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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ask the Matriarch - Pastor/Parish Differences

Our question this week comes from a situation which many pastors face at some point. Studies show that, in mainline Protestant traditions at least, clergy tend to be more "liberal" than their congregations. How do we, as clergy, deal appropriately with these differences? And how do we handle our own frustration with those differences? Here is our question this week:

Like many pastors, I find myself serving a congregation that is far more conservative, for want of a better word, than I am in every realm of life -- political, social, theological, and I'm sure there are others.  FAR more.

As I gain confidence in my sense of pastoral identity, I am increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated with this situation -- not to mention feeling increasingly inauthentic and even dishonest. 

I've only been here, in my first midlife call, for about a year and a half, and there is a lot for any pastor to do here.  But just this week I've had conversations with a male pastor who told me that his entire 40 years of ministry have been like this -- and like him, I've had people say to me, "I've never heard of a pastor believing anything like that!"   --   is that to be my fate? (except not for 40 years!)  -- , and with a young person who wants to work at the interface of Christian ministry and GLBT youth, whom I would love to be able to invite into my pulpit to speak to my congregation, but for the fact that many of them would walk out on her.

I do sense that God called me here more for me than for the congregation; I have always lived in diverse and liberal communities and this is quite a steep learning curve for me.  But many of my convictions and associated gifts are being left far out to pasture (literally), and I am becoming restless.  I'm tempted to lay it all out for them after Easter, and let them decide: Do they want a pastor who wants to lead in the direction in which I want to go, will they tolerate her in exchange for the excellent pastoral care that they are receiving, or would they prefer to make a new leadership choice?

I'd very much like to hear other experiences and counsel.

kathrynzj responds:

I am grateful that you have gained confidence in your understanding of who God is calling you to be. In my experience as clergy and also working with clergy right out of seminary, I have found the first 9-36 months in a first ordained call to be a bit of a danger zone. There has been enough time for the rhythms of 'must do's' and 'also do's' to be worked out, but it is not enough time for congregation and pastor to 'get real' with one another. In my experience, the pastor is ready to get onto the 'hard/good stuff' and the congregation is still working on 'is she staying?'

Are they a hostile congregation? If that is the case, then there are other issues at play here than merely differences in political/social/theological understandings and you may very well need to look to other doors God may be opening. As far as drawing a line after Easter and finding out if they are willing to toss out their long-held convictions in exchange for your "excellent pastoral care" - I'm pretty sure I know where they'll land on that one. Suffice it to say, if you would like to move on to another place, there are far gentler ways of handling it. 

However, If you would like to continue working with them, I suggest leading them through loving them.   There may be some real opportunities here to make a difference - but those understandings and movements take time. In my experience of moving congregations gently forward (and I have spent the better part of over two years doing this), people win over policy 9 out of 10 times. For instance, this young person who wants to work with LGBT youth may not be welcome in the pulpit the Sunday after Easter 2013, but with time put in for conversation, education and relationship, they may very well be welcome after Easter 2014. Building relationships and changing minds and hearts takes time and prayer and a lot of foundational work, but in my experience, because it is foundational work, the results will be longer lasting and far more fruitful than telling people they need to get on board or else.

Wise and excellent counsel, Kathryn. I think that "lead through loving them" would make a great mantra for all of us, regardless of what frustrations or obstacles we're facing. To our questioner, I believe you have already named your primary asset for moving forward - the excellent pastoral care you are offering. In caring for them, you are building those relationships Kathryn points to as foundational to working toward change. 

What do the rest of you think? Have any experience or wisdom to share? Please join us in the comments section for further conversation.

Also! Our queue of questions is quite low! So please send us questions you would like us to discuss. You can write us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I wonder if there might be some ways of "seeding" the congregation with some fresh perspectives through a book study where the bringer of new perspectives is not (technically) you, but some distant author whose ideas may be more safely engaged.

    This seems to have made a difference in the (rural New England) congregation I just started to serve. They had been much more conservative in the past, but apparently some key members had their views transformed by a book study last year on Marcus Borg's "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time." I find they are open to ideas and perspectives now that--by their own admission--they would not have considered before that book study.

    1. Thanks for these good thoughts, MC! There's a lot of wisdom in the idea of letting a "distant author" be the bringer of new ideas - this makes room for some connection between pastor and congregation that might not exist otherwise, and even opens the possibility that in some cases the pastor and congregation might be more aligned with each other than with the author, which can help the congregation feel safer while engaging new ideas.

  2. OMG...I didn't submit this question, but I could've written the first two paragraphs word for word. I've been here for 3.5 years now, and I know this is not a place I want to stay for a lot longer, but I'm trying to make it work the best I can.

    I do think that loving them and living by example is crucial. I preach inclusivity and how I understand God's encompassing love and Jesus' gospel imperatives at every opportunity. Just by being me I model for the congregation a way of being that is vastly different from the priests they have known before me. Being female is no small part of that.

    It's really hard in the larger community as well. I've been yelled at at traffic lights for having an Obama sticker on my car. I don't talk politics with anyone. In my local clergy association I am conflicted because I don't want to be associated with the theological positions I know many of my colleagues espouse. I have a big question about National Day of Prayer that I might submit to the matriarchs, actually.

    And right now, less than 20 miles from Newtown, with my diocesan leadership taking an active role in working for stricter gun regulation, I am in a context where those words largely fall on deaf ears. It requires constant negotiation on my part to find the words to speak out without going to far. Cosmic sigh.

