One of the most difficult and courageous things a pastor will ever do is discerning when it is time to leave a congregation. Even more difficult are the follow-up actions of leaving well, leaving completely, and supporting the new pastor of your former congregation. The following story is real, all-too-common, and deeply painful.
I’m struggling with some complicated feelings about my church’s former pastor. I became the pastor about 2.5 years ago after a long interim period. The previous pastor had retired but still lived in our small town and planned to return to the church at some point. (My plan was to ask him not to do that.) Not long after I arrived, Former Pastor was called to a very small church in the area on a part-time basis. A few of our members have since left to join his church, and he hired one of our most active lay leaders as organist (although this leader’s membership remains here and his wife is still attending).
I am the first female Senior Pastor of this church, and we have faced significant challenges because of it, both locally and denominationally. Our congregation has shrunk by about one-third, with the attending budget loss. I know that people leave churches all the time for many reasons, and it can be painful. But for some reason, I feel incredibly angry about the people who are leaving to join FP’s congregation! I don’t know what to do with it, and could use your advice.
Thanks so much –
[Note: This Rev serves a congregation in a tradition in which local congregations are autonomous.]
Our term for the pastor who leaves but allows their influence to remain and keeps their former congregation’s hearts too close: Beloved Former Pastor (BFP). Our Matriarchs offer you our compassion and wisdom, dear colleague.
Sharon Mack Temple
Yours is such a painful experience. I recall that, during a clergy retirement seminar in my denomination (United Church of Christ), the presenter firmly suggested that retired pastors move away from the setting of their last call. The room erupted with clergy adamantly declaring that they had every right to live wherever they choose. They were OK with hearing about the finances of their retirement accounts, but had no interest in hearing about the ethical implications of settling near the new pastor of their retirement congregation.
One of the kindest and most professional things a retired pastor can do is step away from their last congregation. It can be very painful for that person to do so. They instantly lose contact with people they care for deeply. But it isn’t about them. It’s about the health of the congregation.
On the flip side of the issue is your question. A couple of things I’ve learned over the years is to not take it too personally if they leave because of my gender. It’s happened with every new call. If they don’t bother to get to know you as an individual, do your best to let them go.
I try hard to remind myself that the beloved former pastor and I are not in a popularity contest. Unfortunately, your predecessor isn’t playing by the same rules. Have you had a conversation with him about this? Poaching members is bad form. Does he have any concern for the health of his former congestion?
My understanding is that you don’t have a judicatory which will fight this battle on your behalf. (My denomination would never allow someone to serve so close to the last place.) My suggestion is that the core leadership of your congregation need to know, at minimum, that this is a difficult and ongoing issue for you AND for them. How do they feel about this? Hopefully this can garner some support for you.
I pray that there is a colleague nearby who can be a sounding board and support. You have a right to be angry, disappointed and frustrated.
May God keep you feeling brave and strong in the face of this challenge.
Kathryn Zucker Johnston
Oh this is hard and it sucks and it hurts.
In my own experience, people have left the church I served in significant quantities because I was a female. They also almost always found a secondary reason for doing it so as not to be the people who left because they couldn’t handle a female head of staff. Unfortunately BFP, has provided them an easy way out.
My 2 cents is to encourage you to vent in safe spaces, don’t let hyssop poison the baptism water (no snide comments about BFP to church members), keep your head held high, and know that time will tell the true tale… eventually.
Friend, the BFP’s behavior is inappropriate and unethical; it’s destructive to the body of Christ, and your anger is righteous. I encourage you to find appropriate people with whom to express your feelings: a trusted (preferably non-local) friend with no connection to the church, a spiritual director, a therapist, or a coach. Colleagues are tricky – if they are local, there is always a risk that some part of the story will be shared and cause more harm than good, both for you and the congregation. Seek out a physical activity that helps you process emotions, which might be anything from yoga to running to chopping wood. Try to separate your anger from your love for the people in your congregation. If they are coming to you with their own anger or disappointment, find something you can say that acknowledges their feelings without over-sharing yours. With your former parishioners, remember that the door swings both ways; you may see some return, and you will need the resources I recommended above for dealing with those feelings, too. My heart goes out to you and to all our colleagues impacted by Beloved Former Pastors.
Everything the Matriarchs have said is wise. The BFP’s behavior is hurtful, small-minded and unethical. Seeking a place to rage and vent with a coach or another pastor will help immensely.
It’s easy to say and hard to remember that the behavior of the BFP and the people who are leaving the church is about their hurts, their limitations, and their need for power and importance, and not about you and your giftedness. I find myself hoping that you will experience a sense of relief and freedom in your ministry when people who don’t value your ministry leave the church. Their departure may open up space for new initiatives in ministry, and set you free from subtle, underground criticism. Some absences are a gift.
Some churches seem to love drama. If yours is one of those, to the extent that you can ignore the BFP and sink deeply into your own gifts and call, you’ll cut off the energy that feeds the drama. When people watch you for signs of conflict, or listen for you to make a snarky comment, they won’t see anything on the outside that adds to the excitement.
Clearly, you have skills and gifts. It’s much more easily said than done, of course, but if you can use your energy to flourish, you will be serving the congregation, and your own health. Ignore the BFP, say anything truthfully nice that you can about him publicly (that will confuse him and everyone else) and devote your holy energy to your health and the church’s. My prayers are with you in this sacred work.
Thank you, Matriarchs! May your words be balm and inspiration for our colleague.
Readers, you are invited to respond in the comments below with your own ideas and care for this pastor.
Are you struggling alone in some aspect of your ministry? You can get support anonymously by asking the Matriarchs at askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.
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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