Pastor Transitions: A Congregant's Perspective
This post is one of two on itinerancy transitions - the other is from the pastor's point of view.
A shift in pastor can be a blessing or a source of consternation to both longtime Methodists and newcomers to Methodism. As someone who was raised as a Lutheran, it was disconcerting for me to come face-to-face with the United Methodist Church’s practice of itinerancy. I was a sporadic Lutheran and didn’t attend on a regular basis, and it was comforting to know that if I showed up at the obligatory holidays throughout the Christian calendar, the same pastor would be there. After joining the United Methodist Church I was taken aback by the practice of itinerancy. To be honest, even the term “itinerancy” was unfamiliar. I only knew that the ministers changed more than I was used to.
During my first six months as a newly minted and now more faithful Methodist, my church lost our pastor. He moved to a new appointment, and I felt a real sense of apprehension. Was this a church of disposable pastors? How can a church have a direction without consistency? How do I cultivate a relationship with a minister that I know will leave? Other members who had been there for quite some time seemed to be in two different camps -- the sad-but-accepting group or the happy-with-anticipation group. This aspect confused me, too, because it seemed divisive. There was whispering in corners and stories told of either the good or the bad the pastor had done during his tenure. How could a church learn to come together, compromise, or have continuity if their leadership was transitory? No one seemed to have a satisfactory explanation of this practice.
Fast-forward 30 years, during which I have experienced the movement of five different pastors through the same church. Pastor number six will exit this year. Each move has been carried along on a congregational wave of relief or sadness. Over time, I have learned that my acceptance of itinerancy depends on where I “fall” regarding my current pastor. I’ve found that y feelings about a pastor’s departure are directly proportional to my involvement with various activities in the church and my relationship with the pastor. The more involved I am, the more informed I become about the current church administration and leadership, and this gives me more insight into the pastor’s abilities. Such knowledge has led me to be disappointed, pleasantly surprised, or totally blown away by a pastor’s leadership. I can say without doubt that there have been times when I have been grateful for itinerancy and glad to see the pastor move on. But others’ departure has left me feeling sad and frustrated with the “system.”
Starting over is difficult. Every pastor move raises the specter of uncertainty. Opinions differ as to who the next pastor should be, and it’s hard to set those feelings aside, even after the new person steps up to the pulpit. Differences like this can pull a church apart.
But itinerancy can also pull a congregation together, if it’s paired with effective and constant lay leadership. Our pastor is our leader, but we are the church. Strong lay leaders can support a pastor when he or she has a vision and direction or hold a church together when the pastor can’t.
As a church, we need to decide if all the anxiety caused by itinerancy is worth it to our pastors and congregations. The time spent readjusting and reacquainting with a new pastor could be time spent on continued missions, visions, or spiritual growth. If sustained continuity is not an option, could we have a set time for all pastors to stay at their churches? If the congregation and the pastor knew that the minister would be at an appointment for a set amount of years, both would know that they have a prescribed amount of time to accomplish what the Spirit has in mind for them.
And isn’t that what it all comes down to? It is about what the Spirit wants to accomplish through us no matter who our next pastor may be.
Clergy Health Initiative