As I prepare to leave my first call, I am desperate to do it faithfully.
In the ELCA, there are rules in place for every pastor who leaves every congregational call, and those rules all really boil down to one thing: You are no longer the pastor of that congregation, and God is calling someone else to be their pastor.
In the days when my dad was a pastor, while it may have been emotionally difficult to sever ties with a congregation, it happened much more smoothly than it does today. We would pack up our things and move to a new city, get a new (land line) phone number, and Dad would begin serving a new congregation with very little contact from his former one. He didn’t have a cell phone number he kept when he moved from city to city. He didn’t have an email address for people to keep using. There weren’t social media platforms he had to make decisions about with regard to these relationships. We moved, and we would occasionally get Christmas cards from some folks in former congregations, but it was a fairly simple leave-taking.
Today, things are blurrier.
The reasoning behind a pastor really, truly moving on, moving away from the congregation is still the same: That pastor is no longer the pastor of that congregation, and God is calling someone else to be their pastor. How will people develop relationships of trust and vulnerability with their new pastor if they are still looking to their former pastor for that?
In Sunday school this morning, we were talking about it, and Heather said something like, “It’s really a matter of hospitality, isn’t it? How do we best welcome this new pastor into our faith community? Not by continuing to count on a different pastor. How do we honor the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing this particular leader into our congregation? Not by acting like we want our former pastor to still be our pastor.”
And I completely agree.
Y’know what? I agree with T.J., too. When we were talking this morning, I explained that if he texted me in a few years and invited me to attend his college graduation, like I just attended his high school graduation a few weeks ago, I would have to tell him I am proud of him, but I am not his pastor…and I would suggest that he invite his current pastor. T.J. said that sounded mean. So, I said, “What if Pastors Sue and Tim stayed connected to you, and a few weeks ago, you had invited them to your graduation, but not me?” He looked up and said, “Oh. It seems mean, but it’s not mean.”
Yes, T.J., you are spot on.
Tim and Sue Gamelin were the pastors of Emmanuel before I came (with the exception of David, a great interim pastor). When they left Emmanuel, they still lived one town over, and they easily could have remained in community with the people of Emmanuel. But Tim and Sue offered me such grace in their leave-taking. They told me they prayed for me, encouraged me whenever I saw them, and stayed away. They never once told someone, “Sure, I’d be glad to do your mom’s funeral…if it’s okay with Pastor Jennifer.” You know how I know they never did that? Because I never once got a call from a congregation member putting me in the position of seeming jealous and saying no…or relinquishing my pastoral position and saying yes. If anyone asked them, they must have said something like, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s death, and I will pray for you, but Pastor Jennifer is your (and your mom’s) pastor now.”
I intend to give that same gift to whoever comes after me.
But, it’s not as simple as just declining invitations to preside at weddings, funerals, baptisms, and such. With social media as prevalent as it is, how does a pastor unplug from a congregation? Because I don’t even have a land line, everyone at Emmanuel has my cell phone number. If they text me after I leave, what do I do? How do I not seem mean? The only way possible to do this is to talk about it now, show people the reasons for the rules.
Oh, and here’s another thing! Somehow, we can tend to think that WE’LL be the exception to the rule, that WE’LL figure out the perfect blend of loving relationship and faithful relinquishing of the pastoral role in the lives of the people we have loved deeply for years – while leaving lots of space for them to develop the loving, trusting relationship they should have with their new pastor. Well, I know that I am not the exception. I am not more clever or more faithful or more anything than others. So, I will abide by the boundaries set in place by the ELCA – even when it’s difficult.
Here are the boundaries as they are set by the ELCA.
When a pastor accepts a call to a congregation, a sacred covenant is established between that pastor and the people of God in that place. In order that the ministry might be strong and effective, it is important for that relationship to be strengthened and nurtured until God calls that pastor to another sector of ministry. When a pastor resigns/retires, that covenant ends. How does a pastor relate appropriately to members of congregations where one has previously served? We provide the following guidelines, with the hope that it will give direction so that good choices are made which do not negatively impact the ministry of the people of God.
Pastoral Ethics: For Pastors Resigning
1. It is your responsibility as a former pastor to decline invitations to conduct pastoral acts in any former parish. It is important that you do not pass the burden of such decisions back to the pastor who currently holds that call. If asked to function in a pastoral role, the best response is “because I am no longer your pastor it would not be appropriate for me to do that,” perhaps followed by “I will pray for you and would be happy to attend as a friend. Do not say “you will have to consult the current pastor.” That puts the current pastor in the no-win situation of either relinquishing the pastoral role to you, or appearing to be jealous and uncaring.
2. It is your responsibility as a former pastor to be supportive of your successor, even when that is difficult to do. If your ministry was appreciated, then you have great power to affect your successor’s ministry. If you can’t say good things, say nothing, and do it graciously. 3. While the above statements are addressed to pastors, spouses of pastors should consider the same factors, and also respect the recommendations made above.