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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: Public Eye, Private Matter

This week we hear from a pastor whose private life will soon be public. She writes:

My husband and I will begin the process of separating soon, and I’m wondering if you have any wisdom as to how to go about this with the church.  I’m the pastor of a 150ish member church in a religiously conservative area.  And I’m young.  And I’ve been here less than a year (and it’s been a semi-turbulent 9 months). And the church loves him  And oh, yeah... I’m a female.  And all of these things seem to complicate the matter some. I don’t have any idea how to navigate this process with the congregation or higher judicatories.  How do I communicate this matter to my congregation and be open to them, while at the same time not inviting people too far into our private lives? Are there other things about being a newly single rev that I might not have thought about?
Thank you for your help, wisdom and support!

Our Matriarchs are here for you, sharing their thoughts and prayers.

Dear friend-

I'm sorry that things have been so tough. I could tell you about my own experience, but after typing, it all seemed a bit unnecessary.  A lot of things you might choose to do are dependent on your specific circumstances, but here are a few things that you might consider.

    Make a face to face appointment with your bishop or the appropriate person in your judicatory.  This is a pastoral call.  They need to know the pertinent information and they also need to be in a position to provide you with pastoral care,
    Ask the judicatory if they have any steps they feel you should take regarding the congregation.
    Everyone in the congregation does not have to know your business, but there are certainly significant people who need to know before it is public knowledge.
    You get to decide whether he gets to be at church.  It's your work place.  He will have to find another place to worship.
    Practice saying things like, "Thank you for your concern.  I know you can appreciate that this is a private issue."  Stop yourself before you tell people more than you want to divulge.
    Don't worry about the single rev stuff right now.  You have enough on your plate.

Most importantly, remember that you are a loved child of God.  Nobody plans for these things to happen.  When we get married we make promises we want to keep and when things get broken, it hurts.  But not even the pain you are now experiencing can separate you from the love of God.

Heidi/RevHRod, who blogs at You Don't Have to Listen, I Just Like to Talk

Dear Friend,

I'd suggest that you speak first with your pastor relations or personnel committee and share your news, confidentially, with them. It's important to rehearse what you would like to share, and what you're concerned about.
(I don't know if your spouse would feel comfortable attending that meeting, but if there is any chance that he would, that might be helpful.)
I think it's important to affirm that they love him, and that you care about them as a congregation even as you move through a difficult personal time, and that both of you covet their support and prayers.
I think it then makes sense to work with the most trusted person on that committee to craft a letter-- old fashioned- in writing- not e-mail-- that can be shared with your governing body (Session? Council?) and then with the congregation at the time of your choosing. Be clear about what you share with them (congregations and gossips within them will always put their own spin on things, no matter what you say, but at least you will have shared, in writing, what you would like them to know!) and offer them help in maintaining good boundaries by stating what you need and what you don't need at this sensitive time. Share this information with your higher judicatory with a phone call to the right person or people, followed by a copy of the letter you've sent your congregation.

And, if you haven't already, get thee to a wonderful, supportive, trusted counselor or therapist. Everyone needs somewhere to vent and to heal, and it's worth the cost, the travel, the inconvenience and the time away from other things. This trusted soul can help with all that may come as you live into a new normal in your life.

We will be keeping you in our prayers.
Jennifer, blogging at An Orientation of Heart

This is not something that I have experienced first hand but I have seen colleagues go through a separation and divorce.  I am United Methodist and in our system it would be a good idea to be in communication with those who appoint us early in the process.  This would be the District Superintendent first, and before anything formal with the congregation.  I do think that being female is a factor but what I have seen show that both genders may have some difficult struggles with the congregation members, esp. if the spouse  is going to continue living in the area. 

My prayers are with you!   

Rev Red

Dear Sister in Christ,

Like so many others, I have walked in your shoes, and my thoughts fall into six categories.

First, be honorable. If the congregation loves your spouse, unless the spouse is a real rotter, keep that part to yourself. People will talk; that's almost inevitable. Let them, and hold your head high. You wouldn't be doing this unless you believe it was the right thing and the best way to be the person God calls you to be.

