After bidding this blogsite adieu, I have found I need it to discusss things that don't belong on Stone of Witness. This is just one of those occasions-- Muthah+
Ask the Matriarch - When the Senior Pastor Phones it In
Our question this week comes from a lay leader with a sadly common problem: a senior pastor who seems to be biding time till retirement. Our matriarchs have some great wisdom to share. Read on:
I’m a lay person on the governing board of my church, where I’ve been a member about 5 years.
Our pastor is on track to retire within 3-5 years. I’ve had the impression for a long time that he was sort of “phoning it in” and recent conversations with more than one of the church staff indicate this is definitely true with regard to his leadership of the staff…there doesn’t appear to be any. So what ends up happening is that one of the staff who has a very extroverted personality (and who has been a member of the church for many years) is essentially running things…the pastor sits back and does whatever this person suggests. Lots of resentment ensues.
The church has good leadership from an associate and two retired pastors who help out, as well as from dedicated lay leaders. But finances are suffering, numbers are dropping, and the staff and church need more.
What should I/we do? If you were this pastor, what would you hope your board would do?
As one who has just retired, I know that often we get tired or burned out before the date when our pensions begin. It is hard on the congregation and it is hard on the pastor. There are several things that need to be addressed:
1. The sr. pastor’s needs and hopes.
2. The staff’s needs and hopes
3. The congregation’s needs and hopes.
Sr. Pastor’s needs: Often those of us in ministry—and I am guessing that your pastor is close to my age were not trained to take care of ourselves. We were schooled in the tradition of selflessness and sacrifice in ministry and often ignored vacations, self-improvement, continuing ed. and even the support network of colleagues and friends outside of the church. We have also been cosseted and rewarded with esteem and recognition for doing so. So although the thought of retirement seems wonderful and refreshing, it also means such a loss of status and community that it is hard for us to retire. It is a loss that makes us wonder what we have done with our lives. Some of us run from that or we work ourselves to death. Retirement ain’t for sissies!
Another issue is that we are in an era that has shown a decline in church attendance in all the mainline churches. This has never been seen before and it has happened on our watch. There is sometimes an attempt to lay this at the Sr. pastor’s feet by the laity or even the staff but it is a phenomenon being seen in the whole of the Church, not just in that particular parish. It is also part of the conditioning or our particular mindset for us clergy to take this decline upon ourselves. I have seen more depression among the clergy of my age group in the past 15 years than I have seen at any other time in my career. And feelings of failure or an ability to grasp what is happening to the Church faces those of us who are tired and ready to retire. I can understand that Sr. Pastor who is trying to ‘phone it in’. It is hard to keep doing what you have always done only to see it failing or not getting the results you once got. It is hard to face the fact that “maybe you don’t “have it” anymore. But in reality, that is really not what is happening. We need to read Diana Butler Bass or Phyllis Tickle to see that it isn’t our “fault” so that Sr. Pastors can be at the next stage of Church history to give wisdom to the newness that we are being faced with.
But the younger staff needs to know and the laity needs to know that: a.) this downturn in attendance is endemic and not the result of poor leadership b.) this era is unique in Church history in the US and needs both the wisdom of the elder pastor as well as the visions of the younger ordained and lay members to address c.) we have been in an era of anxiety and argumentativeness for the past 20 years and it will take a willingness to listen carefully and with real Christian concern for one another to meet the needs of the parish for the future and d.) there is no quick fix for this situation because it involves the entirety of what it means to be Christ’s to face this issue.
Staff needs and hopes: When on the staff of a larger church it is easy for clergy to get into one’s “own ministry” and fail to see the bigger picture. Also staff members often have a tendency feed on a type of paternalism that sees the Sr. Pastor responsible for all the administration and communication of the staff. Perhaps the staff can collectively work more organically by meeting regularly and charting out what the Sr. Pastor is not being able to do. Staffs need to be more of a family and pick up when one member isn’t doing his/her job so that all can know that the ministry of that parish will continue no matter who is ‘phoning it in’. This allows all the staff the security of knowing that they can be tired, or sick or distracted and that the ministry will be picked up. It is a way that we show we love one another. And it is the way that we can renew ourselves to do that which we were called to. This reminds the Sr. Pastor that all are in the ministry together and allow him/her to reconnect with the congregation and staff.
One particular statement was revealing. The emergence of a single person stepping into the vacuum. This will always happen if the rest of the staff is not willing to work together to provide the leadership. Of course the whole staff, including the Sr. pastor, needs to address the fact that there is a vacuum. This is best done with a consultant and the lay leadership as well as the staff.
The laity’s hopes and dreams: There needs to be an on-going multigenerational team doing visioning for the congregation lead by a member of the staff. It needs to be heavily weighted with the younger members of the congregation yet constantly in contact with the senior members of the parish. The team needs to be reading the pundits of the Emerging Church or other future related observations of Church. They need to write articles for the Church newsletter keeping the entire congregation aware that there ARE new visions in the offing. The retirement of a beloved pastor need not create havoc for our parishes, especially when retirement is 3 and 4 years away. We do not ignore grandmother just because she is old. We let her tell us the stories of how the family developed their love for one another so that it can support us as we address the challenges of your youth.
Even large churches can understand itself more organically than with the organizational models we have demanded of them. They can know themselves as a large family that can love one another just as surely as large extended families can. I believe that we have used the corporate model for churches to our peril. The church must be the family of God and must be willing to love one another when we are doing our jobs and when we aren’t. We need to be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt and support one another when there are changes in the way we once proclaimed the Gospel. All too often we use the business model in our larger churches so that we can be indifferent or insular or more cut and dry. These are just words for expediency—the curse of the Gospel. The Christian message is lived out in the time ‘wasted’ loving each other, bearing one another’s burdens, helping each other.
Help your Sr. Pastor to re-engage for the sake of his/her soul. Help your staff get honest about the ministry of the whole of the congregation. Help your laity understand that ministry is not the passive reception of the Sr. Pastor’s ministry or the fault of the pastor that the attendance is dwindling. It is the work of you all to live out the call of Christ.