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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Getting Out of the Middle

One of our RevGalBlogPal friends is wrestling with a delicate situation:

I am an associate pastor at a large congregation, working with a senior pastor who has been here for 25 years. He is in his mid-60s and has been very vague about when he wants to retire. I think he honestly doesn't know, but I have heard anything from 3-7 years from him, which would put him past 70.

The issue is that more than a few people have come to me suggesting that it is time for this person to retire. The pastor is much beloved and has had a fruitful ministry, but he seems very tired, and also seems to be having a little bit more difficulty keeping up with all the details of a very busy church. He has done lots of ministry in our denomination in general and could still have several years of ministry in him--just maybe not here.

Even those who haven't said, "It's time for the pastor to go" just want to know when it will be. There is a feeling that we will not be able to move forward with some new ideas until a new pastor is called. Meanwhile he continues to hem and haw a bit when asked this question. I can only imagine how difficult the discernment must be as to when it's time to go. And I do not want to do anything that might be construed as pushing him out before he's ready. (In my tradition I cannot be called as the senior pastor, and am not interested in the job even if it were possible.) But I think it is hard on the congregation, not knowing. We are in a long-range planning process.

Is there anything I can do to help him in his discernment? And what do I do with all these comments I am hearing? And what do I do with the fact that I think these people have a point?

Going to let Abi weigh in first:

Before you go down for the last time and am totally lost at sea, it is good that you wrote to the ATM for some help. Studies do show that congregations with longer Pastoral Leadership do well. However when that Pastoral Leadership begins to wane, the congregation will follow. The congregational leadership and the Pastor are probably at the crossroads of their time together. And the congregational leadership may have to step up to the plate if the Pastor is not able or willing to do so.

However, I have a grave feeling that you are being triangled by both of them in a not-so-healthy way, by the fact that they are not talking to each other. If there is some thing you can do; it is to self differentiate, be aware and don't let yourself be pulled into either of their anxiety by over reacting, monitor your own anxiety, and choose to not be triangled by their anxiety. Triangles and anxiety is normal they do happen, but when anxiety is high and not being dealt with in a healthy way, unhealthy triangles form. It sounds like though by what you said, this church family and Pastor have been healthy for the most part and so they can draw on during this time of anxiety.

But it's easier said than done to stay out of this kind of triangle. The most graceful thing to do, no matter what your personal feelings are, is to sidestep the debate completely, say the matriarchs. As Karen writes:

Absolutely do not get yourself into the middle of conversations about this or allow yourself to be part of plans to force the issue. If you are genuinely concerned that the pastor's lack of personal and public clarity about this is having a negative impact on the church, share your concerns with the appropriate regional denominational staff or body and then get yourself out of it.

Ann also notes the importance of such a sensitive message coming from people in the right place to deliver it:

Is there any help from the judicatory or diocese? The Episcopal Church requires retirement at 72. There is also help from the Pension Fund; after 30 years one can receive full pension and still work at part-time positions, such as small churches that might be fun for someone who has had the burden of larger situation. But if you pursue it directly, unfortunately, it will probably end with disaster - someone who could have retired with honor will be left with bitterness and isolation.

I don't think there is anything the questioner can do except continue to fulfill the duties of her position and let time take its course. Only peers and superiors have influence and a place from which to speak.

Abi's note is to stay centered on helping people cope with anxiety they may be feeling. And Karen adds, "Keep in mind that the general wisdom is that pastors should not announce their retirement plans too far out (i.e. more than a year) as a prolonged "lame duck" period is as bad if not worse for a congregation and pastor as uncertainty about when a retirement will take place."

Peripatetic Polar Bear has more to say on why you need to avoid being in the middle of this:
The president of the first college where I worked always said something that has stuck with me to this day, "a lady always knows when it's time to leave a party." And you know, she's right. Knowing when to leave (a particular call, active ministry in general) takes a certain amount of class and grass. And it also takes a certain amount of self-awareness.

My guess is that your colleague doesn't have the self-awareness to know how the party's going, to estimate when the host is getting tired or to intuit how tired the hostess will be tomorrow morning at her board meeting.

