Welcome back to the final article in 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: As we mentioned in our previous articles, everyone will have their own reactions and experiences with a pastoral transition. There is not a prescribed way to feel about the change and not only will there be a range of feelings experienced, the way people express those feelings will vary.
Previous Articles in Series
This is article four in the Pastoral Transitions Series. If you would like to catch up on the previous articles check them out below:
Addressing the Emotions
Whether you are the pastor, the pastor’s family, or the congregation, the question is the same: “How do we process our own emotions while having this yearning to care for others in their own emotional journey?”
With the cross-section of each of these perspectives, we as clergy find ourselves trying to handle the grief and challenges of change in our own spirits while also trying to address these feelings in our neighbors. It can be complicated to balance this tension as we attempt to remain in relationship with those we are leaving as well as in relationship with our new congregations. When we don’t do this well, it can lead to unhealthy relationships.
One of the best pieces of advice we can offer to persons in each of these perspectives is to understand your own emotions within your particular situation. While we can look to people from other perspectives and be in conversation with them about these emotions, we should be careful to maintain healthy boundaries. When a clergyperson shares too much about their own feelings with congregants, it can lead to unhealthy relationships and complicate power dynamics with congregants.
Rev. Nathan and Stephanie Decker, a clergyperson and spouse (respectively), expressed their understanding of these sorts of boundaries by saying,
“We talk with each other but not with the church community about our feelings of excitement and loss. This creates a way to minister to the church in their grief.”
This is a helpful expression of boundaries that can help in the long run, not just in the form of processing emotions, but also in keeping boundaries that allow those in the congregation to process theirs as well. The pastor often serves as the central leadership figure in the congregation and is expected to care for everyone involved. However, there are critical outside supports to be tapped such as a therapist, spiritual director, friend, or family member, not in the congregation. Holding boundaries and having outside parties help to process emotions, offers both family and congregation a sounding board for how they are feeling. It also gives the pastor themselves a safe sounding board in their partner (or someone with a similar emotional relationship). Everyone involved in a pastoral change could benefit from an outside person to talk to about their feelings, and the ability of the people in authority to set boundaries becomes even more important.
As with any level of emotional self-care, boundaries allow us to not overburden others – or take on too much ourselves.
While I, Andrew, can be emotionally real with how I am feeling in a pastoral transition, I try to do it in a way that lets my congregants know I am present to hear their emotional responses. I am not looking for them to process my emotions for me (this is where pastors have their own support system to help with such things) or “fix” the things that are heavy on my life. I can identify my own feelings out loud to others and reiterate that they are not responsible for “resolving” my emotions or making them go away. My expression of my emotions can normalize them for the congregation.
Families can and should rely on one another, as that serves as a wonderful support system. However, we can get ourselves in trouble if we try to feel emotions for our family. We cannot tell our family how to feel, and we must rely on them to express emotions and be an empathetic listeners who can sit, listen, and allow emotions to be freely expressed.
For congregations, their expression of feelings can often swing a few different ways. They may rely too much on the departing pastor and thereby run the risk of creating an unhealthy relationship moving forward, or they might swing too far in respecting the boundaries that the pastor becomes absent and separated from the grieving process. The pastor should be present for their congregation when they are departing, and incorporate the leadership of the church (who will be there after they depart) to help the congregation post-departure and as the new clergyperson arrives.
The way transitions occur in the United Methodist Church often makes this even more difficult. If a transition is either unexpected by all parties, or any single party it can play an extra toll in the transition process.
Rev. Decker expresses how difficult it can be when moves are not expected. He expressed that only one of his many pastoral moves was expected. His expression of this sentiment was,
“All of the congregations have been excited about our arrival. It would be easier on us in some ways if the churches we were leaving were happy about our departure and excited about the next pastor. Because most of them have been shocked (“but we wanted you to stay”), their sense of loss and grief was heavy.”
This becomes a heavy part of these moves. In these unexpected times, congregations might have intense emotions about the change, and the pastor is often trying to wrap their head around it as well. It can be a mixed bag of excitement when a new pastor comes in, but how do we celebrate pastors moving on?
These sorts of transitional rituals can serve as a way to leave a congregation faithfully and make room for future leadership. It gives all people from different perspectives of a transition a way to process their feelings. Rev. Decker said he always practices communion on his last Sunday and makes sure his entire family is at all of the services, to help provide a ritual to serve as a tool representing those feelings of change. There are others who do a special transitional service with a specific liturgy to faithfully pray over the transition, both for the outgoing and incoming pastors.
Having rituals to acknowledge the transitions can be a helpful tool for the congregation and the pastor. It can happen through goodbye lunches, prayer circles at the final worship service, or formal liturgy. Because we rely on rituals to help us with transitions, a lot of clergy and congregations struggled with pastoral appointment changes during the pandemic. There were many unspoken goodbyes, an inability to hug and enjoy a final meal together, and sometimes lacking the formal rituals that we rely on to help us process change.
