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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ask the Matriarch

It seems that so many of the difficult issues we face in ministry have to do with the negotiation of appropriate boundaries. Some of these issues are more complex than we ever could've imagined, and we can hardly fathom how to move through the situation with health and wisdom. This week's question comes from a minister in such a situation - it's a doozy! Read on....

Thanks for your wisdom each week.  As someone in my first few years of ministry, I really appreciate it!

I currently serve two churches where one church is an awesome fit and the second church is, well, less than awesome.  My denominational supervisor and I have determined that it is necessary for my health for me to leave the smaller, dysfunctional church and just work full-time at the larger, healthier church.  My question is how to set up boundaries (and what boundaries to set up) when I'll be staying two miles from the church I'm leaving.  The churches are in a close-knit community and there are a lot of people who are physically as well as emotionally related in the two churches.  They also have joint traditions/ministries like an Easter sunrise service that are very meaningful to the congregations.  This service is scheduled to be hosted by the smaller church this year, but I am already having misgivings about participating (partly because I selfishly want to design the service myself and partly because I know it will be difficult emotionally to return to a place that has done their best over 18 months to get me to leave).  The folks at the larger church don't know all that I've been through at the smaller church. (I know that's surprising considering how closely related the two churches are, but it's true).  So what are the boundaries I should be thinking about with 1) parishioners from the church I'm leaving, 2) parishioners at the church I'm staying in, and 3) the new pastor?  (There are also a few families at the dysfunctional church that have said they don't want to stay at that church and might transfer to the other church----not at my encouragement but I'm sure that's how it will be perceived).

kathrynzj responds:
Wow. Can someone else (your denominational supervisor?) work with the smaller church on the sunrise service? One thing that will be helpful with boundary issues is your full time status at one church. Keep your hours reasonable and you won't have time to dabble in the other church's issues. Ignore emails from the other church or even from members in the larger church about the smaller church's issues. Treat them, as best as possible, as if they are 200 miles away. 

Not easy.. things will overlap a bit, but time will help. Blessings!

Muthah+ writes:
Dear Smart One,

This is the story of my very first position 30 years ago!  Often yoked situations contribute to the dysfunction of one of the congregations.  So let us pray that this happens for the smaller group.

First I would say, you do not have control over those who would leave the dysfunctional congregation.  The change of pastors bring about changes in the whole of the congregation always.  It is the way that churches change and grow.

If there are members from the smaller congregation come to you for care, remind them that you are not their pastor anymore.  It might spur them to take their own congregation in hand to change it.  I would suggest that you do not participate in combined services and suggest to the larger congregation that you suspend combined services for a while (certainly until they have called a new pastor).  The smaller congregation must know that there are consequences to their actions.

You do not need to tell your present congregation the ins and outs of the situation with the smaller group, but they will come out eventually.  Small towns keep nothing to themselves.  You may even have some rather hair-raising untruths told about you.  Try not to defend against these stories unless they begin to affect your parish.  Then tell your leadership the unvarnished truth confidentially.  Transparency is key but does not need to be for the whole parish.  Your lay leadership will take care of the tongue waggling.

You do not have any responsibility to the new pastor save that he/she will be a colleague.  If they ask, you can tell your side but you do not need to warn them.  When they call a new pastor, it may be the person that fits them when you did not.  

But what I want to tell you I did not learn until much later is that there is a reason that those 2 churches are separate!  They do NOT belong together being served by the same person.  And geography is NEVER a good reason for parishes to be yoked no matter what the judicatory thinks.  They are separate because they are drastically different and want different things as congregations. Otherwise they would be one large congregation. What will serve one congregation will NOT serve the other.  It is WHY they were formed in the first place.  So do not beat yourself up because you can't serve both parishes.  NO one really can.  The 2 parishes I served years ago had chewed up 4 priests before me.  I was able to help the larger congregation to go in on their own and they have been healthier for it.  The smaller congregation has continued to act squirrely but it is their own peculiar squirrelishness that seems to attract a certain group of people of that community.  Both parishes are stronger in their ministry in the community for it.

And RevHRod adds: 
Since I don't know which denomination you are affiliated with, my strongest advice may not be usable.  I truly think the best thing you could do for all concerned is to seek a call at a third church that isn't too close to either of the other two.  I am a bit surprised that your denominational supervisor is proposing this change as it sounds like it could be really sticky for you.  In regards to your three questions:
1.              You should consider the same boundaries that you would use after any change in call.  You are no longer their pastor so that means, you no longer perform pastoral duties in that place or with those people.
2.              I would think you would want to talk about details with your congregational leadership regarding the change in expectations since you will be their full time pastor.
3.              Be nice.  Be welcoming.  Don't tell stories.  Don't gossip. Don't stick your fingers in their pie.  And realize that even though you might want to do some things like design the Easter service, it may not be possible to do that and still be a good colleague.
Best of luck!  

Thank you, matriarchs, for your good advice! Muthah's experience, and what she learned from it, exemplify the profound blessing we have in being in community with sisters who have "been there, done that." Thank you, all three, for your wisdom.

I know that many in our ring are sailing the ocean blue, but the rest of us can carry on this conversation in the comments section. What advice would you contribute? Please join us!

And, as always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to discuss, please send it our way at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


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  2. I sincerely hope (and it may be happening) that if the denominational supervisor is pushing for/encouraging this then said supervisor is also being proactive with the smaller church to make it clear what is happening. In such a case it is not only the clergyperson's responsibility to promote healthy living.

  3. Muthah+, I want to thank you for your last comment. Last night I was at a visioning meeting involving four churches in a small geographical area, a city that used to be larger that now is not. The congregations are struggling to support buildings and pastors. But I felt unsettled after the meeting, and your comment held so much truth for me - there are reasons these four congregations are distinct from one another, and the same person cannot serve all of them. We will look for other solutions, even as we build relationships amongst ourselves.

    1. Joolie, I have to say that judicatories are trying their best to find answers for these tiny congregations but have no idea of the personalities and the histories that go along with these congregations. At the same time, there is often some very un-christian stuff that keeps our congregations apart. If some of that un-christian stuff can be addressed as well as holding up the reality of the sincere distinctness that are in those congregations for the sake of mission then something can be done. If each can maintain some part of their unique integrity then we the possibility to hold up the real meaning of diversity in the Christian community. We have often held up Christian Unity as 'organizational sameness' rather than seeing the real call is to appreciate the diversity that is part of how we are made by God. This goes for individuals AND church congregations.

  4. I also agree that you need to forgo participating in the joint service. It may have been a good thing in the past, but now that the congregations are divided (and appear to be adamantly so) it does not help either congregation. The other option would be to have an "area" sunrise service and engage several other churches outside your denomination. That way, it's not just the two churches. Or -- join other churches who already have one planned or in the works.

    FWIW - I was involved in a church that, 15 years ago, had a church split because they ordained a woman. The cut-and-leave group floundered and remained small. About 5 years ago we had a "joint choir concert" which was meaningless to everyone who had not been around that long (about 80% of the church) but for those who had been around for the split, it was a good thing. So time, I think, will heal this and the rest will learn that it's OK to have differences. Just not to be poops about it. ;)

    1. Ooooh, Anon. I am in a diocese that has split over gay and women issues and is looking toward a time which will bring those who split back with their buildings and their endowments. You have given me a great idea for one thing that can be done initially that will have nothing to do with women or gays---Music heals so much even when we aren't looking! Thanks.


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