In January 2002, my family traveled cross-country. We deliberately stopped to see sites like the St. Louis Arch, the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, and Disneyland. However, we also had several unplanned stops as well. Three different times our van broke down and we were stuck wherever we happened to be until the nearest garage could get us up and running again. And then, after finally arriving home three weeks later, we had to replace the transmission.
We had really thought we were ready for that trip. But we didn’t understand the differences of how to care for our van when you’re traveling 7000 miles instead of the 20 & 30 mile trips we were used to. We operated our van as if we were traveling at home, but we were pushing it hard, with six people, and LOTS of luggage, at expressway speeds. That poor van couldn’t keep up with our expectations… because we hadn’t properly prepared our own expectations for the change in the way we were traveling with our van.
As I’ve been thinking and praying over our upcoming pastoral transition here, I keep finding myself coming back to that trip… and our relationship with that van. You could say that our congregation, as well as both the Mix family and the Stump family, are all embarking on transitional “trips.” And ministry together is different in times of transition, just like our use of our van was different during that long trip… and it took its toll. And living as a family in the midst of packing or unpacking boxes is SO different than normal family life. We need to be intentional during a transition, and try to have clear expectations.
Our Presbyterian cousins are the ones who probably have the best understanding of how to handle these times of transition in the life of a church. Any time there is a major transition in the church, they expect that there will be an interim pastor in place to lead the congregation through the ‘in-between’ time. That transition might be something major like the death of the previous pastor, a scandal among the leadership, some sort of trauma that affects the church, or even something positive like having a long-term pastor (eight years or more). All of those are indicators that there ought to be a time of having an interim pastor.
The idea of an interim guiding a congregation through a time of transition has been compared to the idea of going from one gear to another in your car. Perhaps going from first to second gear isn’t a big deal, but to get from first gear to fourth gear requires some interim steps. If you don’t transition from one to the other correctly, you might just find that you’re grinding your gears or doing damage to your car in some way. Many of our cars today will do that transition automatically… however, churches, and pastors, don’t.
We’ve had five years together, but prior to that Pastor Jay was here for eleven years. We didn’t have a transitional interim pastor, although I did try to address some of the transitional issues with our church council each month in that first year and also with the whole congregation through my sermons from the pulpit. But to this day, there are many who think first of how we did things when Jay was here or wish that Jay was back for this event or that.
And now, come July 1, another new pastor will come to walk together in ministry with this congregation. And I, like Jay did before I came, need to reiterate again, that in our United Methodist system, the departing pastor does not come back to do pastoral ministry. We love you dearly, and always will. However, come July, I will no longer be your pastor; Adam Stump will be. And pastoral ethics, as well as conference policy, say that I don’t get to come back to even visit friends. For in the long run, if I met you because I was your pastor, then our relationship is primarily a professional pastoral relationship. And that ends when I stop being your pastor. For me to come back to do something pastoral would be like President Bush telling President Obama that he’ll be commanding troops in Afghanistan since he was president when the war started.
The most important relationships when we’re talking about the church are with Jesus and the others in the pews; the women and men you call your brothers and sisters in Christ. You get to spend a lifetime with them. We pastors are just temps. We’re to help lead for just a while, and then God and the Bishop send us to the next ministry posting with a new congregation. I get worried when I hear about this person left when Pastor Someone left or they decided to come back after Pastor Someone Else arrived. That just shows that those particular people never really became a part of the church, but rather were more like a pastor’s fan club, or perhaps a pastor’s foe club. Folks, going to worship, or Bible study, or any other activity in the church shouldn’t be based on who the pastor is, but rather on whether or not God called you to be a part of this church, this congregation.
And if you DO want to be friends with a departing pastor, then after they have moved, YOU need to be the one to reach out to them at their new home, not for something pastoral, but just because you want to remain friends with them as a family. That changes the relationship from pastoral to personal. You can seek us out… but we cannot come back.
To do so would be a huge undermining of Pastor Adam’s ministry.
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This was my pastor’s letter in the Clarks Mills United Methodist Church’s monthly newsletter “The Flame.”
To read it as it appeared there, click on this link: N2016-05