  3. I love all this advice so far and I want to be an advocate also for meeting in the middle somewhat. If transformation is what you're after, you have to be willing to be transformed also. It's hard not to feel with a congregation that is more conservative that you have moved past them, but if you engage them and their beliefs, you might find more common ground than you think. This has happened in my own congregation re inclusive language. I am a huge advocate for inclusive language for God in worship - my congregation not so much. This has provided great opportunities for conversation on both of our parts, as we seek to honor each other. I dont know the change that is happening in them, but I have to say that for me, I have come to understand the loving/comforting aspects of Father God much more through my worship with this community than I did before. I do not use that language exclusively, but it doesnt make me squirm like it used to when I do.

  4. PS: Like Kathryn, I cant imagine a conversation in which you offer them the choice you suggest here that would go well. After such a conversation, it seems to me that even if you stayed, it would be hard to rebuild trust.

  5. I am the original questioner, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the inclusion of my dilemma and all these thoughtful comments. It's so helpful to see some of my ideas and plans affirmed, to see my rather emotional frustration shot down, and to know that others have found themselves in similar rocky boats. Thanks so much! (And please, others, join in!)

  6. Is there someone in your denominational hierarchy who can give you a sense of where things might stand? Do they know you and your congregation? I'm wondering if perhaps you can hear from someone who has a little more knowledge first-hand.

    It may be that this congregation regularly chews up and spits out pastors. If THAT'S the case, then move on. Be gracious. Don't burn bridges. Preach the love you want them to learn to give to everyone.

    I'll be praying! <3

  7. I agree with the comments on loving the people – something I remember from my first year of training “ love the people given to your care” . One thing I have found useful is Asset Based Community Development, or strength based approach. Find things to celebrate about the congregation, and more importantly, with the congregation. My understanding of ministry is that I am in ministry with the congregation - we minister together, some things I do, some things other people do - we work together. While I offer leadership, the congregation is not there to do what I want. There may be other ways you can support the young person working with LGBT youth. The context I am in is of a theologically & socially diverse congregation - so I try and stretch everyone, often by asking questions. The community we live in is theologically conservative.
    You felt ‘called’ to this congregation, is that sense of call still there?

  8. So many wonderful, wonderful comments here. Thank you! And I'm so glad to hear from our original questioner that all this counsel has been helpful!

  9. I just discovered a response from one of our matriarchs which came in after I'd posted this column. Here's what she has to say:

    I understand the position you are in. Much of my career was among those who were and still are MUCH more conservative than I. Thus it is ever so for small town ministry. Thirty years ago the only liberals in town were the clergy of the village and we met in my living room and howled with laughter. I think we were the Democrats caucus in town.

    It is precisely this progressive element that you have to offer--albeit carefully. I never talked about politics, regional or national, from the pulpit, but I did talk about what was wrong with how we were living. We never have to preach liberal or conservative--we merely have to preach the Gospel--the good news of God's inclusive love. Learn how to preach not couching your sermons with either conservative or liberal rhetoric.

    On the LGBT issue and as a lesbian pastor, I would suggest that you not make this an issue for you or for the young woman you might invite. Get the discussion started informally among some of the women in the congregation first. Slowly but surely there are those who will ask you about the issue. Talk about Jesus' desire to be inclusive of those who were excluded. Back up everything with Scripture. I am sure that you have the parent or aunt or uncle of a gay person in your parish. They will help you. I have never had to speak about LGBT issues from the pulpit because me standing there is sign enough. I have had to do that juridically because I was often the only voice but church politics is a different matter.

    Yes, your call is about you. It is about how you will grow. Our liberal or conservative theology is mostly a reflection of our political agendas. But by preaching the love of Jesus it will help others to step away from the polarization that our political agendas have done to theology. If we are ever going to claim that peace that Christ teaches, we need to learn to discuss things without having to ball our fists emotionally. Listen deeply to the people of your parish. Listen for the hunger for Christ that is there and then from your own understanding share with them how you have dealt with the various crises in your life. They may be able to hear that the struggle to follow Christ is neither liberal or conservative--it is just true.

  10. Another thought related to book study / Bible study: can you help them see that broader perspectives can be learned from deep within their "traditional" heritage? Last week I opened a Lenten Bible Study by talking about the rabbinical tradition, and how--even in the Bible--God is pleased more by authentic engagement and honest wrestling than by the towing of party lines (I used the example of the story of Job.) I then encouraged them to use this biblical example as they engage with the texts--to be faithful questioners, daring to ask the big questions, knowing that this is welcomed by God. It really changed the feeling of the group and several folks said afterward that they appreciated the context-setting and felt liberated by it.

  11. I, too, struggle with how to open up the congregation to other ideas and ways of looking at scripture and faith. I've been here 12 years and gave learned that time is one factor. It has given me the opportunity to build trust through pastoral care. Now they may at least give me the space to say something a bit challenging or thought provoking. Also, I continually remind myself that my job isn't to make them become like me but to be with them as they are and help them to become who they need to be. (easier to say than to do sometimes) Lastly, I try to develop outside opportunities to build my interests- a retreat ministry with 2 other women clergy, writing, reading, art, etc.

  12. I would say perhaps it would help to stop and inventory and acknowledge and commend all that is good and gracious in what they already have/do/are/say/desire/believe.
    I am reflecting on the pattern I have seen working the other way around, in pastor/congregation relations. St. Swithin's has a wonderful pastor who is kind, thoughtful, reflective, compassionate, sensitive to justice issues, but "just can't run the administrative part." So when the parish goes into transition, they go in search of an administrator; and they find one, and he is fearfully efficient, but cold, unforthcoming, facile in his preaching and counselling, and they look at each other and say, "Wha' hoppen????" Because they took for granted that what they HAD would be there in ANY clergyperson they called. What is there in the conservative aka stick-in-the-mud congregation, that you would miss terribly if it weren't there?


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