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Monday, September 05, 2011

Monday Extra: Breaking the News

RevGals and Pals, here's a discussion topic for U.S. Labor Day, because it points up the way our work and our personal lives intertwine. As pastors we relate to our workplace in a unique fashion, and maintaining boundaries between the personal and the professional is our responsibility. But sometimes things happen that must be shared.

How do you break the news to a congregation?

The news might be good or bad, or good for you and not so good for the congregation, or something you think will worry them that turns out not to bother the church at all -- a pregnancy or adoption, a serious medical diagnosis, a new relationship/marriage, coming out, a separation/divorce or some other change of personal circumstances.

Depending on your denomination, you might have the support of a Bishop or Conference Minister or District Superintendent or Presbyter, or you might have no one beyond the local level to provide guidance or even just presence.

You may have a Pastoral Relations or Pastor-Parish Relations Committee to consult, or you may be dealing directly with a Vestry, Session, Consistory or Council.

If you've been through the experience of announcing something ordinarily considered personal, or observed a good way to handle breaking the news, please join the conversation in the comments.

(Monday Meet and Greet will appear next week.)


  1. I'll start the conversation with my own story.
    I started at my current call on September 1 last year, and about three weeks later, I made the decision to get divorced. The timing was less than ideal, professionally, to put it mildly, but a revelation of what I called in the eventual letter "activities not compatible with remaining married" on the part of my spouse really left me no choice. It helped that he was working on the other side of the country and had been absent for the interview process, so was a non-factor in their assessment of me up to that point.
    I called the Senior Conference Minister, who I know reasonably well, and he was compassionate as well as suggesting a process. I will say, he encouraged me to consider letting some time pass before informing anyone else, but supported doing it right away when he could hear that I needed it to be over.
    The Search Committee had become the Pastoral Relations Committee, so the people who already knew me best were the people who helped determine a process for informing the congregation. I started by talking to the PRC chair (the only non-Search Committee member), and then the Moderator, followed by a meeting with the PRC, then the Chair of Deacons. They were all matter-of-factly supportive, which blew me away. I suspect this is because they could see that I had received news that shocked me, and really, looking back, I think that's exactly how they responded, like the Volunteer Rescue squad when confronted with a patient in shock.
    We decided together that I would write a short letter and that on the same page there would be statements of support from the PRC (over the signature of the chair) and the Moderator. We sent it to the full church mailing list, which scared me, but also seemed necessary. They pressed me to make it clear as I could, without being specific, that there was no way to stay married, as I quoted above, and no one asked any questions, which was a relief, because it really was a sort of White Trash Soap Opera for this gently-raised bird.
    I didn't talk about it directly in church, although I did write about their kindness in my annual report. I suspect there are people who might have turned up in church last fall who didn't because of the letter, and a few who did for the same reason. We got through a name change fairly easily a few months later.
    For church leaders, at least, this was better than the last time they had a pastoral divorce, because I went through channels. The previous pastor and spouse put together a letter themselves and mailed it without giving any warning to church leaders.
    I remain grateful for their expressions of concern that contained absolutely no request for further explanations.

  2. Seven months after I arrived at a congregation that celebrated the fact that I was married and had a family ("A family in the parsonage again!"), I had to announce my impending divorce and leave of absence. I spoke with my District Superintendent first, then my pastor-parish relations committee. It was agreed that the chair of the committee would make the announcement at the end of worship one Sunday.

    It mostly worked well--I didn't have to speak the words, which would have been emotionally difficult for me, they heard it clearly from someone who cared about me and the congregation, and they had time to prepare for the leave of absence coming at the end of my appointment (which didn't occur for another six months).

    The downside was that I was a "lame duck" for those six months, and could not have started anything much in that time, even if I had had the emotional and spiritual wherewithal to do so.

    The congregation rallied behind me for the most part--they had had divorces themselves or their children had, so it was not a shock or a disgrace to them (although it was a conservative, rural area).

    I did not come out to them. They had had a tumultuous year just before I arrived and had begun to heal, when my divorce was announced. I felt that was enough for them to handle, and since I was leaving the denomination anyway, I wasn't sure much would be gained by coming out. In retrospect, if I could do it over, I would have gathered with a few of the members with whom I was close and come out to them. I don't think the response would have been negative and would have helped them understand. I just wasn't ready at the time, and when I was, or would have been, I lived too far away to be able to do that.

