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On to the question.
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-
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.
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.
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.
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-