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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Left Behind

Our question this week is unique to team ministry settings, but the insights shared are helpful for all who serve in parish settings:

I am an Associate Pastor whose Senior Pastor recently left (after only 4 years in the congregation) and whose Interim Senior Pastor just arrived. I am having a hard time figuring out how to work with this Interim. I've been in this situation before (this happened in my church in Atlanta too) but I feel like this time is much harder...perhaps because I was here on my own for several months and now have to adjust to not being in charge? Perhaps because I've been part of the leadership that has worked hard to bring the congregation to a place of healing and stability and I'm concerned that the interim won't respect that work and will instead "shake things up" because that's what is "supposed to happen" during an interim? Any advice on adjusting to a new colleague, being able to express my concerns to a new Head of Staff without the time to really get to know the person first (an interim's only here for a year, so I don't have a ton of time to get comfortable in our relationship before saying what I think), and projecting NONE of my anxiety about this to the congregation??

--the one who stayed

It's important to note that not all judicatories allow ordained staff members to stay when a head of staff resigns. But this case reflects the trend of providing some continuity during an interim period.

Long time rector responds:

If you only have to deal with this person for a year – I would be willing to take some risks in being open and honest. First I would pray if I could support this person and not undermine him/her if we disagree, if the answer is a strong no – I would consider resigning and looking for a new call. If I think I can work creatively with him or her I would have a conversation the first stated categorically that I am open to change and for doing the things needed in the transition process so the congregation can truly be ready for a new senior pastor. Then I would ask if we could talk about some things that I think have been really important for the health and vitality of this congregation (what part of tradition is good and helpful for facing the future). I would risk being honest and letting him/her know my fears about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Then I would ask how I might help. That allows the interim to 1. feel supported and 2. have an opportunity to share his/her vision for interim ministry and 3. hopefully give you a clear place and role to connect.

I have been reading the Rule of Benedict commentary by Joan Chittester and am very conscious of how destructive “grumbling” can be to a community – and stand convicted of being a grumbler! This may color my response.

Soprano in New Jersey adds:

Your 'sign off' tips your hand on many, many levels. Whether you know it or not, you know a lot more than you are willing to put into print (and I don't blame you).

You are both the one who stayed and the one who was left behind. I'm sure you are echoing the silent and not-so-silent voices of many in your congregation. I'm curious about "the hard work" you did and why they needed "healing and stability." I'm curious to know why the Senior Pastor left "after only four years" - especially after all that "hard work". I'm also curious to know if this has been a pattern in this congregation.

Not knowing - or wanting - all the details, here's my best shot: Let the interim do "his thing" and you keep your head up and your ass DOWN.

In other words, talk to the interim about what is in your portfolio and what is in his and stay close to your script. Do your very, very best job at what you're supposed to do, but don't do anything of his. (Say to yourself at least once a day, "I am the Associate Pastor, and I'm here to do a good job.")

Keep your communication with the interim and the lay leadership crystal clear. Tell him/them what you are doing. At least weekly. Then, tell him/them what you did. Keep written weekly reports for yourself. Your calendar - with annotations - will suffice.

Ask him if it's his style to "shake things up." If it is, ask him for his expectations of you when he does. Does he expect you to play "good cop/bad cop?" Does he expect you to mop up his messes? If his answers distress you, don't answer in the moment. Work out your response and/or alternate strategy with your therapist, spiritual director, coach or peer support group and then make an appointment to tell him your proposed strategy.

If you get grumblings from the congregants, refer them to the interim. DO NOT GET TRIANGULATED. I'm dead serious on this one. This situation is ripe for this sort of thing and, believe me, when the baptismal water hits the fan, you will no longer be "the one who stayed" but "the one who left" ("Such a shame, she was such a nice girl.") and, to your horror you will discover that, rather than 'help' the situation, you have inadvertently added to the turmoil of the transition. (Say to yourself at least once a day, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions.")

Begin to make a list for yourself about what you learned about yourself - especially your skills and abilities - from the last situation. What was the worst moment in Atlanta? How did you handle it? How would you do it differently/better now? What was the best moment in Atlanta? What made it so special? How did it come about? What, if anything, can you do to make more of those moments in this place? (Say to yourself at least once a day, "I am a child of God and God loves me more than my wildest imaginings")

Where was God in the midst of the worst and best moments in Atlanta? What lessons are you being called to learn in these times of transition that you couldn't learn any other way? Where may God be leading you through all of this in your next call? (Note: You'll probably be completely wrong in that, because God LOVES surprises, but it is a good exercise for your soul.)

