This past January, after much prayer and soul searching (and a bit of divine revelation) I informed my Staff Parish Relations Committee of my intention to ask to be appointed to another church. I have been at Antioch UMC for seven years and have had a good ministry. I wasn’t facing any mutiny in the ranks, and while there was the normal “our numbers aren’t as good as we would like” angst, it wasn’t anything we haven’t faced in the past. To go into all the reasons for discerning as I have is too complicated and really between me and the congregation, but the quick and dirty version is that I came to believe that it was time for Antioch UMC to have someone with a fresh vision who might be able to better build on what we’ve done up to this point. And the SPRC at AUMC has been great in responding to this, freely expressing their sadness but also affirming what I believe is God’s decision for the congregation.
I had to do this in January for that is the time in our annual conference when consultation forms are due to the D.S. I’m not sure how it works in other conferences, but in Tennessee I fill out a “preference form”, including supplemental data on my family needs, gifts and graces, and the state of the church. The SPRC likewise completes a similar form, and we then meet together to review the forms and mutually sign off on each. While we agreed (SPRC and myself) that we weren’t going to make a big deal out of the decision until we knew more (like if the Bishop would be open to the change) we also recognized that the possibility of transition would need to be discussed by our church council as we began to plan for the coming year (and so that SPRC could gain a sense of congregational need as they made recommendations to the D.S. concerning my successor). We were clear that I was not going to be a lame duck pastor, and that I intended to keep on the path that we were traveling, while also trying to do some things to effect an orderly transition. But as things go in a church, the word spread pretty quickly, so by the middle of February it was pretty well known that something was in the works.
To our credit, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of moving forward — identifying a new missional focus while providing leadership for an event in our community that drew 3,000+ folks, and while I don’t want to toot my horn, I’ve moved into a new phase in my preaching that feels both comfortable and passionate, feeling as energized as I have in years.
Yet, both the congregation and I know that we are in the in-between time, between here and there, straining forward toward the next chapter, but also trying to remain rooted in the present as well. This is exacerbated by a process that requires both parties to think and make important decisions very early, but then pokes along at glacial speed once the forms are in the hopper. It is the definite “hurry up and wait” syndrome, which ultimately makes the consultation process more like purgatory than anything else. You know (or at least you think you know) that something is happening . . . but you don’t know what . . . and you don’t know when . . . and there really isn’t any semblance of rhyme or reason as to when something will be decided.
Then, after six weeks of waiting around, the D.S. calls. In my case I was in the middle of an Emergent Cohort meeting when the phone rang and I saw it was the D.S.
“Are you driving?” he asked, as was his practice when he wanted to talk about something important, believing I guess that what he was about to say to lead to a four car pileup on I-24.
“Nope,” I said, “What’s up?”
He then went on to tell me that they were projecting me to be appointed to _________. He reviewed some basic information about the congregation (membership and worship attendance primarily) and the salary package (parsonage or housing allowance, increase or decrease in compensation, etc.)
“So,” he said, “What do you think?”
What was I supposed to say? Here I was, sitting on a park bench outside the Flying Saucer Brew Pub in downtown Nashville with almost no information on this place they were thinking about sending me to, and he’s needing to know if I have any problems being appointed there. How in the heck do I know? Oh, and by the way, I’m supposed to keep this secret because it’s just a projection, the congregation doesn’t know that I’m the guy and things might change. So here it is, early in Lent, with the knowledge that I might be going somewhere but very little ability to obtain information about that place so that I can make an intelligent decision in the process.
“When will you tell the congregation and when can I meet their SPRC?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he tells me honestly. “We’re hoping we can get a lot done before Easter.”
Then the waiting game becomes even more interminable, for you know something that you aren’t supposed to share with anyone, but you’re need to do some preparation for moving in four months (after all, I’ve had seven years of relationships and responsibilities as a community leader that need closure), and everyone you talk to asks “Do you know where you are going yet?”
It’s no better for the congregation. The SPRC chair calls me and asks, “Do you know anything? Do you have any idea who we are getting?” And I have to tell her that yes, the D.S. told me that they were projecting someone for the church, but no, he wouldn’t tell me who it is. They are doing their best to love me, and walk with me, and to still let me lead them, but they know change is gonna come too, and it’s hard not to want to rush toward the coming change.
As a former Southern Baptist (in my youth) whose early Christian upbringing was in a congregational polity, I have become a passionate convert to a connectional system which takes the issue of pastoral deployment out of the hands of the congregation and at it’s best (which rarely happens) works to match up the gifts and graces of individuals with congregational needs. However, so much of the way we do thinks — the secrecy, the length of the process, and all the complicating factors, work together to create a process that is often much more broken than helpful. It isn’t horrible — it’s Purgatory, not Hell — but it keeps everyone on edge, uncertain how to proceed, and completely at odds with the possibility of promoting effective transitions from one leader to another. It is a process that is still far too often guided by values and principles from the circuit rider days, and the times of some of my retired colleagues who would arrive at Annual Conference to learn where they would be moving the next week. Life and ministry is too complicated for political games and a failure in transparency. It requires multiple parts working together, and those parts need to be in constant communication to ensure that the process is humane and effective.
I still haven’t met with the SPRC at the new church, although the D.S. assures me that this seems to be a solid projection. And AUMC just got word today that they would be learning who the new person is on Monday at the meeting where they first meet him or her. Even then, the process isn’t over until the fat lady sings, or in our case, until the Bishop declares the appointments are sealed at Annual Conference.
We are between here and there, and while living in the middle of ambiguity can have it’s moments, most of the time is just feels strange.