Sunday, January 20, 2008

Changing Pastors

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that my church was having some controversy over our current pastor. Well, things have finally come to a head and our minister is leaving. It's an unfortunate situation, and there is plenty of fault to go around. Several observations come to mind:

The job of a pastor (or priest, rector, minister) is a hard one. You have a lot of different people to please and it's almost impossible to keep everybody happy. (In fact, if you're not ruffling a few feathers, maybe you're not doing your job right.) Every congregation is different and some people might be a great match for one congregation and not for another. Whether the decision is made by one person like a bishop or by a committee from the congregation, it is a very important decision and one that needs serious thought and deliberation. One of our problems was that I think we rushed into the decision too quickly. I understand that we also got some pressure to call this person from our presbytery since he was one of the first graduates from a program they had started to encourage second career pastors. I think he's a good man, but I could tell from the beginning that he was very different from what most people expected and I wondered if he would be a good fit. Time has shown that he wasn't.

The job of pastor's spouse may be even harder. Quite unfairly, most people view the minister's wife as an unpaid member of the staff. If the spouse has a great personality and the patience of Job, she can be a great asset to the minister. However, if she has a prickly personality and not a lot of desire to spend all her free time at church functions, people will grumble. When you've already got people complaining about the pastor, the last thing you need is a lot of griping about his spouse. All theological arguments about celibacy aside, at least in a Catholic church, you don't get people complaining about the priest's wife.

The process leading to the decision for us to part ways went better than I expected. I grew up in the United Methodist Church. As expressed in this blog, I have some interest in Catholicism. I like the idea of a bishop ultimately being able to make a decision in a case like this. I was very skeptical going in of the process we went through. The Committee on Ministry of our presbytery sent "listening teams" to our church. People signed up for times to speak with them about the life of our church and our strengths and weaknesses. They then produced a report for our Session. (The committee of Elders that governs the church for you non-Presbyterians.) I bet my wife (who is on the Session) a nice dinner out that all we would get from them was some sort of touchy-feely report saying some of you like him and some of you don't and you should just try to get along.

Well, I owe her a meal. The report was a detailed and candid assessment of where we were and how we got there. Beyond the question of how the minister was doing, it offered a pretty realistic picture of our strengths and weaknesses as a congregation. Most surprisingly to me, it came right out and recommended that the situation between the minister and the majority of the congregation was beyond the hope of repair and that we should part ways. They offered to help to negotiate a severance package. There are many thing about the Presbyterian Church that drive me crazy, but this went better than I expected. I'd be interested in knowing how such disputes are handled in other denominations.

Anyway, prayers are needed for our our minister as he discerns his future and for my church as we embark on a time of uncertainty as we search for another pastor. Keep all of us in your prayers.


Timothy said...

Greetings! Was surfing Google's Blogsearch and found your post.

>" I grew up in the United Methodist Church. As expressed in this blog, I have some interest in Catholicism"

Catholicism is an open book. You'll find all the info you'd ever want at They have a really good forum and with lots of lively discussions.

You'll also find the Catechism of the Catholic Church onlne:

God bless you, your wife, and the new pastor...


Irenaeus said...

" don't get people complaining about the priest's wife..."

Never thought about that as a factor, but I suppose it is part and parcel of the idea that unmarried clergy don't have the baggage (either positive or negative) that married clergy do.

I think the ELCA bishops have a good deal of say in which pastor goes to what church, as is the case in the Methodist (UMC at least) church.

I'm PCUSA myself, and I've seen the call process go haywire many times. Interesting to hear about your process actually functioning.

One thing I've noticed about the PCUSA's call system is that it is rather free market. Churches seek ministers and ministers seek churches through the CIF and PIF databases (church and pastor information forms), and then they get together. It's very free market. What happens, then, human nature being what it is, is that city churches and rural churches have a hard time finding ministers; everyone wants a big salary and nice suburban church with few obvious headaches. The Presbytery technically has a role in the process, but (in my experience) it often functions as a rubber stamp at best. That's one nice thing about bishops -- in theory, they can do a good job looking out for the needs of 'unattractive' churches.

MHL said...

Timothy, Thanks for the note and thanks for reading.


We're PCUSA here too. I think the process has worked well in response to a bad situation between local church and pastor. I don't think the call process worked well at all in our initial decision to hire him. The report from the COM had plenty of criticism to go around, including some for themselves.

I think you are 100 percent correct about the difficulties "less desirable" congreagations have in attracting ministers. We're the largest PCUSA church in town, but we're in a small town with lots of problems. High unemployment, school issues, racial problems. The last minister we had left us to go to a larger, suburban church in a booming part of the state. I'm sure the school and social opportunities for his young kids played a part. Something else Catholic priests don't have to worry about.

And I like the idea of a bishop looking out for the "less desirable" churches out there. It seems to me that the only problem with the Catholic system is it's current shortage of priests. If I were a Catholic bishop, I'd make encouraging new vocations to the priesthood one of my highest priorities. (How about that? I'm not even Catholic yet and I'm giving bishops advice.) Anyway, I suspect we're in for a long interim so everybody can kind of heal from the last couple of years. Wish us luck.

Irenaeus said...

"If I were a Catholic bishop, I'd make encouraging new vocations to the priesthood one of my highest priorities. (How about that? I'm not even Catholic yet and I'm giving bishops advice.)"

*Chuckle Chuckle.* Of course you'd be liable to try and give bishops "advice", being a liberal:)

More seriously, it's my understanding that priestly vocations are (relatively) booming in certain dioceses where more orthodox and traditionalist bishops have made it a priority. (I don't have any links at hand, but I think Closed Cafeteria has reports on that every now and then. Same is true for religious vocations, I believe.

"Anyway, I suspect we're in for a long interim so everybody can kind of heal from the last couple of years. Wish us luck."

I once wished a colleague good luck and I got rebuked, because technically that's pagan (bona fortuna, right?). Anyway. I will wish you luck, so here it is: Good luck!

MHL said...

I onced worked with a very conservative Presbyterian. Member of a PCA congregation. Great guy and good prosecutor, but not the world's best sense of humor. Whenever somebody wished him good luck, he would pipe right back with "There's no such thing as luck in the bible." One day he said that to a non-religious sarcastic guy in our office who immediately replied "Yeah and there's nothing about microwave ovens either, but it popped my popcorn last night."

Oh, and if I ever get around to converting I see myself as one of those guys who will bug the bishop with regular letters offering unsolicited advice. You know, the kind where whoever opens his mail will say "Not this guy again!" Some liberal Protestant habits will be hard to break. :)

Irenaeus said...

Leopards and spots, leopards and spots.