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Keeping clergy covenant

Sometimes pastoral transition can be heart breaking. Here’s how to say a healthy, “Goodbye.”

Superintendent, Albion District

I’ve only had to do it three times so far — when I left my first appointment in Maryland, when I left my second appointment in Stevensville, and when I left my third appointment in Traverse City. The Rev. Dale Miller begins as Superintendent of the Albion District on July 1.

So, soon I will do it again. Saying, “Goodbye (which means God Be With You!). You have a new pastor starting July 1. I will be part of the church’s history. I won’t be back. Please don’t ask me to come back. You and I are both are beginning a new chapter of life and ministry – one that doesn’t include each other anymore. If I’ve meant anything at all to you, embrace your new pastor (your new DS) as my colleague, and as my sister/brother in Christ. For the sake of our collective mission from the Lord, build your relationship with your new pastor. Love him/her!”

My heart has broken every time – yet I know it’s been the right thing to do. It still is the right thing to do. I’m no longer the pastor. One of my colleagues is about to become the pastor. Out of deep respect for my colleagues, I will no longer function in a pastoral role where I am no longer the appointed pastor.

There have been people in every single one of the congregations I’ve pastored who have made it extremely clear that they don’t like it, don’t agree with it, and think I should be able to “come back” to officiate at their daughter’s wedding or their grandfather’s funeral. It’s hard to help them understand that this is something we clergy do (here in the United Methodist Church but in other denominations as well) because of our relationship with one another – our “clergy covenant”.

We aren’t leaving them “pastor-less” – we’re just taking a stand and honoring the fact that they have a new one who isn’t us anymore. Truly, even though we’re spread out among many churches, many communities, many areas of the state, we pastors are in this work together. We’re all on the same team, all serving Christ together. It’s not “about us” – it’s about the mission to make disciples of the Lord we love and serve together. We clergy know, from the very moment we enter into a new pastoral appointment, that it is a temporary situation. We are appointed one year at a time, and we never really know which year will be our last. One day we will move away, and a new pastor will move in.

It has been this way for 235 years! One day we will no longer be “pastor” in that community – a new person will. This is especially difficult because in truth none of us turn off our emotions or end human relationships simply because we move away. It becomes particularly challenging and painful when a pastor has been supporting a person or a family through a crisis, and then one day must step away so the new pastor, who is a stranger, can step in – even though the crisis is far from over! This clergy colleague covenant we have to honor and respect pastoral boundaries isn’t always easy.

So what are some “best practices” we can put into place to support each other and our congregations, not only in the midst of pastoral changes but well before the next change comes?

  1. EDUCATE YOUR CONGREGATION about the fact that in the UMC every pastor is appointed to serve only one year at a time, and that a change of appointment – though they usually occur on July 1 – can happen anytime. Even when things are going really well at the church! Pastors, educate your congregation about the fact that YOU HAVE FREELY CHOSEN to be part of this “appointive system”, and why you have done so. Help them understand that you know your time with them is temporary and that one day you will be asked to move and pastor somewhere else, or you will retire. And please, don’t just wait until it actually happens. It may not happen for another dozen years – or it may happen tomorrow! Many people in our churches today didn’t grow up in the UMC and aren’t aware that their pastor will be moved. They are completely shocked when an announcement about a pastoral change is made. Be kind, and educate your congregation all year long, every year you are there.
  2. EDUCATE YOUR CONGREGATION about the fact that our UMC system is an “episcopal” and “appointive” system, not an “independent” and “search and hire” system. Many people in our local churches have come to us from denominations that hire and fire their own pastor. They are used to having a “search committee” that looks for a new pastor. They are used to having interim pastors put into place while the search for a new pastor is happening – a process that can take months or even years. They are used to having potential new pastors come and preach for them, and for having a congregational vote to hire the new pastor. There is nothing wrong with this process – but it’s not the way we do it in the UMC. Those in our congregations who come from churches that “search and hire” are often thrown into a tizzy when an unexpected announcement is made in one of our UMC local churches that the pastor is leaving, soon followed by another announcement naming the new pastor who is coming. For their sake in particular, please educate your congregation about our UMC appointive system throughout the year, every year you are there.
  3. EDUCATE YOUR CONGREGATION about the covenant our clergy have with each other when it comes to pastoral boundaries. Help them understand that one future day when you move away to pastor elsewhere or retire, your automatic, default position is that you will not be back. You will NOT be coming back after July 1 to do a wedding, or a funeral, or to make a hospital visit – these all belong to the new pastor now. Sometimes, on rare occasions, the new pastor invites us back to participate in something with them – and under such circumstances, we will consider it. But even then, we have a new appointment to attend to, and may not be able to come back even when invited. Do what you can to help them begin to grasp that someday when you move away and a new pastor comes, you will want them to have a great relationship with their new pastor, as well as strong ministries together. One of the best ways to help this happen is for the former pastor to get out of the way! Let the new pastor BE the pastor.
  4. When the time does come for you to say good-bye as you move to a new appointment or retire, BE VERY CLEAR WITH YOUR CONGREGATION ABOUT WHAT THIS WILL MEAN FOR ALL OF YOU. Use multiple means of communication – sermons, articles, statements at church gatherings and meetings, website, etc. – to clarify for them what it means that you will no longer be their pastor starting on a particular day. Don’t assume that because you said it once, it has been heard, understood, and won’t be a problem! Use multiple means of communication multiple times.
  5. And finally, KEEP THE CLERGY BOUNDARIES COVENANT every time you move, and whenever you retire. Don’t go back to that church or community to engage in anything that could be interpreted as “pastoral” unless invited to do so by and preferably with the new pastor. If you do maintain any friendships with people from your former church, BE VERY CAREFUL to differentiate yourself from your former pastoral role, and BE VERY CAREFUL whenever conversation turns to the church and the new pastor. It just isn’t appropriate for you to be the one that former parishioners “share with” if they have concerns about their new pastor. This is true with email, Instagram, Facebook, and all other social media avenues —  as well as phone calls and face-time.

Leaving one appointment and beginning another isn’t easy for congregations, clergy, or clergy families. It won’t be easy for me, either, but I’m getting rid of my dstamara email account, and will be screening all calls since I plan to keep the same cell number! Even when we trust that God is involved in the process, and we are following where the Lord is leading us, it is so often a “bitter-sweet” mix of positive and negative. So let’s do what we can to make the process as good as possible, and follow the five ideas outlined above.

God bless you and keep you – especially you who are experiencing appointive change now!

Last Updated on June 12, 2017

The Michigan Conference