    Having someone else speak the words helped tremendously. I was there, I had just led the service, so I wasn't running away--but it was news that was appropriate for the chair of PPRC to communicate and made it easier for both me and the congregation.

  3. Your story makes a case for process no matter what the story or event. It sounds like in spite of pain or thru it, you had a clear head and clear idea of what you needed. What a wonderful supportive group. I wonder about the stories where the desired outcome is not so clear and advice is needed. Do those situations invite more comment?

    The previous pastor at my current call left the denomination and Protestant world taking self and family to a catholic church. Didn't notify any district powers until after the fact. Didn't discuss discernment until decision was made. I think that confusion left the biggest wounds. Yet I understand not wanting everyone to weigh in. Hard decisions.

  4. Follow-up to add: Like Songbird,I did speak with the lay leader as well and a note was published in the newsletter for those not in church on that particular Sunday (although given the rumor grapevine in that church, I can't imagine there wasn't anyone to whom it was news by the time the mailed newsletter arrived in their mailbox).

  5. I resonate with "someone else to speak the words"... the only such announcement I've had to deal with was leaving the church in which I had been curate. There was a Letter of Appointment to the new parish, from the Bishop; and my Rector read it aloud at announcement time, with suitable framing words.

    I've been present when a clergywoman announced her engagement -- all happy, but the instant apprehension in the parish was, "oh dear, does this mean she's LEAVING US"... which needed to be addressed right away. The answer, happily, was/is "NO"!

    A very helpful discussion!

  6. In 1982 I married another seminarian. In 1984 I was ordained. In 1986 I suffered a miscarriage. In 1986 I, also, suffered a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and almost bled to death. In 1987 I demitted my ordination. In 1989 I suffered another ectopic pregnancy and the loss of my ability to ever have children without the time consuming, painful, humiliating and uncertain interventions of endo-infertility treatments. In 1991 we began the process to adopt a child. In 1991 I terminated that process when I discovered my pastor husband having serial affairs with women in his parishes. In 1992, six months exactly after filing for divorce (the minimum allowable by state law), I divorced my husband.

    The model for ministry I consistently experienced was David and Uriah the Hittite. The Church covets what you can do for it and will even support pastors struggling with things they can relate to, or, in some congregations, which are “politically correct.” But, will send you off to war to die on your own if the system cannot bare to emotional weight a female pastor’s life. I have often wished I the “only” thing I was struggling with was the fact that I am lesbian—which I am not. But at least there is a support system and advocacy for gays and lesbians in the church.

    I know that as a pastor, I needed to lead my parishioners through my grief at the loss of my children, but I was so lost myself in an unimaginable place where even drawing a breath seemed and absurd but unavoidable task, that I could barely lead myself through the day-to-day. In those days, understanding perinatal bereavement was just beginning and sensitivity to, and an understanding of, the impact of trauma outside the war zone on an individual was still on the horizon.

    I learned too that the subconscious pull of the biblical images of fertility and barrenness, blessing and curse have a deep and powerful pull on the subconscious of modern women and men despite the pseudo-sophistication of our contemporary minds and approaches to biblical criticism. It took me a full 25 years to find L Serene Jones and her work in this area. It truly was like a gift from God.

    And, I won’t even get into how poorly the church treats the pastor’s wife when HE is the one guilty of sexual misconduct. Honestly, the fact that David had Uriah killed seemed kinder for about a decade.

    To convolute the situation even more: I turned to the pastor of my congregation (I was not the same denomination as my husband) for support. The “support” he was giving me seemed a bit off, but so was I in those days. The oddest being that when I told him that perhaps my new focus (I was 36, barren, with no parents, siblings or job as I’d been devoting my time to fertility treatments and then all the leg work of the adoption process) might be on truly living as closely to Christ as possible. He told me to find a different church, even suggesting one about 45 min away.

    About a year later, lots of counseling and spiritual direction still ongoing, I decided to seek ordination again and put a tentative foot in that water. Shortly thereafter the governing body of the church announced that the pastor was leaving and that he had been having an affair with a woman in the parish. They also announced the timeline. It became clear that they all knew about the affair while he was offering me pastoral support. As it turns out this was all under the direction of the denominational authority. Is a woman safe nowhere in the church?!

