Welcome back to this series about pastoral transitions, specifically the understanding of change and feelings of grief surrounding the process of changing appointments. This series is primarily speaking to people in the system and polity of The United Methodist Church (though it works for most pastoral transitions), and it is my hope that in this we would find healthy ways to process the grief of change in churches as we approach this season of change. I invited Rev. Lindsay Geist, LCSW, to help me in this series; she brings her experience in social work and clinical knowledge, as well as pastoral experience in The United Methodist Church to bring words and conversation to unpacking feelings that many pastors, families, and churches are going through.
In this article, we explore pastoral transitions for all parties involved and the wide range of feelings involved in those transitions. I, Andrew, drew on my own experience and also reached out to a fellow colleague and his spouse, Rev. Nathan & Stephanie Decker. We listened to how they experienced their moves throughout Nathan’s pastoral ministry.
Nathan Decker is an ordained Elder in the UMC. He has been in ministry for 19 years sharing prayers published online and in books. Stephanie Decker is an Emergency Department RN currently continuing her studies. Together they have two boys and lots of joy in their life.
Disclaimer: Please note that this article does not capture everyone’s experience in pastoral ministry transitions. We recognize that not all clergy, families, or laity share the same experiences or feelings. We hope this article gives you a glimpse of some common themes experienced in appointment transitions that we gleaned from interview conversations.
If you have not read the first two articles in this series, we invite you to check them out using the links below. In the first, we unpack what exactly makes change so difficult for us, and the second one is a beginning exploration of feelings and emotions.
On July 1st, I (Andrew) will have completed nine years in pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church, specifically in serving local churches. During this time I have moved three times (this includes moving to my first appointment). While every one of these moves was expected, each experience was unique, elicited different emotional responses, and involved learning new ways to process feelings and emotions.
When a pastoral move happens, it is challenging for all parties involved – even the individuals ready for the next chapter. Uncertainty of what the next season of the church or pastoral leadership might look like can be difficult for everyone – including those that were pushing for a pastoral change. For many people in The United Methodist Church, appointment season can be a highly emotional and anxious time. The public announcements for new pastoral appointment announcements often do not happen until April or May, while the decisions themselves are often made as early as February (and this information must be kept confidential for a variety of reasons). The waiting and anticipation can lead to lots of stress and emotions among both clergy and laity.
Each party in the context of a pastoral transition– including the congregant, pastor, and pastor’s family – has its own unique experience and feelings surrounding the change. However, as we started gathering stories, we found that each party’s perspective is often intertwined and overlapping with other perspectives. When pastoral transitions occur, relationships change – between the clergyperson and the congregation, between the clergyperson and the community, and between the congregation and the conference sometimes. If we don’t acknowledge the feelings that accompany the changing status of relationships, there could be consequences or fallout. We are going to share some snippets of what we learned about these transitions for each of the parties involved.
The pastor that is transitioning to/from an appointment will often experience a wide range of feelings as they navigate the balancing act of providing care for themselves and care for their congregations simultaneously during the season of change. These feelings can be complex, as the pastor often serves as the focal point of a leadership change. They are the physical representation of the change and often others project a lot of feelings onto them.
As the “caregiver” for their family and the church community they serve, the pastor frequently becomes responsible for others throughout this process. They serve as a source of support for many, if not all, of those in the process of trying to sort through their emotions and feelings. Therefore, if the pastor struggles in expressing – or even identifying – their emotions it can directly impact other persons in the process as well. It also can lead to the pastor setting aside their own feelings and experience to care for those around them. While this might be seen as admirable, it can later lead to resentment, grief, and burnout if the pastor doesn’t have the opportunity for their own personal processing and self-care during the transition.
One of the most challenging parts of a pastoral appointment change is the relationship boundaries that come with that transition. When a clergyperson leaves a congregation, they are expected by the Conference to create boundaries with those congregants to reduce the likelihood of confusing leadership roles with the new pastor. It can be painful for the pastor to suddenly limit interactions with their previous congregants – but a necessary step to avoid undermining the incoming pastor’s work. For each pastor, these boundaries look a bit different.
On top of supporting the congregation, the pastor still has to care for themself through the transition. It is critical for the pastor to find and/or create space to process their own feelings about leaving an appointment and heading into a new appointment. There is often a lot of grief as one says farewell. Regardless if the setting was invigorating or challenging, change is hard and there will be grief involved at the end of a chapter. At the same time, there will probably be some anxiety and anticipation (and maybe even apprehension or concern) about entering a new church.
A new appointment always brings with it some uncertainty because there are lots of unknowns in any new setting. As we previously mentioned, we are creatures of habit, and change and new settings can elicit lots of feelings alongside it. As you navigate this transition, give yourself permission to say that change is a big deal – good or bad change, expected or unexpected change. Life will be different and that takes some emotional work to make the transition.
When pastoral transitions occur, one party’s experience is often overlooked and left unmentioned – the family of the pastor. Please note that for this article, when we discuss the family of the pastor, we are referring to the pastor’s partner, children, and those who live with the pastor and require their care and attention. We do recognize that for single pastors, the pastoral move might more significantly impact their extended family and “chosen family.”
The pastor’s vocational and ordination commitment to be itinerant in the church greatly impacts families. Sometimes families can feel as though they are an afterthought in the appointment process or as though their needs are not considered at the level that they desire. It is challenging for pastors who want the best for their families but sometimes feels as though parts of the appointment system are out of their control; these situations can place lots of stress and anxiety on family relationships.
A pastor needs to be especially attuned to their family in the midst of these times of transition. Just as the pastor must be adept at naming their emotions, so too must the family members be able to identify how they are feeling, and be able to express them to each other. Everyone is involved in the move and everyone is grieving a loss and change. It is critical and necessary for family members to have a support network outside of the church to be able to have a space to process their own unique experiences in this appointment process.
Lastly we observe that congregations navigate change as they both send and receive a pastor. They will have to grieve the loss of one pastor while also preparing to welcome another pastor. There are two experiences happening simultaneously and can sometimes stand in tension with one another.
In both the coming and the going of pastors, congregations and individual members will experience a wide range of reactions to the transition. Congregations must be sensitive to the fact that some people will be sad, some will be happy, and some will be indifferent to the pastoral appointment change. All of these experiences are valid and real because each congregant has a unique individual relationship with the pastor as well as a communal relationship with the pastor. Congregations and individuals will need to navigate their own experiences with the pastor.
Congregations can also play a role in helping the pastor to experience “closure” as they move from one pastoral appointment to another. It is helpful for the congregation to celebrate all that the outgoing pastor has done for the church while also having hope that the incoming pastor will bring unique gifts that are needed in this upcoming season of ministry.
It is tempting to compare the incoming and outcoming pastors – but each person can serve the church in different needed ways. At the same time, the congregation should recognize that it often becomes the consistent holding space for grief around change. They can sometimes become hopeful that the new pastor will magically fix things, relieve their grief, or serve as the navigator through the waters of transition. While the incoming pastor can provide support, the congregation will also need to be empowered to care for their own needs.
Overall, the pastor, the pastor’s family, and the congregation will have to celebrate, grieve, and navigate change as pastoral appointments transition. And we must remember that, as Mr. Rogers often says, sometimes you feel two feelings at the same time. We each will be navigating holding our various, sometimes seemingly opposing, feelings while also recognizing that everyone processes change differently.
We hope this article has offered some insights into some of the feelings each of the parties commonly experiences during pastoral transitions. As a reminder, we recognize that this is only a snapshot of experiences and that some people may experience additional or various feelings not identified in this article. Join us in the next article as we learn how to address the emotions!