With Dr. Bruce Hartung
While the two questions for this month’s column may not at first seem related, I have included them because they both illustrate that congregations have specific work to do after “losing” their pastors.
Q: Our former pastor left our congregation in a blaze of gunfire. I do not mean that literally. But there was much fighting over his several-year stint. He immediately made major changes in our church service and he did not get to know us very well. He seemed more interested in his computer than he did in us. Maybe he had some similar concerns with us. But now he’s left. And we are thinking of calling another pastor. But there is a real sour taste in our mouths. I am a congregation leader. What do we do to get over this and move on?
Q: Our beloved pastor of over two decades is retiring and leaving the area. We will miss him a lot. We are working with the district to call another pastor. Some have said that we should hold off on that and work with an interim pastor. I do not understand this. Our church is in wonderful shape, financially and personally. Why not just move ahead?
A: There are many ways for a congregation and its members to work through the loss of a pastor.
Actually, the first task is just that — to work through the loss. This is true whether a pastor leaves because of conflict (perhaps causing in his wake lots of frustration and anger, among other things), or because of retirement in the context of a positive ministry (perhaps causing in his wake lots of sadness and anxiety).
Such emotional and intellectual responses need tending. How will these responses from members get the attention they need?
The task of tending such responses needs to be long-term.
Congregation leaders (including parish staff and whoever is serving as the vacancy pastor) need to develop strategies for how this is to be done.
Those strategies might include:
For instance, one petition during the prayers of the Divine Service might be, “For all those people in this place who feel anger and distress concerning the conflict in our parish, let us pray to the Lord that healing might occur.”
And most certainly, sermons need to take into account the specific circumstances of the parish. Denial or not talking publicly about what is happening is problematic in itself.
For instance, the congregation might announce in the service folder that “next Sunday morning during Bible Study, we will provide an option for people to come together to talk about their thoughts and feelings concerning pastor’s retirement.”
A second major task of a congregation after losing its pastor is to address its identity and specific opportunities. This is an important exercise, since it will likely point toward specific attitudes and abilities that a new pastor will need for ministry with the congregation.
There are many possible strategies for this task. One might be to focus parish planning and conversational processes on the particular hopes and directions members have for the congregation. Use this as an opportunity for open discussion about the direction of the parish and its major opportunities.
Intentional Interim Pastors are often recommended for vacancies in the circumstances raised by the writers. These are pastors who are specifically trained in the dynamics of the tasks discussed above.
But regardless of who fills the vacancy, I am convinced that the tasks laid out in this month’s “Pressure Points” need attention and that congregations that ignore these tasks do so with some peril.
And, of course, attention needs to be given to the pastors, their spouses, and their families who leave a parish — whatever the circumstances.
Perhaps we’ll continue this discussion next month, especially if readers contact me to share their insights on the topic. I strongly suspect that readers who have been through situations like those faced by the writers of the two questions might have some creative ideas to share, including what their congregations have done.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted June 29, 2011