    Today, I am a chaplain in behavioral health and addictions and our system trainer for perinatal bereavement. If I want to advance I need to seek ordination as Board certification requires ordination and denominational endorsement which is predicated on ordination. So I come again, with fear and trembling to a place of professional ministry in the church, that intersection of my personal and private life, that has only proved one of pain and grief across the decades that have come before.

  7. Anonymous, thank you for sharing your story. I'm sorry for the number of ways in which the church let you down and injured you, and you have my prayers as you explore the ordination process again. As to your remarks about gay and lesbian clergy, I hope we can avoid minimizing one another's struggles in speaking of our own.
    RP, I'm glad you were able to continue in ministry.
    RevNancy, that's got to be a confusing situation for a congregation! I like your question about situations that are not so clear-cut. I guess if I had been continuing a challenged marriage, I wouldn't have told the lay leaders anything at the time, though I might have needed to do so later, in which case I imagine I would have done the same thing: consult the Conference Minister, then start with the PRC Chair and go from there.

  8. Jen, formerly of ordinary timeSeptember 5, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    Last November, I began my first call. After we had negotiated the call and discernment process, but before I actually began serving in that church, we found out we were expecting our first child in June. I decided not to tell anyone (including our families) until after the first twelve weeks. We told our families at Thanksgiving, talked to my bishop and clergy colleagues, then I told my senior warden and then the whole congregation on a Sunday in mid-December. I had thought I would inform my vestry (church board) and then the congregation, but my senior warden recommended not doing that, as it is such a small church and things get around.

    One thing I made sure to do was to see what arrangements would need to be made. We had negotiated maternity leave as part of my letter of agreement, but after we had done that, I learned that the national church provided some compensation for maternity leave through short term disability coverage. So I made sure of what we would need to claim that, and renegotiated maternity leave with my board with the new information (ie, rather than 8 weeks paid with an option for 4 more unpaid, I would do 12 weeks paid, and they would be reimbursed by the short term disability policy for 70% of my salary).

    Everyone was very happy for us, and knowing the plan made it easier for the congregation, I think. I was nervous, because I had been there so little time and because I was their first female priest (and the first under 60 in the last 20 years or more). So it felt like a big deal to me, but they were fantastic and very gracious about the physical challenges that I encountered along the way.

    I did have a hard time figuring out what to say when my congregation members asked about our birth experience or how we were doing. I had some complications and it felt very personal and not something I wanted to share necessarily, but I couldn't say "I'm fine" and not have it be a lie. So that was strange to negotiate, but not so awkward in person once I returned.

  9. We got engaged on a Saturday. And the next morning I aimply called Beloved up to the front and announced said engagement. With each child we didn't formally tell the congregation but told people as individuals and,w ell, news gets around. But it is of course easier for news that is counted as Good isn't it.

    The only experience of the other news (other than deaths in the community which I sometimes had to announce for the 10% of the congregation who had not heard before I did) was when we were moving. On one level it was straightforward--I gave the letter to the Board on Thursday and then read it folloing worship on the SUnday. The one complication was that we couldn't tell teh girls before it was public knowledge (since they would tell others immediately) so as the service was drawing to a close Beloved-who was leading Sunday School at the time-called them over to the corner so they could at least get told before the whole congregation, we felt they deserved that much.

  10. Gord's comment makes a good point about the challenge of negotiating "big" news with family as well as with the congregation.

    While I have not had big news to share while pastoring a congregation, I have struggled with how/when/whether to disclose my divorce to a new community. I am young enough that my unmarried status doesn't surprise anyone, and while sharing my story brings fear of judgement (etc), it is very much a part of who I am.

    In my current congregation - on the advice of a senior, divorced colleague - I mentioned it when it fit naturally into a sermon (e.g."When I was married..."). I'd be interested to hear what others do or have done, and why.

