I’ve spent some time talking about the relational side of your new job, and the more I think about it the more convinced that it all comes down to relationships. In a very real way, you are pastoring “a church” with 80+ members (your pastors) and their extended families (their congregations). Just as pastoral work involves the marriage of leadership and care, your new task requires you to walk that fine line between being in front of the district so that folks will be moving forward, but not so far out in front (separated from the congregation) that you have no personal connection to those you lead. Thus, much of the advice I offer is common sense for most pastors, but for some reason it sometimes seems forgotten when folks move into the district office. This leads to my third suggestion, which should seem obvious, but for some reason often seems elusive to some:
3. Always tell the truth, even when it’s hard.
Several years ago I was transitioning from one appointment to a new place. At the time both Kay and I were on housing allowances and we were living in a house that we had purchased a few years before. When I met with the D.S. and the SPRC in the new location, I learned that they had a parsonage, and when I asked if we might stay in our own home I quickly learned that some political turmoil related to the parsonage a few years earlier made that a bad idea, and that if I was to have a viable ministry we would need to live in the parsonage. That was a difficult blow for us, but part of what we live under, so we decided to drive out to the neighborhood to see the parsonage. It was a wonderful house (probably the nicest house we will ever live in) but we discovered that it was not only several miles from the church I would be serving (with heavy traffic in between) but out at the county line requiring a very long commute for Kay into the downtown church that she served. It was going to be a hardship, and before we committed we decided to talk to the D.S.
During the entire meeting he attempted a sales job on us. “Oh the parsonage isn’t that far out,” he told us. “You can zoom on this or that road and be downtown in no time.” And yes, he told us, the church HAD been through some conflict, but it had huge potential and was a plum appointment. “Everything will be great,” he told us.
Now Kay and I have been around church politics long enough to know a sales job, and frankly we were disappointed because what we needed was the truth, not a sales pitch. We needed the D.S. to say: “Yes, I know this is difficult and an inconvenience, but we believe Jay has the skills to move this congregation forward and we believe that it’s what we need to do. I’m sorry for the hardship, but in this case it’s necessary.” What we needed was an honest assessment and recognition of the situation, not some sort of attempt to make things sound better than they really were. And honestly, if he had told us the truth, our commitment to the church is strong enough that we would have said okay and still done what we did – make the best of a difficult circumstance.
I’m not sure what the drug is that they give D.S.’s when they enter that role, but I continue to be surprised at friends who fall into the “conflict avoidance” mode when they become D.S.’s, and who end up being less than honest about their dealings. I understand that there are issues of confidentiality and knowledge of topics that the cabinet has which are not ready for broad publication, but rather than providing fuzzy answers when asked, it’s always better to simply say “I can’t talk about that yet . . . or at all.”
Part of the issue, I imagine, is that you are thrust suddenly into a different type of relationship with folks who have been your friends and colleagues. For years (in many cases) you have been one among the masses gathered together grumbling about the leadership above, only to find yourself now as that authority figure what everyone is suspicious of. We all want to be liked, and truth telling can be hard when it puts us in conflict with our friends, so we find ourselves drawn to obfuscation, or trying to put a positive spin on every decision rather than fully admitting that there are times when we simply have to do difficult things.
I think that truth telling applies in both your relationships with pastors AND congregations. One of the struggles that our connection has faced has been the unwillingness of leaders to hold a mirror up to a congregation and help them face the realities around them. There are times when they need to be told that while life was great in the 1950’s, it’s time for them to become relevant to the new dynamics of their communities or face extinction. There are also times when you may have to admit that the person you are appointing to their church may not be everything they want and need, but that it’s who is available and that you both need to give him or her a fighting chance to succeed. What would it mean to a congregation to know that their task is to not be wowed by their new pastor, but rather that they were being asked by the denomination to raise up this man or woman so that they could become an effective leader?
Now I confess (as evidenced by this blog) that I am one who errs on the side of transparency. I believe in being open and honest about our dealings . . . maybe to a fault. But in our postmodern world, openness and transparency are values that are increasingly more important, especially with younger generations who are unwilling to blindly follow those in authority without some sense of where they are being led. Truth-telling builds relational trust that leads to growth and transformation.
So tell the truth . . .
And to paraphrase the Gospel of Thumper, “…if you can’t tell the truth, then don’t say nothing at all.”