mGBP1haToday, we consider critical church decisions, language choices, and the cost of doing ministry with integrity.

Dear Matriarchs:

I remember being surprised in my seminary field education class at how often one of my classmates used the phrase “not a hill I’m/we’re willing to die on” a lot about problems she and her supervising pastor encountered in their parish.

Now, two years into my first call as pastor of a small, aging congregation, I find myself wondering in a variety of situations in which I experience resistance to new ideas or in trying to solve problems in healthy ways, “Is this a hill worth dying on?”

How do you matriarchs determine whether fighting for what you believe is healthiest or most faithful is worth the cost in a particular situation? Examples welcome. Thank you for the sharing your wisdom and experience!

– Pastor Pondering Priorities

The origins of the phrase “hill to die on” courtesy of Wiktionary:
An allusion to the military practice of capturing/holding a hill (high ground), no matter the cost or (lack of) benefit, as in the Battle of Hamburger Hill or Last Stand Hill. Usually used in the negative, as in “it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on.”

Your classmate and her supervisor were no doubt referring to those times in ministry when we can decide to take a stand no matter how dire the consequences, or we can decide that it’s not worth fighting for because it might mean the end of our ministry in that setting.
Also see: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Sharon Mack Temple:
Dear Pastor Pondering,

My first suggestion is for us to more carefully examine this and other metaphors that we might use casually &/or for hyperbolic effect. From a pastor’s lips, words about dying and death — our own or others’ — self-inflicted, other-inflicted or accidental — can stir up extra pain in people who are grieving. That’s more people in our voice range than we might imagine.

You are correct that ministry in community — the church — can lead to all kinds of skirmishes and crises. I also affirm your desire to thoughtfully consider your own “bottom line” before an untenable situation might arise.

First the good news: Most things that present as heart-pounding critical decisions turn out not to be super-important to the viable future of congregational life after all. Develop some delay and cool-down strategies for those situations.

That said, I will offer one way to decide when to take a stand, come what may:
Remember your ordination. That may sound simple and perhaps too vague, but we make those foundational professional pastoral promises before God and the Church represented. That day’s intentions are designed to mean something in day-to-day pastoral leadership. If doing — or not doing — “the thing” will contradict any of your ordination vows, then very seriously consider taking a non-negotiable stand, whatever the cost. 

Here’s one of my own memorable “I’m willing to take the consequences” experiences:

After the 25th Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) voted to affirm marriage equality, some of the people in our congregation adamantly insisted that “it’s time for our church to leave the UCC.” As a pastor ordained in the UCC, I said, “You as a congregation do have the polity power to decide to go through the process to leave the UCC. If you go ahead with that process, you will do it with your next pastor. As a UCC-ordained pastor, I am not called to serve a not-a-UCC church, nor am I going to lead (or follow) a UCC congregation out of the UCC.” Without any doubt whatsoever, I was willing to experience “come what may” in that situation. 

One extra piece of advice: It’s good to say the super-hard things as “charge-neutrally” (non-anxiously) and with as much action-love as possible.

May you receive holy clarity and Spirit-filled courage, Pastor Pondering, in facing all of your really tough decisions.

Thank you, Pastor Pondering Priorities, for your thoughtful question. 

What other critical decision stories do you have, dear readers? Share your own “take a stand” (or not) experience and any advice in the comments below.

Are you facing one of those critical pastoral decisions? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and receive some support and advice.


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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One thought on “Ask the Matriarch: About That Ministry “Hill Worth ‘Dying’ On”

  1. I pay a lot of attention to who is going to be hurt by my taking a stand or not taking a stand on an issue. I am pretty laid back and will let many things slide that other pastors get roused up about. I might be willing to say I agree to disagree or create a teaching moment about why someone might not agree with another on a particular issue. I have let many comments from the community about women in ministry for example, just slide on by. My congregation at the time felt differently and that was enough — they already felt alienated enough from their very conservative community and it didn’t make sense to cause a fuss they would have to live with day to day in their grocery store encounters (Since I lived out of town, I did not have to deal as much with the locals). That said, I did actually “die” on a hill of confidentiality. I took an unpopular stand on who would play the piano at a funeral because of something confidential that I knew that the majority of the congregation did not know and it broke a lot of trust. I decided to take the hurt instead of telling what I knew to absolve myself of the blame, because I felt several people already in a lot of pain would be hurt more. While I didn’t leave because of that situation, it helped make my discernment about leaving more clear. In both of these cases I knew who would be hurt most and chose differently.

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