My father was a United Methodist pastor, so for all my young life, moving meant transitioning from one church to the next. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I experienced that transition from the congregation’s point of view. Now I have seen that transition in multiple traditions: in United Church of Christ, Southern Baptist, and Episcopal congregations, and as a lay member of two different United Methodist congregations. Each transition had features to recommend it, as well as related features that placed certain burdens on the congregations.
United Methodists have a connectional structure, which (for the purposes of pastoral transitions) means that decisions about which pastors serve which churches is made by “The Cabinet” (a committee of designated church leaders), allowing all of the transitional pastors in a conference to move on the same day. One of the many benefits of this system is that it eliminates any gaps in pastoral care or worship leadership that might result from less exquisitely choreographed transitions. But for some parishioners, this can feel a bit jarring, as if their wife died yesterday afternoon, and they woke up this morning to find another woman snoring softly beside them. Who is this person, and how did she get here? And what makes her think she gets this level of intimacy so quickly?
New pastors can sometimes appear to behave as if the church sprang into being when they arrived – they spend the first few sermons introducing themselves – which is important! – but they focus on building a new relationship with this “new” congregation, without openly acknowledging that the congregation may be grieving the pastor who went before them. When I first started out serving two rural congregations, it took me a few weeks to realize that I was doing this, too.
On the other end of the transition, pastors who are leaving may spend their last weeks focusing on the congregation’s grief (and their own, too!), without helping the congregation to begin the process of detaching themselves, making room in their hearts and minds for the next pastor. Part of readying the congregation for the next pastor needs to occur in worship, as many parishioners likely engage in the life of the church primarily through their one hour of “going to church” a week.
In order to enter into the congregation’s experience, pastors must be in touch with their own feelings about the transition, dealing with them in the early stages of preparing their sermons so that they do not accidentally project their own feelings on the laypeople. As in pastoral care on a smaller scale, in preaching pastors begin with the reality on the ground – what the parishioners’ hopes and concerns are (to the best of your discernment) at the moment – before they can be led to a more God-centered view. When through their worship leadership, both pastors acknowledge the congregation’s experience, the pastoral transition is given a much better chance of going smoothly.
About a month ago, I wrote about the many exciting developments in my life as a writer – one of which was writing sermon series helps. I am excited to announce that the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church has published my first set of sermon series helps: a series for June, written particularly with moving pastors in mind. This series follows the lectionary texts, tying together many elements of healthy closure: celebrating the pastor’s tenure, encouraging the congregation to let go of the pastor, and building anticipation for a new connection with the incoming pastor. These themes are brought together under the umbrella of placing our trust in Jesus – remembering who the true shepherd of the congregation has been and will continue to be.
I feel so blessed to be working with Rev. Dawn Chesser of the General Board of Discipleship, and I hope that the sermon series ideas that I develop under her leadership will prove to be of value to pastors.
Thank you, pastors, for your love and direction at all times, and especially for your faithfulness in times of transition!