Posted in Bold and Honest

On Healthy Leave-taking

As I prepare to leave my first call, I am desperate to do it faithfully.

Social-Media-ELCA-LogoIn 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.

Posted in Ordinary Holiness

Evolving Responsibility

~ make yourself at my home, tell me where you been ~ Flo Rida

Many months ago, I registered for a conference led by Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey at a beautiful conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My wonderful congregation affords me a week for continuing education each year, and I knew that I wanted to spend three of those days with two authors that have formed my own faith in the last few years.

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Just a stage filled with a dozen authors, bloggers, and podcasters I read and listen to regularly. No big deal, you guys.

Their gentle invitation was something like: If you are a doubter who believes or a believer who doubts, if you have been hurt by the church or just can’t make sense of some things, if you are deconstructing unhealthy faith patterns or reconstructing healthy ones, come to the mountains with us and explore what it means to be living out an evolving faith. Thus was born the conference called Evolving Faith 2018.

I’ve been looking forward to this for months. I’ve been reading the books written by many of the presenters (click that link above and see the list of speakers). Some of my sweetest-friends-who-are-also-my-colleagues were going to be there, too!

So, it caught me off guard two days before the event when I got very nervous, and my normally positive self – who loves to gather with people and learn new things – started to feel a bit of…dread? Was it dread? If so, then why?

I asked my daughter to talk through some of my odd feelings as I packed my suitcase. And in the end, I discovered that I was feeling…

Responsible.

You see, the organizers of this event created a Facebook page where those who were registered for the event could get to know each other, find roommates for housing, etc. So, for months, I had been getting to know some of the folks who would be gathering on the mountain with me.

One person posted this question: Anyone else nervous about coming because you carry so much pain about church you aren’t sure you can handle hearing people talk about it?

Dozens of people responded with their own expressions of fear. And if dozens of people commented on the thread, were there actually hundreds of anxious, worried, hurting people coming to the mountain afraid that the truth will be too loud or sharp or icy?

I cannot overstate how kind all these people are. Seriously. They were offering to carpool with each other, be roommates with strangers, share expenses, and all other manner of favors and encouragement. 900 people with only this conference in common became a community of vulnerability out there in cyberspace – and soon we would inhabit the same physical space, we would be the incarnation of the thing we longed for: real community.

So, to learn how much pain people were bringing with them made me feel a lot of feels. A. Lot.

Firstly, they were all coming to North Carolina. They were flying from Canada and all over the United States (one woman came from Somaliland!) to come to our home. It made me feel like a bit of a hostess. You can tell me that’s ridiculous because I was not on the planning team, nor do I work at the retreat center. You can say that, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was feeling it. And Flo Rida was singing, “Welcome to my house…” in my ears whether it was reasonable or not.

Secondly, and way more importantly, I am currently a pastor, a leader in the Church (specifically, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Many of the people traveling toward “my house” when this sense of responsibility was settling over me had been hurt – really hurt – by people who had been leaders in the Church. I’m a member of this cohort of clergy that crosses denominational lines, and I benefit from the respect generally afforded clergy. I cannot point over there to some other group of people who have (and often abuse) authority over the spiritual spaces where people gather to worship, study, and pray. I’m IN that group. Clergy are “my people” and my people have steamrolled over far too many precious lives. And those steamrolled lives…steamroll over others. The generational reach of our manipulation and spiritual abuse cannot be measured.

When I was packed and ready to leave the next day, I laid in bed feeling heartsick.

The next morning, I went to my local store that only stocks goods made in North Carolina. I got small bags of Blister Fried Bertie County peanuts, small bottles of lotions made and bottled in Raleigh, muscadine flavored hard candies and peppermint puff candies made in Lexington, Chapel Hill toffee, and Moravian cookies from Winston-Salem. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with them. I mean, there were maybe 50 items in my bag, and there were over a thousand people registered for the event. But, I packed them into my backpack because…I guess because I needed to do something.

As I drove to Montreat, I tried to figure out why I had bought all that stuff and what in the world I was going to do with it. And I decided that I would simply walk up to a stranger and say, “I’m a pastor in North Carolina, and I’m glad you are here. Here’s a little gift made in North Carolina.” It promised to be awkward, and I guess it was.

Today, I had several of those short conversations as I handed out little gifts. The recipients were kind and funny, and there in Anderson Auditorium, with the incarnational gifts of eye contact, laughter, awkward stumbling sentences, and the physical gifts of candies, peanuts, cookies, and lotion, Spirit had her way with me.

My dread was gone.

My responsibility had become hospitality.

Evolving faith is the best kind of faith.