One of the unique aspects of Church Relations is the amount of time that we are able to spend with congregations in a transition stage of ministry. Many times, Nicole and I are called in to fill the pulpit following the departure of a beloved pastor meaning we are able to see the congregation in their most raw moments, wandering through the deepest part of the forest.
There is no doubt that losing a pastor is difficult. Sometimes the pastor leaves unexpectedly and sometimes rumors float around for months before, “I am sure that Rev. X is going to announce their retirement soon! They did just turn 65, after all.” Every departure is different, and every departure leaves a congregation wondering what will happen next.
Many times, if not all of the time, there is the support of supply preachers. This can be especially difficult for the congregation. Supply preachers rarely know the back-story of the recent departure and are therefore unable to speak about it and begin to offer healing words. It doesn’t help at all that this transition time will likely mean a different pastor every week, making it hard for the congregation to find the consistency they desire.
These weeks following a departure also leave the congregation with a loss of leadership. There is no denying that parishioners look to the pastor for guidance in most things, and even if there is an Elder or Deacon in charge, it can seem like no one is without the prominent figure and “go to” person.
Lately, I have thought a lot about what a congregation goes through during this initial transition. I have worshipped with and led worship for some of these congregations. I have experienced the hesitant welcome that gradually, week by week, turned into a warm embrace. I have heard the laments and the celebrations of departed pastors. My heart has hurt and smiled with each congregation, and my prayers have been filled with thoughts of them.
As we are in the season of Lent with one another, I wanted to share some thoughts for these congregations, but also for everyone in a transition phase of life:
1) Consistency is not always key! While consistency is comfortable, it can stunt our growth. This is why the best physical trainers will change up your work out every day. Just as our bodies get tired and quit responding when the same muscle is worked in the same way every day, our minds and spirits grow weary. Yes, it is confusing and tiring having someone new every single week, but it also gives the congregation time to wake-up and learn about other preaching and leadership styles. So often, we think we prefer one thing over another, but it isn’t until we actually experience the other that we can make that decision! Different preaching and worship styles can awaken different senses and parts of Spirit. Different stories can trigger new and fresh ideas.
2) You don’t need a pastor to function! Some of the strongest congregations I have spent time with had no consistent pastor. The Body of Christ is led by Christ, and each of us serves an equal role within the Body. Yes, the pastor has the seminary education and the preaching experience, but that is not what keeps the congregation functioning. Use this time to take inventory of the gifts within your congregation. Is there a desire for Bible Study? Ask each person to bring their Bible to share their favorite verse and why it means so much to them. Does your congregation miss fellowship dinners, but the budget won’t allow for them? Invite each person to bring their dinner from home and join around the table together with your different meals, but sharing the time with one another. Do you want refreshments before or after worship? Invite one or two families to provide snacks every other week or once a month (every week if there are enough willing and able bodies!) It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be huge. Jesus Christ said “where two or more are gathered”, he didn’t say “where the spread is fancy and the leader is ordained.”
3) You are not alone! While it might seem that you are on an island alone and no one sees you or understands, know that there are so many thinking of you and praying for you. The departed pastor, the committee helping you in the transition, each pastor that fills the pulpit, and the neighboring congregations. We are all praying for you! Even if it feels like all hope is lost, when you gather in the Sanctuary on Sunday morning, even if it is just because “it is what we do”, there is someone standing with you. When it feels like you are most alone, reach out and hold the hand of your neighbor. Pray hand in hand and share the Peace with a hug. See and feel God’s presence through the embrace of one another and know that even if it seems like nothing is happening, God is creating an incredible thing in and through each of us!
These thoughts don’t save the transition, and they might not make any sense right now. However, I pray that if your congregation is in transition, they might offer some guidance at some point along the way. If you are in transition in your own life, know that every thought applies to you as well. Transition is never easy and it can be terrifying, but know that transition does not mean “the end”, it means that something else is coming.
If you are in a transition in your own life or in your congregation, know that we are walking with you and praying for you! If you have a specific prayer request as you move through Lent and this phase of life, feel free to share those.
Rev. Jordan B. Davis