Find yourself an "escape hatch" - someplace you can go when the level of grumbling begins to match the height of your anxiety: A local coffee shop which has a table for one way in the back. In your car with all the windows rolled up and your favorite CD in the player cracked up to 11, singing at the top of your lungs. In the gym . . . . . . you get the picture.

If you don't have a peer support group, coach, a spiritual director/soul friend, and/or a therapist, get one. Yesterday. I'm serious. I couldn't have lasted 22 years in ministry without all of these. And, a very, very understanding and forgiving partner and family who know me well and love me still.

Talk to whomever you need to in your judicatory system and start to fill out whatever forms you need in order to get yourself placed in your next congregation. Put this at the top of your 'to do' list. I'm serious. I know you love these people and you've invested a great deal of your heart and soul in them, but you can't stay there forever. God is already calling you to the next work of ministry. In your heart, you already know that.

Parish ministry is an awful lot like being in love and having a lover and/or a spouse. Pay attention: It's not. We'll all be healthier and more effective ministers when we understand that God calls us into a community of faith at a particular time in that congregations life cycle for a specific vocation - not forever. And, ever. Do that thing. Do it to the best of your ability.

Decide for yourself that, while you are there, you are going to have FUN. We create our own reality. I'm absolutely convinced of that. Create a positive climate and work enthusiastically on your relationships with the people in the church, your lay leadership and your interim rector. Stay focused on the positive and it's absolutely amazing how the people around you will be positive in your presence. This may well be a difficult time, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a bad time.

Be the change you seek, yes. And, be your own hero.

Oh, and pray. You know, I rarely listen to St. Paul but every once in awhile he comes out with something brilliant. Like this: Pray without ceasing. Philippians 4:8 is exactly the ticket. Romans 5:3-5 ain't half bad, but Romans 8:26-28 is even better. Write these things down on little slips of paper and tape them on your bathroom mirror, inside the cabinet where you get your morning coffee cup, and by the bedside where you keep your telephone.

Hope this helps. Let us know. God bless you.

OBTW: Yes, I have been there, done that, and got the T-shirt to cover the scars - and the pink slip.

Ann offers the following:

It is hard to change back to not being in charge once you have been in charge, especially if you are seeing some progress under your leadership. Do you know for sure the Interim is planning to shake things up? Hopefully he or she is trained as a true interim there will be some assessment of identity, what is working and not working and support for those who have a vision for the future of the church. Either way - it is best to be clear with this person about what your role and area of responsibility will be --- share what you have been doing and how you see it but acknowledging that you are aware that the Interim has the final word on the plan for your work together. I think you are in a very hard place --- learn whatever lessons turn up (even if they are hard ones) and be your own pastoral self as best you can.

Jan's advice concludes our matriarchs' remarks:

Although he has no uterus - and "Ask the Patriarch" doesn't have such a good ring for many of us, does it? - I've asked my Interim Pastor Husband for his insights from the "new colleague" perspective in hopes it will inform your work somehow. He's been the interim at 6 churches and would be happy to talk with you as a sensitive new age guy if you're interested. (Email me via Church for Starving Artists.)

Do you have a Personnel Committee that respects you, whom you can confide in?

Can you identify what Interim-Head-of-Staff has done (if anything) to shake your confidence in him? Maybe he won't "shake things up." Maybe he will actually turn to you for your take on the congregation and what they need during this shift. Is it your assumption that he's not going to respect you as the installed staff person? Or has he done something to confirm your worst fears?

In any case - YOU - are the installed staffer. Have a conversation with him - being your most confident - conveying what you've achieved, what you've seen that the congregation needs, etc. And if IHOS spends that valuable moment checking his watch or acting anything less than professionally enthralled with what you are saying, give a shout out to someone who also loves your congregation who can help support you -- Personnel team, higher judicatory official, etc.

Many helpful insights have been shared here, but we'd also like to hear from you. What words of counsel would you give to "the one left behind"?


  1. You are both the one who stayed and the one who was left behind.

    that spoke to me

    blessings on your situation ...

  2. "Keep you head up and your ass DOWN"

    That cries out for a needlepoint wall hanging. Now I know what to ask for for Christmas! :)

  3. S in NJ has some great advice - especially get a spiritual director, therapist or counselor, and peer group. Deep breathing is the lesson for this year.
    LTR - I want to check out that book.

  4. THis is not relevant to the discussion at hand but...

    I have a suggestion for a book to be discussed (mainly because I would love to be part of a discussion of it). Check out the latest post at my place

  5. Cheese - this would be a huge seller in our "Does this Pulpit Make My Butt Look Big" line. I'm seeing pillows, paraments . . .


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