For the next several months I thought that I would use this space to talk about “topics of transition!” I’ll formulate the topics from things that often come up during pastoral transition and from questions and topics that you bring to my attention. This month’s topic falls under the category of questions that I have been asked. And the topic is saying goodbye.
We all know that the very fact that a congregation is in transition means that they have had to say farewell to a pastor who has lead and loved and served them for a significant amount of time. This is not a small thing! To say farewell can mean celebration, as was the case here at Faith as you celebrated Pastor Nelson’s retirement with her, but behind celebration is the loss. You have gone to this person for spiritual guidance and support, you have shared joys and sorrows, you have developed deep ties, you have been part of one another’s lives. So, yes, we celebrate a new chapter in of life- the pastor’s and ours- but the former pastor is missed, especially at times of deepest sorrow or celebration. And our habits and our hearts we may want to reach out to that person for comfort and in joy.
These deep ties are the reason that our denomination and synod, along with many other, has set guidelines to assist in this part of a congregation’s transition. Denomination and synodical leaders have learned that having a process for moving forward benefits both the congregation- as they prepare to call new leadership, and the pastor who is leaving- as they move on to the new chapter in their life.
In all congregations in our synod (and in most if not all other synods), when a pastor leaves a congregation, for any reason, they sign a covenant agreement to separate themselves from the life of the congregation and all of its members. This covenant is signed with the church council prior to the assignment of an interim and bridge pastor.
There are reasons for each part of this process: It is done prior to the assignment of the interim or bridge pastor because the agreement is not something requested by another pastor, it is part of the synodical process of guiding congregations through healthy transitions. And it is part of the process because we know that when this separation doesn’t occur it makes moving forward complicated for both parties.
But we need to acknowledge that this is challenging! It sometimes feels artificial, or unnecessary. Sometimes it is even seen as punitive. But, in reality, it is a process that we know works.
As pastors we know, from the time that we are ordained, that part of our life in ministry will mean learning to say goodbye. The goodbyes are not forever, but they are for a time. We miss the congregations we leave, we hold them in prayer, but we know that they, and we, need to move to the next place to which God will call us.
As congregations, we know that the work of ministry that God calls us to do, and the people of faith that God calls us to be, spans through all manner of time and change. Pastoral transitions are one of those changes. We give thanks for the faithful leadership we have received, and we open our hearts to the faithful leadership that is to come.
Please feel let me know if this letter is helpful. Do you have other concerns or questions about this topic? Please give me a call.
What other questions or concerns do you have about this transition time? Email them or jot them down and put them in my mailbox. More to come next month!