“We’ve got too many pastors serving 3-point charges in this conference…” a Bishop was quoted as saying in my United Methodist Polity class in seminary. The statement continued, “…the church they used to serve, the church they’re appointed to now, and the one they want to be appointed to next.”
The professor used this line as a way of discussing boundaries within pastoral ministry; that you do not (or at least should not) converse much, if at all, with parishioners who used to be under your care and/or are being served by another pastor now. There is great wisdom in this statement, though it is all the more challenging now in the age of social media where networking with friends and acquaintances who live a few hours or half the globe away is possible through venues like facebook, twitter, and so on.
While the statement that led this post off is certainly true of some who have been entrusted to lead in the United Methodist Church, it is my hope that it does not mark the attitude of many or most. Call me naïve, and maybe you’re right, but the fear that some other pastor may be “out to get me or my [current or desired] appointment” feeds a profound, even if subtle, sense of mistrust among United Methodist pastors.
Still, maintaining healthy boundaries is important during the steady or growing seasons when there is neither a need nor desire for a change in pastoral leadership of a charge, but I echo the suggestion Joey Reed, the pastor who preceded me at Liberty & Post Oak UMCs, has made in calling for more transparency when a transition is projected. (You can and should read his side of the story here.) It’s been four weeks since I’ve moved into the parsonage & charge he previously inhabited. I’m not sure where I’d be if it weren’t for his helpful responses to the many questions I raised in preparation for moving into pastoral ministry.
Yes, this is my first appointment, and that means that there were fewer responsibilities on my part as I wasn’t saying goodbye as a pastor to another congregation, though saying goodbye to our friends at Nicholasville UMC was difficult and tear-filled. Since I didn’t have the same sort of duties that most other UM Pastors have who go through the process of saying goodbye to one charge and hello to the new one, my preparation looked a little different than most. Still, I had in the back of my mind the territorialism I was warned about so often during my education. Therefore, I proceeded with caution when I approached Joey with a few questions about the Liberty and Post Oak churches, to which I was projected to be appointed. I even asked for forgiveness in advance if I happened to overstep a boundary.
I didn’t know Joey before my projected appointment but I had actually encountered his name before. I had been living in central Kentucky for the past decade before moving back to the Memphis Conference. I confided in my college roommate and longtime close friend (a United Methodist pastor in the Kentucky Conference) that I was pursuing re-entrance into the ordination process (another story for another day) in the UMC and hoping for an appointment in the Memphis Conference, in which I was raised as a child and youth and was previously a certified candidate for ordained ministry. Upon sharing this news with my friend, his wife said, “Oh, my cousin’s husband is a pastor in the Memphis Conference!” That cousin’s husband was…you guessed it, Joey Reed.
So I knew his name, but I didn’t really know him, so (again) I proceeded with caution. When I first made contact with him via email, he promised to be as open as he could, with obvious exceptions like maintaining confidentiality of conversations with parishioners where it was expressed or assumed. Needless to say, I was very relieved to have his promised candor, and he did not disappoint as he followed through in that regard. He and his family even opened up the parsonage for my family to view and measure each room. This was very helpful for my wife, an avid planner, who did a blueprint of each room to be able to plan out in advance how to arrange the furniture, etc. This brings up a significant issue in pastoral transitions and how more transparency can help: the role of the pastor’s family and the changes, emotions, and expectations they experience along the way. Joey’s family made us feel right at home as they sent pictures and measurements, opened their homes, and even gave gifts to our kids (ages 5 & 2 at the time; think about how much that meant to them!).
Most of my questions were logistical in nature, trying to get a sense of the way things were run at each congregation, the time of the services, how structured the liturgy was at each church, etc. We didn’t discuss personalities or mention names, except to point out the names of people in certain positions of leadership at the churches. But the questions I asked that required the more lengthy discussions (where he writes we had to take some breaks for meals…lol!) were the ones about the direction and vision of the churches. Now, these conversations should always take place between the new pastor and her/his congregation(s) and I would need to hear these matters from the folks at the churches themselves also, but knowing that Joey was transitioning out of Liberty and Post Oak on good terms made the dialogue appropriate, in my view, as he gave me some perspective in preparation. (Obviously, the pastor leaving on “good terms” is not always the case, so practicing discernment on which questions to ask and which to wait to ask until arrival is obviously significant.) That Joey left Liberty & Post Oak on good terms has had the blessings of being able to be more prepared, even if that meant more challenges in filling the shoes of one who was so well-liked by the people. I experienced and witnessed that he was beloved by the congregations in several ways and I especially saw this at a reception, a meet-and-greet of sorts for me and my family at the churches where both his family & mine were in attendance. I had already been told of the abundant hospitality of both the Reeds and the churches. When I experienced it firsthand and saw his encouraging them to warmly welcome us, that meant the world to me.
But even if you’ve read Joey’s previous post and if you’re reading this thinking I’m being too naïve and that little if any of this would work in many situations, would you please incorporate one thing into the life of your church the next time you are in the midst of pastoral transition? Please pray for the incoming pastor, by name, in the service, every week from the time when the projected appointment is made until the new pastor moves into the pulpit. As helpful as Joey’s transparency and the churches’ hospitality was in preparation for the move, these prayers were the most important part and gave fuel to the process that made my transition as easy as it could be. We Methodists believe in prevenient grace…that God’s grace has gone before us wherever we are. But belief in prevenient grace also includes the notion that God’s grace is going before us wherever we will go next. Once the projection of a transition has been made, as long as you’re alive and conscious there’s nothing (except your own will and pride) that could prevent your prayers for the new pastor and his/her family in the transition that lies ahead of them. And maybe, just maybe, if we genuinely lift up to God in prayer those who are heading our way, we might find that our hearts will be moved to make the landing strip a little more smooth than what has been the norm and fewer batons will be dropped.