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Thursday, August 16, 2007

It’s Thursday, It’s Thursday, It’s Thursday!

It’s Thursday, It’s Thursday, It’s Thursday!
Why am I so excited? Is it because tomorrow is my day off? Why Yes. It is!
But mostly I’m excited because it is

Matriarch Day!

Have a question or issue you’d like addressed by several amazing women with 10+ years experience in the parish?
E-mail it to

On to the question.

Dear Matriarchs,
I'm considering beginning the process of looking for a new call, and have some questions.

1) When filling out my paperwork, I have to give references. Should I ask a member of my current congregation to be one of them?

2) Should I let anyone at my church know that I am thinking about leaving?

3) And, maybe most importantly, how do I stay emotionally connected while I am in the process of disconnecting? I'm finding that, even in these early stages, I'm not as engaged as I once was, particularly in handling criticism and anxious moments. How have you handled this?

Thank you for your wisdom-

From Jan:
Dear Pondering-a-Move,
This can be tricky. It's certainly possible, if you have a trustworthy leader in the church who can keep a secret, to ask him/her to serve as a reference. A former member who moved due to re-location, etc. would be better. Regardless, be sure that the person is indeed able to keep confidences, because I've know situations in which the pastor asked a trusted member to be a reference, but that reference told someone else in the congregation who told someone else, etc., etc., until the whole church knew and he had to leave the position before having another call. He'd lost his authority and no one would listen to him "because he was leaving anyway."

It seems best to couch this in the truest terms: you feel that the congregation needs a new leader, or you are called to a different kind of ministry, or the congregation would be better served by fresh leadership -- something that makes it not be accusatory or derogatory.

It feels like committing adultery (or what I imagine adultery would feel like). You are clearly sneaking around and being courted by someone new. You tell white lies ("I'm visiting friends out of town this weekend.") Your heart is not really in the current position.

And yet, people schedule weddings (which you may or may not officiate depending on how far ahead they are scheduled) and seasonal programs (which you are fairly certain you will miss.)

Know that your 'dating' may or may not pan out. Stay as engaged as possible. And enjoy the process.

From Karen:
It's important not to disengage prematurely. The search process can take a long time and it is all the more painful if you have "resigned in place"--for you and for the congregation. Twice when I've been in the search process, I asked a retired pastor who was active in my congregation to serve as one of my references. They were part of the congregation so they'd seen me in action, so to speak, but since they were also clergy they understood the search process, the need for confidentiality, etc. etc. I also asked a staff person who was not a member of the congregation to be a reference. He could also speak to my work, but since he was not a church member he didn't go into panic that he was going to lose his pastor.

From Earthchick:
1 - Personally, I would not ask someone in my current congregation to serve as a reference because I would not want parishioners to know I was considering leaving. I would look instead to colleagues - other ministers in the community, or former staff members - or to members of congregations you may have previously served.

2 - If I were seeking a new call, I would not let anyone in my current congregation know that. I would be concerned about introducing unnecessary anxiety into the system. If you end up not leaving, then you've gotten people all stirred up for no reason, and they may begin to find reasons to want you to leave. I have actually seen it happen that a personnel committee got tipped off that a staff member was considering leaving, and they ended up asking him to leave before he'd actually found another call. If you do end up leaving, then there will be plenty of time between your announcement of that and your actual departure for them to feel and process the anxiety and grief surrounding your leaving.

3 - This is so hard. To even consider leaving a church can feel unfaithful - like you are "cheating" on them simply by having thoughts of another church. But it can also be an opportunity for discernment. You might spend a week living as if you've already made the decision to definitely leave, and see how that feels. Do you feel a sense of freedom and relief? Do you feel grief, and, if so, what is it around? What feels like unfinished business in your current congregation? Then spend a week living as if you've decided to stay, and see how that feels, asking yourself similar questions. After sounding out your two options, you might have a better sense of whether or not it's the right time to begin looking elsewhere, as well as having a better sense of where your focus needs to be in your current congregation (whether you stay or go). If you do decide it is time to leave, finding ways to stay connected while at the same time preparing yourself for closure is a tricky balancing act. I think it's important to tend to anything that feels like important unfinished business, as well as to focus on what you love about your congregation. It is tempting to just sort of "check out" and spend your energy planning and preparing for your next call. But it is important both for you and your congregation to have a healthy ending. Once your church knows you are going to leave, they are likely to have some anxiety, but you are likely to feel some relief (the "secret" of your impending departure is out in the open now) - in my experience, this is actually a freeing thing. In that freedom, I try to stay engaged while also enjoying a new sense of detachment from some of the things we ministers tend to get too caught up in (like approval, criticism, and visible outcomes of our efforts). If you can focus on freely loving your congregation, as well as offering care to them in their grief and anxiety, I think it's possible to stay connected while still preparing to leave. Don't forget, too, to tend to your own grief and anxiety.
Best wishes in your discernment.

From Abi:
About #3, What you are experiencing is normal and called the anticipatory grief work. It is important you have your feelings, recognize them and feel them. But you need to have someone you can share those feelings with that are not involved in the present church not yet. You want to leave well, and to help them let you go well. Even if the church knew I was going or we were in the early stages of discerning this as a Methodist, anxiety went up for everybody. The anxiety is what needs to be modulated on your part. Be as non-anxious in their presence as you can. As one author says you can't maintain that all the time, but do it to the best of your ability and with as much help as you can.

What say you?
What do you think?
Have any of you successfully used an active congregation member as a reference?
How have you stayed engaged?

And, most importantly, why do we use dating and marriage analogies for this?

