Part 1 of series: Letting Go of a Church
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On June 30, 1991, I preached my first sermon as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. On September 30, 2007, I preached my last sermon as pastor of this fine church. That afternoon I got into my truck and began the 1300 mile drive to Texas so I could start my new ministry as Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge.
I have not been the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church for three months after having served in that role for sixteen years and three months. Although I love my new job at Laity Lodge as well as my new ministry colleagues, it hasn’t been easy to let go of Irvine Presbyterian Church emotionally. Pastoring, after all, isn’t simply a job. It engages mind and heart. It’s rather like being the parent and the older brother in a family. Though my official relationship with Irvine Pres ended at midnight on September 30, 2007, my heart connection has continued. I still love the people there and care deeply about the church. (Photo: Irvine Presbyterian Church, December 30, 2007, no longer “my church”)
I’ve been especially aware of these feelings recently, since my family and I were back in Southern California for the Christmas holiday. I visited the Irvine Pres campus on a couple of occasions, but not for worship services. Though there’s nothing official to keep me from attending Irvine Pres as a worshiper, I believe that it would not be best, either for the church or for me, just to show up on a Sunday morning. The church is in a season of letting go of me as their pastor, and I am in the midst of letting go of them. For now, it’s best that I keep my distance.
This sort of letting go isn’t easy to do on either side. For me, it requires acting in a way that seems to contradict my feelings. I say “seems to” because, in fact, doing what I believe to be best for the church is consistent with my love for the church. But it feels strange to do this. I expect it’s similar to what a parent goes through when a child goes off to college. The parent might want to call the child every day, but this behavior runs the risk of keeping the child a child, rather than allowing the child to grow up, and allowing the parent to move on to a new kind of relationship with his or her adult child.
Many pastors don’t let go when they step down as pastors, much to the peril of all involved. Now I’m sure there have been cases when a pastor stops being the pastor yet remains active in a congregation and the results have been just fine. But these are the exceptions to the rule. And usually these exceptions come after at least a couple of years have passed after the pastor’s official ministry came to an end. I’ve been watching church life pretty closely for the last 23 years, and to this point I have never seen a positive result when a pastor stops being pastor but immediately remains actively involved with a church. In every single case, the ongoing relationship between pastor and church makes a mess of things.
Now you might wonder why a retired pastor, for example, shouldn’t just hang around with his former church, joining them in worship, but otherwise not meddling. I can think of a several reasons why this isn’t a good idea. First, it would be extremely difficult for the retired pastor and his former congregation to make the transition to his being no longer the pastor. Second, the very presence of the pastor would make certain kinds of change very difficult, and change is essential for any church, especially a church that has recently said goodbye to a pastor. Third, having a former pastor hang around could easily intimidate the new pastor. Fourth, the temptation for the former pastor to meddle in church affairs would be huge, especially if certain changes were not to the pastor’s liking, something that would almost inevitably be the case.
There are situations when the involvement of a former pastor in a church can be edifying. I’ll have more to say about this later in this series. But I’m not in this season in my relationship with Irvine Presbyterian Church. I am now in the “stay away” period of a pastoral transition. This doesn’t mean I can’t have personal friendships with members. And it doesn’t mean I don’t care for the church and vice versa. But it does mean I need to do nothing that would make this transitional period more complicated, both for the church and for me. As much as it’s hard to stay away, it does seem best at this time. I need to let go of Irvine Pres, and they need to let go of me, at least insofar as our pastoral relationship is concerned.
In this effort, there are several things that are helping me choose and stick with what is best. I’ll begin to mention these in my next post.