Second, be smart. I would encourage any pastor moving toward a separation or divorce to turn to your Conference Minister, District Superintendent, Bishop or Executive Presbyter, etc. That person is the closest thing you have to a pastor, but we don't always view him/her that way. If you get care from that person, thanks be to God! But even if you don't, that is not a person you want to have hear it from someone else. Remember this is a person who will likely be asked later about the grace and dignity with which you handled a difficult life situation.

Third, be respectful of your congregation. My Senior Conference Minister also advised me about how to proceed with the congregation I served. He recommended a timeline, and a process. I followed the latter, contacting both the Moderator (chief lay leader and chair of our Council) and the Chair of Pastoral Relations. In consultation with the whole Pastoral Relations Committee (which consisted almost entirely of Search Committee members), we drafted a letter in three brief parts written by the Moderator, the Chair of PRC and me. This was a snail mail letter. We never made mention of the situation in the newsletter or email news. The leadership felt respected because I consulted with them.

Fourth, be kind to yourself. We may feel impelled to get the news out there for reasons that are multifold (we're hurt or appalled or jubilant or relieved), but this is personal business, and the congregation doesn't need to know everything ever or even most of everything right this minute. Be sure you are reasonably ready to be vulnerable before you make an announcement.The advice I didn't take was to be in less of a rush about informing the congregation. I was in a hurry to shed my married name before people got to know me any better, and before I was more fully established in the wider community. For many reasons, I wanted to get the news out there. I wouldn't say that was wrong, but I don't think it's the only way to handle things either. The Senior Conference Minister advised waiting, not because he thought I would reconsider, but because I was hurt and needed more time to get myself together emotionally before having other people in on the news. That part was good advice. Divorce shakes us up, and the news of it shakes up the people around us, whatever the circumstances. Consider the impact of timing on your ability to be present to others.

Fifth, be savvy. If you put it on social media, someone will find it. For instance, if you detach your Facebook account from your spouse's, someone will surely note the mention on your timeline, "A and B are no longer married." (I speak from hard experience.) Keep your private life more private than usual. Call a friend on the phone, or grant yourself the space for a little time away with family or friends, even if just an overnight. 

Last, be realistic. If the ministry has been turbulent already, you may want to be prepared for the possibility that there has been a bad fit all around. When we are trying hard to make other things work, we don't always present in a way that allows us or our congregations to know if the match is right. It's certainly possible to have an effective ministry after a marriage ends, but it's also a good idea to consider an exit strategy. What are the community norms? Have pastors in your region stayed in a church after a divorce? That's something your judicatory leaders can tell you.

God be with you in the midst of all this,

Martha, blogging at Reflectionary

Okay... I've done this. I'm so sorry you are going through it now too.

I'm PCUSA so I'm going to use the names that we use for the various positions, I'm hoping they are translatable to your denomination. If not, let me know in the comments or email AsktheMatriarch giving them me permission to email you directly.

1) Come up with a breath prayer to get you through these next weeks, months, years... something that you can easily remember that can get you through even the darkest meeting or Sunday morning.
2) Contact your Executive Presbyter and let him/her know the situation and ask for guidance on what their expectations are of you.
3) Tell your Clerk of Session (consistory president?) . If this is not someone that you trust, then bring in someone you do trust WITH them, but their position as Clerk of Session means that they have to be in on this initial conversation.
4)  A letter should go out to the congregation with limited details. Sadly, the gossip is going to take over anyway no matter how much you do or do not put into the letter (yes, this is personal experience, but it is also the anecdotal experience I have heard from others).
5) Hold your head high and refuse to let anything slip when you have your professional hat on. Do NOT speak badly of your spouse.
6) Find a few friends (not in the congregation, remember ultimately they will be left behind) to confide in, cry with and say all you want to about your spouse.
7) Be ready to handle this all quite well with head held high and then get slammed months later with the grief. Divorce grief is separation grief is the grief over something that has been lost.
8) As best you can, get your paperwork ready for a move (PIF in pcusa land). It may not happen right away, but rare is the church that can handle a major life transition of the pastor and remain intact and focused on the work of God (rather than the pastor's personal life). I especially have my doubts considering the details you listed about them. 
9) Remember that no matter what, you are a beloved child of God who deserves to be happy.