  11. Parodie's comment brings to mind my own situation. I am currently unmarried, and have been since 1996, long before my ordination. But I have been married and divorced twice, a fact that becomes sort of obvious if you look at the last names and ages of my children (and my last name is my birth name and different from any of theirs), but my kids are all grown now and so not part of the congregation. When I was in the process my bishop and commission on ministry knew, of course, and we talked about it, but since then I've wondered if it is really any one else's business at this point. At both the parishes I've served, some people figured it out, and once or twice it came up sort of naturally in conversation, but I haven't announced it to anyone, in the interview process or otherwise. So far, it's not been an issue.

  12. This is a timely topic as my partner and I are planning a commitment ceremony, which will out us to those few in the congregation still in denial about our relationship (I've been here nine years). They know but do not name, and that is a difficult bridge to cross. Songbird, thank you for your comment. Anonymous, I am appalled at the way the church has failed you. But believe me, any support system you think the church has for glbtq folk is mere gossamer, at least in my denomination. I have the support of my bishop but that means little to my daily life in the congregation. I am grateful to the RevGals, and knowing I am not alone in traversing this path.

  13. Hi Y'all,
    I never post here (though I read often!), but in case it might be helpful to anyone, I wanted to share my experiences letting the 2 churches I serve know about my diagnosis of breast cancer (over a year ago, now).

    After telling some selected elders, and discussing with some people at my presbytery, I announced it to the congregations during worship, at our time for sharing "joys and concerns." I told them that all I knew so far was that it was early stage, and things looked very hopeful - but I didn't have a detailed treatment plan yet. And asked for their prayers.

    Later, I was found to have one of the breast cancer genes, and so my treatment would be more radical then I'd first supposed - bilateral mastectomy, reconstrucive surgery, ovary removal. I joked with my pastoral coach (for whom I give thanks), that they didn't teach us in seminary how to handle it when the pastor gets a boob job! So, what I did was put everything in a long letter, signed by me and the clerks of session of both churches - and had it sent out the day I left on medical leave for my first surgery. Kind of cowardly maybe, but that way, I could be totally open without going into gory details face to face, and they could have time to digest everything without worrying about what to say to me, etc... I also set up a CaringBridge website, so that I could keep everyone informed without having to answer phone calls and emails while on painkillers! - and folks could check on my progress without worrrying about intruding.

    I'm a pretty private person, I should add, and never would have imagined getting up in front of a church and announcing my own illness - but I think, for us, it worked out for the best. (And now, btw, I'm doing well. TBtG!)

    blessings all -

  14. LB, thank you for posting, and TBtG, indeed! It sounds like you found a method that worked well for you and kept the congregation in the loop. Caring Bridge is a really wonderful resource for communicating but not having to do it in the "real time" of phone calls/visits.
    Joolie, congratulations and blessings!
    RDM and Parodie, when I was once-divorced, there were times that stories touching on my having been married before came up naturally, and I simply told them. Because my second husband and I had one name, and my kids another, and because when they were younger their dad came to a few things at the church, it was no secret that he existed.
    But now that I've had two divorces, I'm kind of hoping the second one will disappear into the mists...

  15. SB, I totally get it, and that's how I feel too. And over time, there's no reason why it can't just disappear into the mists!

  16. And honestly, in church and out, if someone asks my marital status, I simply say that I'm not married. That's all anyone really needs to know at this point.

  17. Anonymous, I join the chorus in saying how sorry I am about the rotten way you've been treated.

    I'm nearly a week behind now, so this might be too late to be of interest, but I was in a church where the pastor's husband announced during joys and concerns a joy that "Oldest Daughter is going to be a big sister in May." That was pretty delightful, I thought. Though I will always remember a therapist saying to Pastor afterward "i'm glad to hear you are pregnant, I was getting ready to talk to you about depression." (Pastor was pretty sick and pale at that point in the pregnancy.)

    I have been interested to note the congregation's treatment of me because my husband is obviously disabled (in a wheelchair). In a way, we give news of a personal nature to the congregation every week, just by appearing together. And, when he's not in worship (about 1/3 of the time) due to need for rest, they have been very gracious about hearing that. I have prepared them that at times I need to tend to his needs first, and so far that works ok for them, too.

    I guess I'm trying to say that the conversation between the pastor and counselor/congregant that I overheard made me realize pretty early on that even those of us who are very private probably are conveying more personal information than we think just be being visible and present with people week in and week out. I seem to have strayed from the topic of Big News here, but this is the direction this conversation took me.


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