed appreciative bafflement. "We've never had a pastor do this for us before."

It will be interesting to see how my Presbytery's Committee on Ministry responds as I request a formal shift to interim status, and they request permission to begin calling a new pastor, even though their old pastor hasn't actually left.


  1. Can I shout Hallelujah?

    You may have stumbled on a core problem in our denomination. Virtually all new pastoral calls are based on... lies!

    How can a relationship be successful when it is based on lies? How can a church grow when its very being stands on a bed of lies?

    Harshly put for effect. But my own congregation called a new pastor some years ago and a secret term of the call was that the associate pastor resign. So the session secretly asked him for his letter of resignation and after a year the new pastor cashed in the letter.

    But the congregation had no wish for him to go. He had no wish to go. When the whole thing came to light it was a disaster.

    You are absolutely right. The less done in hiding under cover of darkness the better.

    John 8:32

  2. I just gotta say this sounds all positively awful. Can't even discuss it with your spouse? Sounds like covert black-ops, man.

    My heartfelt thoughts and prayers for a successful, stress free departure and a soon found new congregation for you.

  3. Yes. The "call system" is broken and has been for a long time. Our categories and processes don't mesh well with either reality or the gospel.

    Jodi, there are not supposed to be any secret terms of call. That associate could not be required to resign over the wishes of the congregation that called him. At least not in Presbyterian churches.... That doesn't mean this sort of thing doesn't happen, though.

    It is very hard to find positions now, btw.

  4. Paul,

    You are right of course, but Presbytery was in there all the way, and if Session was willing to ask for his resignation, he was willing to give it. The clerk at the time told me later he thought it was just a formality, that the new pastor would not really invoke it.

    The key though was the fact that it was done in secret. That when the terms of the call were presented to the congregation, that little fact was omitted. It was omitted until after the vote for the associate's dissolution was taken. All that was presented to the congregation was the resignation, which it sadly accepted.

    It broke the church.

    My complaint is that the system is rigged to allow such abuses. The Church should be a role model of honesty and full transparency, and stand as a bright example to the rest of the world of what truth and honesty is all about.

    My consolation is that the Church is incompetent at keeping things in the dark. Sooner or later, the Holy Spirit forces the light to shine through. A lesson we keep forgetting.

  5. @ Jodie: Gack. That's truly awful, and completely antithetical to the called relation between an associate and a church. I can see, there, how the secular corporate mindset might have woven into that conversation. The new pastor was the head of staff. He...I assume it was a he...wanted to "bring in his own person." Or wasn't comfortable with the dynamic between the associate and the rest of the church. Neither of those approaches is acceptable. If you're not comfortable ministering alongside the folks who will be your pastoral colleagues in serving a community, then don't take the ruddy call.

    @ Paul: I know how hard it is to find a new church, particularly if you don't have the flexibility to move. In my urban Presbytery, almost every new position is insanely competitive. That's been what is most difficult about this for me may, to be realistic about it, mean a period of not serving a church. But this is about call, not livelihood.

  6. Bravo! Thanks for breaking the mold. I'd love to see this process change and this sounds like a good way forward.