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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Healing from and for Parish Ministry

Today's question is probably its own best introduction...

I'm United Methodist and had a really disastrous first appointment. Part of it was stuff with the congregation's "system", part of it was my own circumstances and issues (pregnancy and birth of my first child, postpartum depression, my husband and I doing a "long-distance marriage", inexperience, etc), and part of it was contextual stuff that was out of our control. I left the parish in May 2008, and in the nearly three years since then, have a) completed a CPE residency, b) seen a pastoral counselor, and c) begun a blog as a way of sharing my thoughts and connecting with others. I also gave birth to my second child. My marriage has been greatly mended, as have my spiritual life and psyche.

Since just after Thanksgiving, I've been sensing God calling me to return to parish ministry. I'm currently on a "family leave of absence" and will remain on it through June 2012, with the plan to begin a new appointment in July 2012. My mission for 2011 is to do whatever I can to prepare myself vocationally, spiritually, and emotionally for my return to parish ministry. My current plan is to a) sit down with my pastor, tell him my story, and explore ministry opportunities in the current congregation I attend, b) to attend as many Church Council meetings as I can, and a good amount of committee meetings, c) to read several books on family systems, church administration, and leadership, and d) to seek out additional preaching and worship leadership opportunities. Because United Methodists are appointed, I will be somewhat at the mercy of the Cabinet (Bishop and all of the District Superintendents) and need to prove to them that I have what it takes to be an effective pastor.

I was wondering what additional advice or commentary the matriarchs might offer for someone in my position, especially in light of my current action plan. I'd also welcome any suggestions for books on church administration and leadership.

Joy and peace,

Wounded & Healing

From Jennifer, who blogs at

Dear Mending One,

You sound brave and forthright in your desire to gather lots of information and experience. As a pastor, a mom and half of a clergy couple, I empathize with the struggle you experienced in your first call and the “perfect storm” of circumstances that made it so difficult.

While I understand that the DS needs to be persuaded that you’re ready to re-enter ministry, I feel sad that it either feels like or has been articulated to you that you must “prove” your fitness for ministry. I would hope that there might be gentle ways to re-enter and continue to explore parish ministry.

Do you live in an area where you could serve as an associate pastor? Are there possibilities for serving a healthy congregation that would embrace the opportunity to serve alongside someone who is recuperating from a lot of trauma? It may be a fantasy, but I think such settings exist, and I hope there might be someplace that allows you to be authentic and serve from a place of health and regained wholeness.

As far as books are concerned, there are lots of good ones out, but my experience is that one is most successful when one listens and learns as much as possible about one’s context before relying too much on imparted wisdom from great authors. It is often just as helpful to have a trusted colleague or mentor upon whom you can call for advice and off whom you can bounce ideas.

I hope this helps and I pray for every good thing to be part of your next call.

And from Muthah+

First of all: Get yourself a good woman pastor as a mentor. This is a pastor you respect and who is willing to be frank with you. I suggest a woman pastor because some of the issues you faced were women's issues. A sister pastor can often help you see what is cultural, what are your issues and what is just plain absurd. With the support of others you can address your naivete and your fears.

2. Attend to your spiritual life. Make time for retreats and prayer even when all heck is breaking loose. Do not let your self be 'guilt tripped' into trying to meet your parish's needs when you cannot meet your own. Confidence is rooted in your relationship with Christ. "If Christ be for us, who can be against?" becomes your mantra and you can face anything.

3. Attend to your family's needs. You do not do your flock a favor by ignoring your family. Witness to the importance of family love to your parish. Do not accept their criticism of your family--and there will be those who do--just ignore it and go on with what you and your mentor map out. It is the hardest thing to do, but you can do this. One of my colleagues said, "Parish ministry is not for sissies." It is tough business, but God has called you to be tougher.

4. Listen, Listen and Listen some more! The reason why our congregations are so messed up is because no one is listening to them. They have had experiences of God. They just don't know what to do with them. Help draw them into acting on their faith in ways they never have. Call them to live holy lives--not just righteous lives. Invite them to know the presence of God through bible study, faith sharing and Christian friendship.

5. Stay close with colleagues who will support you in this ministry and LAUGH with you at the craziness of this life. The laughter will keep you sane and remind you that the JOY of Christian ministry is greater than any other thing you might be able to do. Treasure those moments that are good. Keep a memory book of baptisms, or successes. It isn't for anyone else but you to look at, and return to it on bad days. And in all things, give thanks.

