Has this happened to you? You are rocking along in a congregation that is challenging enough and then something way unexpected happens. This week’s question asks what to do when what is going on outside the congregation shows up inside the congregation and involves parishioners on both sides of a conflict situation.
I’m finding myself in a bit of a sticky situation. I serve and live an a rather rural county. A local government board recently asked for the resignation of a top official. The news hit Facebook and the internet within hours, including video and audio evidence of the alleged misdeeds. I have chosen not to view this video. This accused official is assertively defending himself publicly in multiple ways. He has many loyal supporters and friends speaking out against those who are calling for his resignation.
My dilemma is that this accused official and his family are very active members in one of the two congregations I serve. Some of those who are calling for his resignation are active members at the other (smaller) congregation where I serve, which is closing soon.
They have all spoken privately with me several times and it seems like their assumption is that I am of course on “their side”, even though I’ve never said this specifically.
Is it even wise for me to reach out to them at all? I am struggling to remain neutral on this and really don’t want to see any of them stay away from church. I’m sure I’ve made a few mistakes already with this situation, but I long for your wisdom moving forward. Thank you.
Our Matriarchs offer this colleague wise approaches that are pastoral and practical.
Sally-Lodge Henderson Teel
I’ve gone through a very public event related to a family member. This was years ago. I can recall every person who took me aside and spoke to me asking me how I was doing. I remember noticing how few, very few, who I thought cared about me, spoke to me. I think my friends didn’t know what to say or didn’t want to embarrass me. I learned then when someone is being shaken by the public, speak to them or send them a note letting them know you know this isn’t an easy time for them. You do not need to take a side, just tell them you are thinking about them or ask how they are doing. Embattled people feel isolated, reach out and let them know that you know this.
Tough one. I would worry in a gossipy small town that reaching out to either “side” would be misconstrued as “taking sides” even though that is not your intention. Even if you said the same thing to multiple parties–because people hear what they want to hear, and because they may be actively recruiting allies. I wonder if you could write a brief, warm note addressed to both families saying that you are holding everyone in prayer during this stressful time, and stating your hope that the church(es) will be a loving sanctuary for all…? (Or something like that.) Make four copies; send one to a representative of each of the two parties, give one to your leadership board so they know of your intention not to take sides, and keep one for your files. Regardless of whether you do that, I hope you will include vague references to divisions in the community in your public pastoral prayer, asking for peace, patience, fighting the temptation to judge, and so forth. Public prayer lets people know you are not ignoring the situation but neither are you going to get sucked into a potentially destructive conflict that has nothing to do with church life per se.
This is a time to keep good notes on what you do and what members are doing. I would agree that a written, paper note is good and possibly on letterhead. Express pastoral care but remind them you cannot take sides and effectively minister to both parishes. Care for the individuals. Tell the truth. Share your actions and concerns with a pastor in your adjudicatory.
Kelley Wehmeyer Shin
This is a very difficult situation to be in as their pastor. And yet the gospel of Christ speaks to these very painful and divisive relationships and situations. You are the pastor of each of these individuals, and you have a calling to be there for each of them, even as they are torn apart. Let them know you are praying for them in the midst of their anger and pain but also be clear that you will not take sides. Speak the reconciliation and forgiveness they need to hear, and be a good listening to any who need to talk. You have my prayers.
Thank you, Matriarchs!
If you, dear reader, can offer some encouragement or strategies for our pastor colleague, please comment below.
Are you facing a challenging pastoral situation? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com so we can encourage you.
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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