It sounds like he doesn't have (or doesn't use) a pastoral support system, someone--a peer, a group of guys who talk Bible over beer together. He doesn't have someone who'll point out, "hey, buddy, you look like crap." He needs those people, that person. He needs peers who can be honest with him and help him figure out how to leave the party like a lady, er, gentleman.

Unfortunately, you can't be that person for your supervisor. Anything you say or do is going to look weighted. And you really don't want to be your supervisor's pastor. The congregation's attempt to triangle you in is not useful to you or to them---or to the senior pastor. The fact that you see their point only makes it harder for you. Since the congregation is doing long-range planning, they (the vestry, session or whatever) really need to have a sit-down heart-to-heart with the pastor. They have a right to a more specific answer than 3-7 years. They also have a right to ask the elephant question, "were you planning on retiring from here, or were you thinking of moving to a smaller, less pressured church for your final call?" They also have a right to have the same conversation with you--both convos should be private, of course, and can't be legally binding--but it's hard to plan for a congregation if you don't have an approximate date for a major pastoral search.

The only things I can think of that you CAN do in this situation is remind the congregation members that you really can't be in the middle of this, encourage your SP to make time for his or her pastoral friends---and for spiritual direction, retreats, all that good stuff, and pray for him.

Abi's resources:
Peter Steinke's works on Healthy Congregations is invaluable for any church or church leader:
Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times

Healthy Congregations

How Your Church Family Works: Understanding

Edwin Friedman's works are also good:
Generation to Generation
Failure of Nerve
His Fables

And then Richardson's works:
Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems
Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems

This is really a delicate situation! If you have an experience that might help our concerned reader, please share it in the comments!


  1. Helen, and ATM's thank you for a good job and good ideas.

  2. indeed-thanks! Y'all are awesome.

  3. I experienced a somewhat similar situation in my former parish. Not the same, but I did learn a few things which might apply.

    I agree that any discussion the associate brings to the senior has non-neutral overtones, no matter what the motivations are. If you have a really good relationship with the senior pastor, it might be possible for you to sit down and say to him what YOU feel about the situation (not report what congregation members have said to you). But then you have to leave it there.

    I hope the denominational body might have resources for you. I found it very helpful to talk to my bishop about my own feelings and then get his take on how I should handle things. Sometimes I got really frustrated at not being able to be directly involved in conversations, but it really was best for me to stay out of it. Ah, the glory of hindsight.

    All good advice from the matriarchs. Hope it turns out okay.

  4. this IS a really delicate situation. very good responses, and a caution not to get in the middle of things, hard as it might be.

    I don't have any other words right now.

  5. It's scary when you read your own words and end up scratching your head over them. "Class and grass, class and grass....grass is groundedness, growing, sprouting....what the heck deep and meaningful metaphor did I have in mind there?"

    Um, I let auto-complete turn grace into grass.

    But go ahead and help me think of how class and grass actually works!

  6. PPB - I had some wildly inappropriate joke about how "leaving with class and grass" implies that the legalization of marijuana might help ordained ministers, but "Maybe your colleague just needs to smoke a joint" hardly seemed like good advice. :)

    Probably not the connection you were looking for!

  7. Ha! I thought it was some cool new way to say cajones :)

  8. I read this book last summer -- The Elephant in the Boardroom: Speaking the Unspoken About Pastoral Transitions

    When I was moving to a new job, and it's a good guide to how to start talking about leaving a pastorate. It wasnt really super-relevant to my situation, but sounds like it might be a good one for the Sr Pastor, as it's all about how having a transition plan is good for everyone - the pastor and the congregation. It could be that he honestly doesnt know the effect his waffling is having on others.

    I'm done with the book now, so if you want, I can send it to you. Email me your particulars at and I"ll send it off.

  9. PPB, LOL -- I probably should have queried that, but for as busy as I was I read it as "grace" myself!

    The grace of grass... not so much, after the time I spent lawnwrangling last weekend...


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