'Tis the season when the United Methodist Church plays musical pastors sending clergy from one church to another. Moving companies in the United States make out big-time at the end of June each year. While the itinerant system is not without its problems, I believe it is much to be preferred to the call system of other denominations.
The purpose of this post is not to debate the merits or misgivings about itineracy in the United Methodist Church; rather I want to offer some reflections on what I have learned in thirty years of ministry and moving to a new congregation. What should pastors and congregations do and not do in their first year together?
In these kinds of times when the church experiences a change in leadership, it is important to emphasize the continuity of ministry that pastors and churches have as disciples of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, some folks in the pews think only of their church in relationship to certain pastors they liked. In a previous church I served, there was a wall in the main hallway that held photographs of the current and former pastors. I referred to it as the Wailing Wall because it was the place, where (so I said) parishioners stood and wailed over the former pastors they loved and the current ministers they did not like. Laity can tend to define eras of the church's ministry by the tenures of pastors.
The same thing is also sadly true of some pastors. They come into a new church and see the previous pastor as a threat or as irrelevant to their current ministry. I know some colleagues who have made a habit of running down their predecessors in order to build themselves up in the eyes of their parishioners. Not only is such behavior unprofessional, it does not glorify the God who calls those who precede and follow us in our ministries.
We must never forget that the church of Jesus Christ was around long before we were born and it will be around after we are dead. No pastor and no disciple sitting in the pew is indispensable when it comes to God's Kingdom work in this world. As important as each of us is to Jesus, each of us can and will be replaced. In every church I have left, someone has come up to me and said, "I do not know how this church will make it after you are gone." Every church I have left is still doing quite well. It's amazing how that happens!
So, if as a pastor you are preparing to move to a new congregation, or as a parishioner, you are preparing to receive a new pastor, allow me to offer some thoughts:
1. Do not publicly criticize your predecessor. It is unprofessional and no one will be impressed with you. It may indeed be the case that you would do some things differently than she or he did, or you may become convinced that the previous pastor failed in some things, but keep your thoughts to yourself. When you criticize the former pastor your own insecurities will be revealed for all to see.
2. Make sure that you publicly express the appreciation you have for the former pastor. All pastors make some important contributions to the ministry of the church. Do not fail to mention such things when it is appropriate. Such compliments will discourage people from criticizing the former pastor to your face, and those who really appreciate your predecessor's ministry will begin to appreciate your professionalism and your acknowledgement of the importance of the pastor's ministry before you.
3. Continuity of ministry means that while there are things that you will do differently, there are also things that should remain the same. Pastors should not change things for the sake of change. I recommend that the pastor change nothing for the first year of ministry-- and that includes the order of worship. If you change things without prayerful consideration or if you change things too quickly, you will send the message to the congregation that the way they have been doing worship and/or ministry is wrong. Make sure that you do not simply brush aside the things they have come to deem as important. At the same time, the church moves forward most effectively when things change. Do not let the status quo, who desire that nothing be done differently, hold you captive to moving the mission of the church forward.
4. Do more listening to the laity than talking to them.
1. Do not complement your new pastor at the expense of her or his predecessor. To do so is a sign of immaturity and you put your pastor in the uncomfortable position of having to respond positively to a compliment without appearing to agree with your criticism. A compliment without a swipe at the former pastor will be greatly appreciated.
2. Do not criticize your new pastor by comparing her or him to the former pastor. It doesn't take a Ph.D in biology to know that your new pastor is not your former pastor. Whether you like it or not, that it is the way it is. Get over it. Most pastors I know are more than willing to hear constructive criticism, but offer such criticism in love and on its own merit, not in comparison with another pastor.
3. Continuity of ministry means that there will be some things that your new pastor will leave the same and it also means that there will be changes made over time. The existence of the Christian Church is a reality only because of the new work that God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. Some things are meant to be done the same way over a long period of time, other things need to be changed or gotten rid of completely. Do not fall into "We've Never Done It That Way Before," mode. Had God listened to Peter and the other disciples, Jesus would have never journeyed to the cross; after all, the Messiah was not supposed to secure salvation in that way. Be open to the new opportunities that God is presenting you in a new pastor.
4. Share with your new pastor your hopes and dreams for the church and its mission, but also be prepared to listen to the fresh insights your new pastor may have.
Over time pastors come and go, parishioners live and die, but the mission of the church in this world as it proclaims the gospel remains the same.
Thanks be to God!
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