Monday, September 03, 2007

Walking a thin line

When a minister leaves a congregation s/he has been serving, there is always the question of how much contact to have with former parishioners. I know of some ministers who have cut off contact entirely, concerned that they not be perceived by any former parishioner as still being "their minister", out of a collegial obligation to the new minister. I know of others who maintain a few connections with former congregants but are very clear with those folks that this is not a minister-congregant relationship any more and that new boundaries need to be considered.

This is particularly the terrain a fulltime settled minister needs to walk; it is also critical terrain for a minister who is retiring from a congregation and yet remaining in the area. Collegial guidelines make it clear that we must not tread on the toes of the incoming minister, that we must support that new ministry, not weaken it by ambivalent relationships with congregants after we leave.

This is often very hard for congregants to understand and accept. We build such strong connections in the course of a ministry that it is painful to cut them off, to transfer those connections to another person, however deserving. It's also hard for ministers to understand and accept. Those strong connections matter to us too.

It's murkier for parttime, consulting ministers. In leaving Vashon this past spring, I was very clear about my responsibility to the new minister, who had not yet been selected, and people understood and accepted what I was saying. But in the search and selection process, difficulties arose and it was hard not to give advice, hard not to sympathize or opinionize about the process. The question in my mind became "what if they don't find a minister? what is my collegial duty then?" So I listened to the difficulty, referred the committee to the Ministerial Settlement Rep instead of giving advice, and offered support but few opinions.

Over the summer I've had occasion to see members of the Vashon flock on a casual basis and during these times, I have steered as clear as possible of the pitfalls of too much connection. But it's hard! I love them and want the best for them, even though I am not serving them any more. I don't seek them out, but when they call and say "I'm going to be on Whidbey, can we have coffee?" I've said yes. But during that coffee date, I'm aware of the need to weaken that link----kindly, respectfully, but firmly.

It's like the process of letting go of an adult child-------their relationships have to change and mature and we have to let them change. In fact, we have to insist upon it.


Lizard Eater said...

It's kind of like the "Johnny Carson" path, isn't it? ;) Everyone felt that Johnny was a part of their life -- when he retired, he RETIRED and disappeared. No public appearances or hitting the talk shows.

I have no idea how you train a congregation to understand this. (Surely, I'll learn at some point in seminary, riiiiight? I know. Don't call you Shirley.)

ms. kitty said...

Well, if we were supposed to learn it in seminary, I missed that class. Actually, different denominations have different approaches to collegial relationships. I went to a Methodist seminary where we didn't get anything about collegial relationships and had to learn it all by making mistakes in the "real" world. I think nowadays, UUMA chapters are making an effort to teach candidates about the ethics and guidelines of collegiality; at least ours is.

But I don't know if you can actually teach a congregation such a thing. I think you just have to reiterate it over and over as you leave town, waving byebye.

Lizard Eater said...

Is it something that you try to teach your congregation from the beginning? I can see some difficulty with that, if you are saying, "The day will come when I will leave you, and our relationship will cease," ... while trying to establish real pastoral relationships.

ms. kitty said...

I think, as in every relationship, there's a goodbye built into every hello, and when you go to a congregation, you know in your heart (and they do too, mostly) that you won't be there forever. And so while you give your hearts to each other (at least metaphorically), you are also preparing for the time when it will change.

What I did was to start saying goodbye very clearly when I announced my resignation to the Vashon folks. I began then to educate them as to what it would mean when I said goodbye.

Vashon was unique in that they had never had a relationship with a minister before. You are very likely to be settled in a church where there has been ministry and some chance to get to know the ropes of ministerial relationship.

But you don't say "I'm leaving" when you first get there, no. You do hold it in the back of your mind, knowing that someday you will likely have to tell them that.

When I was first starting out, it seemed incomprehensible to me that such a day would ever come. Luckily, as my formation and understanding of my role deepened, I began to see how important it is to say goodbye properly.

kim said...

How sad.

ms. kitty said...

It is a little sad, Kim, but just as we are sad when our children leave home, we are also glad that they are growing up----and that our own lives are proceeding in maturing ways. Assuming they are!

Earthbound Spirit said...

Hmmm... I'm reminded of how I felt when I first read Mark Morrison-Read's excellent essay on just this subject. The title is something like "After Running through the Thistles..." - I don't remember the whole thing. It may have been a Berry St. essay. We read it for a ministry class, and we all felt this incredible sense of loss - like we were going to be entering into relationships with people, and have to sever those ties (and cauterize them ourselves, too) someday. I recommend the essay, LE. I'm fortunate to be able to learn some of this (theory at least) from a wonderful professor who's been in ministry for a looooong time.