Peace to you-
Listing Straight


  1. In my denomination we provide 7 or 8 written references, and search committees see it as a red flag if there are no references from the current church, so I asked for a few, which was no small thing in a small church (there aren't that many total people to ask!). My references kept it a secret, thankfully. I looked for people who had a sense of the bigger picture and would understand the idea of call, and that worked well.

  2. Listening Straight: I have a question to ask of not of the matriarchs, but of the young women clergy coming up. I am one of those who have been around for dog's years and find that my value system and the foundations for my call to ministry are not at all what the young women seem to have. When I started I was in the midst of racial desegregtion and saw the
    Church as a place where Christ's love could motivate others to be just.

    What instigated this was a thread about ambition for women in the ministry on one of the sister's blogs. I want to know what motivates young women to be ministers in the Church today?

    I know the desire to serve Christ will be at the center and is a given, but what else?

    When mainline churches are losing membership, the media portray clergy as idiots or worse, and the loss of parity in salary and prestigue is constant, what motivated young women to enter the ordained ministry?

    Could this be one of the questions that could be posed on Thursday?

  3. Now to the REAL QUESTION: I always keep my profile up to date. And that is what I tell someone in my current parish when I ask them to stand as a reference. I will often change my profile and my references during my tenure with a parish depending upon the interests that I am engaging in at the moment. I see this as a part of the way that I am open to the Spirit. I guess I update each year so that I can stay current.

    I do not tell my current parish I am looking because I generally am not. I used to enter call processes even when I was not really looking because there were still few women in those processes and they needed to know what it was like to interview a woman. Now, because I am over 60 I do not get inquiries even though I am still very active and don't plan to retire anytime soon.

    If I wanted a member of my congregation to supply a reference, I would ask them to keep it quiet. I agree that you don't want your congregation thinking that you are leaving when you are just testing the waters.

  4. I'm well past the filling out paperwork stage, but still really appreciate these questions and the answers!

    Muthah+ asks about what motivates young women to enter ordained ministry. I'm 29 (and have been ordained for just over 4 years) --so I'll answer for me. I was/am motivated by God's relentless call from the time I was 12--a shy, timid, quiet kid who rarely spoke until the time I mentioned my sense of call out loud for the first time when I was 19 and then through some tumultous college and seminary years that made me wonder what I was thinking, but made me realize how much I'm called to this. I was motivated by teaching preschool Sunday School my last two years of high school. I was motivated by members of my home congregation telling me while in high school and college that I should consider seminary. I was/am motivated by the fact that the church has been the one constant in my life.

    Thanks for the question. I'm curious to see other answers (and not just from the 'young').

  5. hmm, I'm one of the young ones, almost 27 and almost one year of ordained ministry here plus one year as a missionary. What motivated me? Well, call and sense of not-doing-the-right-thing-until-I-made-this-decision ranks pretty high. As does my love of church, declining or not. I just love church (in its truest meaning I guess)...

    I think I know about the ambition discussion you referenced and I will add this: I do not feel that I need to be ambitious beyond my calling, to seek ever larger congregations and more prestigious pulpits. I dearly love my 350 member congregation, I love being an Associate and not a Sr. Pastor or a solo, I love living near but not in the big city. I don't feel called to be the senior pastor (or even an associate) at any of the big (and by big I mean huge) churches that asked me to interview when I was in the call process this time last year. The ambition discussion we had at the YCW conference rubbed me the wrong way, though I'm sure not everyone.

    All of that to say that I'm grateful that you have asked this in terms of motivation rather than ambition. That's all for now...

  6. I'm not sure which post on ambition is being referred to, although I may know and I may have participated in it. I think we have to be careful not to automatically classify ambition as a negative thing. Sure, if our goal is to constantly move "up" to larger congregations, then that is a red flag. But ambition can also mean, I think, testing the limits of what we assume we can and cannot do. My decision to submit my resume to a large church was not because I have a goal to serve in a "bigger and better" place. Rather, I am curious about how it would feel to be a part of a multi-staff team without anyone assuming that because I am female, my part would automatically NOT be as head of staff. It would stretch me in ways I've never been tested before. A part of me would REALLY like the opportunity to try it. That is ambition. Is that bad?

  7. I'll also answer the question of motivation, even if I'm not really so young. I am 42. I am a little younger in ministry than many my age because I am second career. My motivation was call, plain and simple. I did everything I could think of for ten years to try to avoid answering God's call to ministry. In the end, I found it impossible to tell God no.

    The church is not perfect. In fact, it is sometimes maddeningly, sickeningly imperfect. Change in the church is inevitable and its effects uncertain for all of us. Even so, for reasons I cannot understand, I believe that God continues to work within the church, turning our feeble, self-centered, misguided efforts into good. I cannot believe that the church is a lost cause nor that ministry is a poor choice of vocation.

  8. Preacher Mom, as a woman who moved from being the pastor to serving on a staff, I've found it to be a wonderfully affirming experience. Muthah+, I am motivated by a powerful sense of God's call on my life, affirmed in numerous ways as I engage in various facets of ordained ministry. I've been a UM pastor for 8 years, ordained for 3.
    I am ambitious in my calling. I will be starting a D.Min. program imminently (the link to register for the first class is in my mailbox right now), and while I don't expect it to catapult me into leadership of the flagship churches of my annual conference, I do anticipate that it will expand the scope of my ministry.
    I don't believe in chasing promotion for promotion's sake. My husband (also a pastor) and I agreed from the beginning of our marriage that we would always live on the conference minimum salary and that we would be committed to ministry in smaller membership churches. But I also think I have something to offer the larger church even as a small church pastor, so I'm back at school. I don't know quite what it is yet; I think maybe I'll write or teach, lead conferences...but whatever it is, I know it too comes from God, just as my call to ordained ministry in the local church does.


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