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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: When They Won't Let You In

This week we hear from a pastor trying her best to create relationship with two congregations and finding one more receptive than the other.

I am the pastor of a two-point charge. My predecessor had excellent ministry at the smaller church (10-15 in attendance) and a very difficult ministry at the larger church (35-40 in attendance). I won't get into the varied and sundry reasons for that. Anywho, things are going fairly well for me at the larger church, but not so much at the smaller church. I think that they are still in mourning for the previous pastor, and while they're being genuinely nice and friendly with me and have affirmed me as a compassionate, caring, and gifted pastor...a few members of that church have shared with me that they don't feel "moved" by my sermons, are disgusted and jaded by the way the larger church treated my predecessor, and I get the sense that they're afraid to let me "in" and have lost their passion for ministry as a result. I'm struggling with how to lead them through this period, bring them to a place of healing and acceptance, and get them to let me "in"...all the while being authentically ME. Any thoughts on how to do this? Have any of you experienced this before?

Here are some thoughts from Shelly McNaughton-Lawrence, pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in 
Olathe, KS, who has been in ministry 25 years:

I've served two two-point churches and one three point charge in my career as a United Methodist pastor.  I've always found that one church is always more accepting and receptive to my ministry than the other church in a charge.  There is built in competitiveness with these multiple point circuits and when you add small community gossiping to the mix there some about of unpleasantness which can occur.  When I have been faced with this set of circumstances I work on keeping my anxiety in check because the upset church is expressing their grief, frustration and helplessness within the appointive system.  I've used Creating a Healthier Church by Ronald W. Richardson to work with the churches to express their feelings and hopes for the church in a more productive fashion. I find working on some of the family systems/church systems ideas is very helpful in these situations.

When people are saying things like, "I'm not moved by your sermon,"  I think it is another expression of grief.  I liken it to when a beloved character leaves a TV program, like Downton Abbey. Everyone is upset and convince the show will never be the same, but life really does go on and the viewer adjusts to the change in time.  Time, patience and taking up Tae Kwon Do to release your frustration are helpful tools for living into the new ministry you will be leading these churches into.

Another Methodist Matriarch, Sarah, blogging at Sarah's Space, suggests:

For many in two-point charges there is an unspoken rule that "If you like them, you can't like us." It often functions like a classic triangulation pattern in relationships especially in two-point charges that have been paired for a long time. The churches may not even have an awareness that they act in those ways. 

It also sounds like, by comparing you to the former pastor, they are attempting to triangulate you with an idealized version of him. Is the former pastor someone you could talk to? If so, ask him about the church and the key folks there. 

Sometimes the smaller church on a charge feels like they have no say in anything so when they finally connect with a pastor it is harder on them when that pastor leaves. Their grief may be keeping them from welcoming you in immediately because they are still struggling to let go emotionally from the pastor with whom they finally connected.

Coming from a different denominational angle, but with equal small church smarts, is Muthah+, who blogs at Stone of Witness:

Oh, yes.  I know this conformation.  It was my first charge and I was always being played off by one parish or the other.  I finally got the 2 parishes who had been yoked for 150 years to separate at the end of my tenure there.  It was the yoke that kept both of them sick.  And while they are both part-time parishes today they are healthier and are about the ministry in their areas.
If both of your congregations act like chaplaincies, then it may be ok.  But the larger parish will most likely treat you like a pastor and the smaller one like a chaplain.  If you can keep it like that, it may work.  But it sounds like your predecessor was 'pastor' to the smaller parish and now the smaller group wants you to be pastor to them too.  The problem with be a pastor to both is that they both will want you for their own. As one of my colleagues who also had yoked congregations said, he felt like he was having an "affaire." This is common in yoked situations. 
These 2 congregations are separated for a reason.  They need different things and they need you to be different among them. If they were alike they would have unified a long time ago. If  you can figure out what each parish needs and be quite intentional about supplying just that, you may be successful in both.  It will take some real intentionality. But you will feel like you are a multiple personality!  If you can be clear for yourself that in one parish you function as a pastor and the other a chaplain, it will help you stay clear of their expectations for being their 'own'.
I have never quite understood why judicatories yoke churches that are quite different and expect that one pastor serve both.  It is crazy making at best.  What you need to know is that it is not you that is causing the problem even though they will lay it at your feet.  Secondly, be clear as to what you can offer each community and what you cannot. 

Last, from yours truly, blogging at Reflectionary:

Lyle Schaller characterized very small churches as Cat Churches in his classic book, Looking in the Mirror: Self-Appraisal in the Local Church. In my experience, he's right. Cat churches really only want us for the basics: food (Communion), water (Baptism) and taking away the dead (funerals). The family life of the congregation is interior and mysterious, just like the personality of most cats.

Now, the occasional (actual) cat will love you, wholeheartedly and affectionately. And some will do so mostly, then bite you when you least expect it. But most will treat you like a roommate who is convenient for material purposes such as food, water and heat, but not of great interest otherwise.
What this means is the cat congregation may never have a personal relationship with the pastor. That also means the things they complain about are almost never actually personal, even if personal details are part of a complaint. Your role in relationship to them is that of chaplain, according to Schaller. If you did CPE you'll know that means taking them on their terms, and supporting the spiritual forms that work well for them. That's an extremely unromantic, non-mystical form of ministry, but it's reality in a lot of very  small congregations. It's not unworthy; it's just not what they taught us to look forward to in seminary.

Faithful readers, do you have anything to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 

And as of this writing, our queue is empty, If you have a question for the Matriarchs, please send us an email by clicking on this link: Ask the Matriarch.


  1. i serve a yoked congregation, but distance helps that. they are in separate counties; separate school systems etc... that being said it works well. there is no us versus them going on.

    visits. lots of visits... sitting with them in their kitchens, on their porches whatever. it's the only way they'll come to really know and trust you... and you them. phone. phone again. invite yourself over. it does sound like they're still grieving former pastor... so those first few visits might be all about listening to "the way we were"... but they'll move on. just have to give 'em time and keep inviting yourself in.

  2. My parish is not as small as what is being discussed here, but I find the description of the "cat church" to fit this place so well it's a bit scary. Wow. Right down to sometimes they'll act like they love you and then bite your hand.

  3. if only we were allowed to keep a spray bottle at hand for the moments when they choose to bite us!


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