My prayers will be with you.

kathrynzj at Volume II

To our questioner, I hope you will feel the support of prayers ascending on your behalf. Whether we have been there or not, we all feel deeply for you.

We'll be back next week with another question. Could you use a word from the Matriarchs? Email us: Ask the Matriarch


  1. my heart goes out to you. I think that all of the advice here is good, and I don't have anything to add but my prayers and support. Especially talk to your bishop/supervisor, and find a counselor.

  2. i echo what has been said! phone your Bishop. draft a letter to be mailed to every church member at the same time. line up a therapist or someone to help you process. and be gentle with thyself... brokenness happens and just because we are in ministry does not mean we are immune to it. your congregation might surprise you in their willingness/ability to provide care for you during this time, and to see you in a new light, perhaps more approachable now that your "brokenness" is unfortunately very public.

  3. I have seen this from the other side, as a member of a congregation whose pastor divorced. Remember that this is an opportunity for the congregation to care for you, and your congregational leadership can be explicit in stating that: "We are not a congregation of perfect people in perfect situations. No congregation is. How we love one another through the inevitable messiness of real life is one of the most important ways we act as the Body of Christ in the world." Some will get on board with that, and some (in part because of their own personal circumstances) won't. Maybe the situation will be toxic for you; maybe you'll feel enfolded by embodied grace; probably you'll get a mixed bag. But as a pastor (and, echoing what others have said, knowing that gossip is inevitable), you do have some high ground here in expecting the congregation to behave as the Church.

    Peace to you ...

  4. I too have been there. Its painful and wearying, even when it feels welcome. All of the above is good sound advice. We lived with our news for four months before going public. We had some very trusted friends who protected us, whilst we took our boys through what was happening and why. My Pastoral Advisor was fab. I took three weeks leave as the news broke - got good friends to fill my pulpits that week and break the news gently to the congregations. (Prior to this I made many trips to the individuals I knew needed to hear it from me)
    You will get through; you will eventually want to move away to somewhere new, and probably sooner than you think. You are loved. You are blessed and brave and courageous and God will carry you through. Blessings

  5. Prayers, and hopes that you will take excellent care of yourself. As a former family lawyer, I am well aware of the toll that the stress of divorce takes on each person involved. I hope that you can find both a wonderful therapist and a wonderful spiritual director. Don't underestimate how out-of-whack this can make you on some days.

    Such excellent advice here. I am aware of a clergy couple (different congregations) who recently divorced; one party told no one in the congregation, and the other just kind of did one Sunday. Great wisdom here about how to put a process in place with the help of your next level up person.

    Going back in time, the day after my daughter was baptized in a large UMC church in January, a letter arrived from the much loved senior pastor saying that he was getting divorced and would be leaving in June. His wife was of the traditional mold who had led a well-attended Bible study for his 16 years there and had sat in the front pew beaming every Sunday as he preached. The shock waves of the divorce and sense of deception/hypocrisy continued -- I think through the entire next pastorate of about a decade. Given the matter-of-fact UMC appointment system and the gifts and skills of all involved (not so much), there was simply no overt opportunity for the congregation to grieve and deal openly, and so it took, imho, much longer than it needed to. All of which is to say that an appropriate, non-soap opera level of transparency, could be very helpful to your people.

  6. Just a tiny piece of advice, echoing something Martha said - be prepared for the fact that when you tell people (especially your congregation, but other people as well!) you will be faced with their reaction because they will process it through their own fears/experiences/anxieties. It can be hard to be expected to provide pastoral support to people in the midst of sharing your own difficult news. Get help doing that, in whatever form you can - and take your time sharing the news, so you can be grounded enough to handle people's shock.

    Good luck. Remember, too, that many people have walked this road before. We're praying for you and pulling for you.

  7. I have a very specific memory of my pastor and his wife, together, announcing their impending divorce to the congregation. And that became the moment I realized that my beloved pastor was not a perfect human, but a real person. So my thought, having experienced from the congregant side, particularly as you mention that the congregation likes him, can this be a joint announcement? particularly if it was a joint decision, it would forestall any talk of "pastor kicking him out of the parsonage" or such icky gossip.

