Our Common Life…

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that transition is a big part of conference work.  Your conference staff works with people, groups, and churches in many types and stages of transition.  We especially work with clergy and congregations in pastoral transition.

Earlier this week I read something that flew in face of common church practice.  Even though it challenged our usual ways of doing things, it was so sensible that I had to sit quietly for a bit and ponder the contradiction between the author’s assertions and our usual practices.

In their book on pastoral transition (“The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions”), authors Carolyn Weese and Russell Crabtree take gracious but deliberate aim at the ways many clergy – myself included – have tended to handle our own transitions.  Using Jesus as a model, they initially posit six principles about transition and insist that our general reluctance to address these principles is costly – costly to congregations and costly to the clergy who lead those congregations. 

Does it strike you as odd (as it does me) how rarely the new pastor celebrates the ministry of his or her predecessor?  In so many cases, a disinterested observer who monitors the first days and months of a new pastor’s tenure might conclude that the church has never had a pastor before!  In the glow of the new relationship, reference to the past – especially recent past – is often a very rare thing.  Contrast this with Jesus who made the ministry of his immediate predecessor (John the Baptist) a centrally important aspect of his own transition into ministry – and something he talked about often and in depth.

Even more perplexing are the ways many clergy handle the ending of their ministry in a particular place.  In my experience, many clergy seem desperately eager to just vanish – and do that disappearing act just as surreptitiously as possible.  Well before the end of his own ministry, Jesus talked about being gone.  Sometimes his disciples were perplexed – sometimes they were upset at these conversations – but Jesus was not deterred from making overt focus on transition an unmistakable aspect of his work.

I am convinced that effective pastoral ministry includes attention to one’s own beginnings and endings and a respectful and affirming treatment of the ministry of predecessors and successors.  To do anything other than this adds transition to a list of critically important everyday matters (like the faithful treatment of money) which we often fail to model in tangible, nuts-and-bolts ways in our own ministries.  Transitions are faced by all people in many contexts of everyday life.  Pastoral transition could be – should be! – a teaching moment that not only strengthens congregational life, but teaches lessons applicable in other real life contexts.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all Weese and Crabtree have to say about pastoral transition.  Since your ministry – or that of your pastor – is someday going to end, this is a topic of relevance for all of us.  I’d encourage you to think and talk opening about these questions.  Maybe folk in your church should read this book together with your pastor and consider the application of its thesis to your congregation’s life.  Give it some thought!

With Great Hope!

Rich Pleva, Iowa Conference Minister

One Response to Our Common Life…

  1. Joan Fumetti says:

    Good subject!

    I happened to be personal friends with the interim pastor who preceded me in one pastorate. She did good work with the congregations following some clergy misconduct, but just after I arrived some additional circumstances surfaced. In addressing them I got pretty unpopular in some quarters and there were those who would try to get my goat by saying what a good job my predecessor had done (implying that the job I was doing wasn’t so great!) I could quite honestly reply, “Yeah, she’s great, isn’t she?”, ignoring the rest. They had no choice but to see us as a tag team, which was very helpful. We got through some really hard stuff!

    In another pastorate I invited the interim pastor who would be following me to overlap with me on my last Sunday so we could interact together in front of the congregation, hopefully giving a sense of continuity. He gladly accepted. We created a ‘passing on of the keys’ ritual. That congregation had a couple previous pastors who were members of the congregation. They had great boundaries, which let me invite them into various roles as appropriate and to celebrate their past and ongoing ministries. Again, it was really helpful to actually know them and have an opportunity to appreciate their gifts first hand.

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