Rituals can help people find healing in the midst of pain, and when these are missed it can create a responsibility by those incoming to find ways for healing of unresolved feelings. This continues the relationship in transition but also seeks to respect boundaries as the incoming pastor forms relationships with their new appointment.
Creating Healthy Boundaries
The creation of healthy boundaries (no matter how you identify them) is a key factor in pastoral transitions. Rev. Decker is quick to note to congregants of churches he has left that he is no longer their pastor and to reach out to the new pastor for any concerns or needs. What that relationship looks like post-appointment between congregant and previous pastor can look different for most, but it is important to clearly delineate these boundaries out of respect for the pastor, their family, and the congregation.
Mentally separating things in this way is challenging. As we consider what it means for a pastoral transition to occur, it does open an opportunity to form a relationship in a different, but healthy, manner with folks. As we mentioned in the previous article, the nature of relationships changes. It does not necessarily have to end, but it cannot remain the same, for the sake of the new pastor and church leadership.
This looks similar for families too.
Clergy might feel guilty severing relationships completely with previous congregations. A bond has been created over the years and it can be challenging to not be the pastor to those congregants anymore. It can be complicated for clergy families who have integrated their lives into the congregation, especially children, to have to change those relationships. Overall, these boundaries need to be discussed with the incoming pastor to make sure to honor their new role and relationship with the congregation. We are partners in ministry and have to navigate how to help congregations understand that and our relationships can’t look the same as they used to.
As we explored in the article on feelings, naming our emotions becomes the first and most important task in all of this. Obviously, there is much about this process that is especially difficult. It is most important for clear lines of communication to be present in all situations and amongst all parties. Healthy self-care boundaries are a must and will be more difficult if they were not already present before a pastoral transition is initiated.
Both outgoing and incoming pastors need to respect one another. If a pastor says they need space, give them space. Allow the incoming pastor to be the pastor of the congregation. It takes a lot of strength to do so, because they may lead differently than you. However, it allows for the process to be healthy for all.
Even in their grief, congregations must learn to both express feelings and respect how others’ feelings impact them as well. Congregations can feel powerless in these situations, but they also need to be able to work with one another and both outgoing and incoming pastors to transition in the best way that lifts up the community.
The clergy family is probably the most difficult piece of this equation because in many ways they did not sign up for this. No matter the conversation I, Andrew, had with my wife before we got married about the itinerant system, it does not make it any easier that we are moving BECAUSE OF MY JOB. Therefore, oftentimes to be a good partner or family supporter, we need to listen to feelings and as much as possible try to advocate for our families while also finding and listening to where God is sending us.
When we think about what it means to move, it can be tough to grasp feelings at the moment. This often leads to regret or thoughts of doing things differently. These can often be treated as learning moments, as we reflect on how we processed pieces of these transitions. No matter which party you belong to, a retrospective reflection can unpack many areas of growth as you move forward.
Unfortunately, there will always be pastoral transitions. Even the longest-tenured pastors I know move on, they are moved or retire, and churches will receive a new pastor. In fact, in these situations, feelings may be more acute if the pastor has served at said church for a long period.
Finding Your Voice
Much of the regret present in the aftermath of this process would seemingly exist in what actually happens before the move is made. Pastors may wish they had an opportunity to stay longer or leave earlier. Moves may not have been the best for the family around the pastor. Even the congregation may experience unintended turbulence in the aftermath of a pastoral transition.
It can also be a quick process, and the ability to express and process emotions may be limited. Stephanie Decker mentioned the short timeline for decision-making in her comments. It is impossible to lay blame on any one person or group in this process. The itinerant system tries to function under the best timeline it can. It is not perfect, and that is why it is the work done by the ministry that makes these transitions, whether expected or unexpected, easier to process. It does not mitigate or lessen feelings, but it puts in place best practices for how they can be expressed in a healthy manner.
One of the things we can recognize in this process as we address emotions (whether in the appointment or moving process) is, to be honest with our feelings and become our own advocates for what we need. Whether it is knowing your sense of peace in a current place and that a move is not healthy, or being able to advocate in your move to make sure you are moving to the best situation you can, there are ways to speak up for yourself and your family if you are a pastor.
For the congregation experiencing transition, they can advocate with their District Superintendent and even their departing pastor, to ensure that their emotional needs are heard in the time of transition. Beyond respecting boundaries, congregations can find their voices and be in conversation with their community. Even once they find out who their new pastor will be they can ensure that they find their own rituals that help them as their outgoing pastor leaves. They must also respect those who may have different emotional experiences during a pastoral transition.
As we all find our voice to advocate for ourselves, we also do so understanding that there are many ways this process can shake out. If we feel like something isn’t right, we need to find the language to express that something feels off. It may be difficult to do this because of the sense of duty we may have, but we also must hope to build an environment that makes us feel safe when we receive that phone call to move.
As we have said, there is no right answer on how to do this. However, the healthy expression of emotions and boundaries honors all of the voices in this process. Without this consideration, harm can take place, and leave pastors or congregations in emotionally unhealthy situations. It is as much work when our churches are not in transition as they are during the time of transition.
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.