If you have insight or encouragement you'd like to share, or reading you would like to suggest, please use the "Post a Comment" function to do so.

May you live well and made whole through God's amazing grace+



  1. I am Presbyterian, so our polity is different, but it sounds as though your denomination's "system" has not served you as well as it should. No one should have a disastrous call (first or 51st) without the assurance of colleagues walking alongside, trying to figure out what's going wrong and steer it right. I hope that you won't own any more of the problem than was truly yours.

    I want to tell you a story that may or may not be relevant to you, so please take what is useful, discard all that is not, and don't be offended if I've read this wrong.

    I followed a woman who had a disastrous call. She was the wrong person for that pastorate; she was isolated and poorly supported in ways that horrify me even years later, and (here's where my story probably will not apply to you) she did just about everything wrong. The experience nearly destroyed her, to the point of sending her into a residential treatment program, and it nearly destroyed the congregation. Nearly everyone fled because the situation was just plain toxic. It was nobody's fault; it was everybody's.

    When I was sent to the congregation (although my denomination calls MWS pastors, they send CLPs), it was to avoid wasting a "real" pastor. Two people attended my first worship service. We all knew my job was to shepherd a good death for a congregation that couldn't be saved.

    But what I found was a beautiful grace that allowed everyone to forgive everyone else. The congregation readily admitted to the difficulties of serving there, especially for a woman so ill-suited to such a call. (We are an extremely rural church; her entire history had been in urban parishes and presbyteries where she had colleagues nearly at her fingertips.) I never heard, "I'm glad she's gone" without hearing right afterward, "This was a difficult place for her." They didn't blame her for the disaster. They loved her even though their relationship with her had failed in dramatic ways.

    Everyone believed there was a better place — in ministry! — for her. I hope you can believe that about yourself. Take advantage of all the opportunities your denomination offers you, and ask for what you need. Reach out to some colleagues who can guide and support you. Look for an internship. Fill in for a month for a colleague on extended vacation. Seek an associate position. Use your gifts. And as everyone above has said, practice self-care.

    I'm not signing my name to this because I don't want to inadvertently point toward my predecessor, but I'd be glad to talk more privately.

  2. Muthah+ suggested finding a mentor, preferably a woman. I would second that b/c that is what saved me when I was in a difficult position. Only my coach/mentor is not a woman, so if you run into a male who is excellent don't let gender deter you--there are some males out there who get the family issues, too.

    Having someone you can call and to whom you can say anything and who can talk you down and give you guidance cannot be overrated. SAVED me.

    It sounds like you are doing all the right things, but does your polity have anyone inside the system you can work with to "reestablish" yourself--it sounds a little like they left you hanging which seems unfair. Do you have contact with your bishop--is he a pastor to you? (In the Episcopal Church that is one of the roles of bishops).

    Blessings on your reentry to parish ministry!

  3. What a scar this disaster has left on your heart, soul, and confidence...but that scar is now part of who you are and in fact may in surprising ways become part of what you have to offer.

    I'd second what others have said. My one additional thought is to wonder what your goals are in terms of all that you are doing in this time. There's the big one of recovering from the experience, and another one of demonstrating to your denomination that you are fit to serve. You are trying to prepare yourself; how do the actions you describe do that, specifically? For example, what's your hope in attending those meetings?

    I think that having some specificity about this will help guide you in selecting what's useful to you personally, and it will give you some details to which you can point with higher-ups, as in "In attending Church Council meetings, I was particularly focusing on X and Y, so that I could learn Z."

    Blessings on your ministry both now and in the future!

  4. I'm UCC, so also a different polity, but I would want to know more about the reasoning for attending a lot of committee and Council meetings, and I would want to be sure that was okay with the pastor first. Imagine how you would feel if the situation were reversed and a pastor on any kind of leave, attending your church, wanted to attend all your meetings? Be prepared to articulate to the pastor how you hope it might be helpful to your understanding of ministry's functions and your discernment about future placements. (Or something like that. Your actual reasoning may vary.)
    I'm so sorry you had such a difficult time before and pray that you and your denomination will find a loving and fruitful home for your ministry.

  5. There are some very particular saddle sores of Methodist ministry -- our polity makes for some distinctive scars and markings. You have named some; there are others. There is a particular pain of leaving a congregation when you feel you are just getting started; there is the pain of "loving them and leaving them."

    If you wish to start a conversation, please feel free to email me at candlemb at bellsouth dot net. There are ways to have conversations; I'd be glad to talk more openly in private.

    And no matter what remember that God is with us. (To quote a little Wesley!)


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