  8. I've also been there. My situation was that I left one church looking married (and still legally married) and began at a new congregation without him in the picture (divorce was final a few months later). It's just how it worked out for us.

    It's just difficult and painful and messy, I believe, even with everyone behaving as best they can and being as loving as possible.

    There is a lot of good advice here. I hope that you can discern the pieces that will be helpful to you. Not proud of this, but I couldn't ask for any help. It was the best I knew to do, but it wasn't ideal. You are seeking the help and resources you need, and that's all to the good.

    Mostly, I just want to add my concern and prayers for you and for your congregation and for your family. God's peace surround you as you go forward.

  9. God bless you! I've read all the comments and I too hope you feel lifted up and I could echo everything - 1st A#1 thing to do is tell your Bishop,etc - the last thing you want is for him/her to hear it "On the street/net/phone from an angry parishioner!!" - 2nd...well, I don't need to repeat...what I do want to share with you is that I have been divorced since 1973, became a priest in 1986, and spent my entire ministry as a divorced/single person. The first thing I had to do was come to grips with the single word - sin. I broke a vow to God - simple as that. The reasons don't matter. I broke it. Once I got that, I was on my knees to God asking for forgiveness and I got that too!! It's been hard but I've managed to keep that uppermost in my mind for the past almost 40 years. I did it, I know it, God knows it and God forgave me - not forgives me - forgave me. Done, over with, finis and if I go back to God and say, "I'm sorry" again, all I will hear is "For what?" Once it's forgiven it's done in God's eyes. When you get that solidly in every nook and cranny of your heart, you will be spiritually sound. It's the rest of the world that will try to bring you down, not God. I can't tell you how many times people asked me, "How could you be a priest when you are divorced?" Like it was an unforgivable sin or a mortal fault that would keep me from God's Altar. My answer was and is always, "God has done that miraculous thing. God lived with me through the hard days, God forgave me and lifted me out of the muck and mire, and - here's the important part - God called me to the priesthood out of that same place. I answered that call and continue to serve God because God wants me to." I find I have to stop the questioner with this first: "That's a really good question and I have finally worked through my own questions about that and so I have an answer. May I share it with you?" That's because many of those people only want to express their displeasure and outrage - they don't really want to know the answer so if you just launch into it, they usually shut down and get even more outraged. So I found a way to gently let them know I had an answer if they wanted it.

    I had been divorced for 7 years when I started the long process and I was asked everything from "How dare you?" to "Who's going to take care of your son when you get called to the hospital in the middle of the night?" So I know all the pains and outrages you will feel in the coming months and years. Just keep the main thing the main thing. God forgave you and you started over (or are starting over). Jesus died for that and it's his gift to you. Cherish it in your heart and it will feed and protect you from the slings and arrows. Keep the faith but don't forget your Bishop, etc, clergy friends, trusted parishioners - they love you too and will also forgive - cherish them also. God be with you, sister!! Many hearts feel your pain and know the joy you will find.

  10. How absolutely marvelous all these responses are! I hope you can tell from all that has been written that you are not alone in this process. We are all,as one of the seminary professors said,"fallen, fragile, finite human beings." (even if our churches don't want us to be!) We live human lives, which are broken. We are not better, or worse, than anyone who sits in our pews. We are, however, like them, children of God, and loved unconditionally. I hope you know that and can remind yourself (or have someone else to remind you of it) on a daily basis. Only you (and your spouse) know the circumstances of the separation and the sordid details are not anyone else's business..not the district superintendent, chief presbyter, the bishop's and certainly not the congregations! I absolutely agree that the 'higher-ups' whoever they are in your denomination need to hear the facts: that you are separating, not the reasons. Those reasons are yours to keep and yours to share..but NOT with those who have power over you and your ecclesiastical future (unless it is something very black and white that is completely not your fault). You know you are doing the right thing and there is no one to whom you have to prove anything.
    May you be surrounded on all sides by the love, comfort, and care of our boundless God!!


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