This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s #BeTransformed series.
Rachel Ringenberg Miller serves as denominational minister for ministerial leadership for Mennonite Church USA. She focuses on engaging conferences and congregations, providing resources and services to meet the diverse demands facing congregations today. She graduated from Goshen (Indiana) College and Eastern Mennonite Seminary, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with an MDiv. She served as associate pastor for Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church and as pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas.
Pastoral transitions are a natural part of congregational life. At some point, your pastor will leave. They will leave for all sorts of reasons, and the majority of reasons have nothing to do with the congregation. In my own case, I still deeply care for both of the congregations I served in as pastor. I left these churches, because God was calling me elsewhere, and I had to follow. The same is likely for your pastor. God is calling them, and they have to follow.
There is beauty, and there is sadness, in a pastoral transition.
When your pastor decides it’s time to move on, it’s normal to feel sad, angry, in denial, surprised, betrayed, etc. Allow yourself and the congregation to express these emotions — in a healthy way. Change is hard. These emotions come to the surface because you care about the pastor and your congregation. This is a good thing. Therefore, be sure to celebrate the time you spent following Jesus together. Send your pastor off with blessings … and food. A Mennonite gathering without food is heresy. I suggest rainbow sprinkled cupcakes with buttercream frosting.
Once you’ve allowed for the time and space your congregation needed to say goodbye, you move into what I call the discernment stage. The discernment stage, in the pastoral transition process, is an opportunity for the church to creatively explore how God is calling your congregation at this particular time and place. I encourage you to take time to discern as a congregation.
Discernment involves intentionality, prayer, and trust in God and trust among the congregants.
I find that group discernment usually begins with discomfort — where are we headed? — and ends with hope — God is with us! Be patient with yourselves while you are discerning.
You might start by asking the following questions:
- What are your congregation’s strengths?
- What are your congregation’s growing edges?
- What are your hopes and dreams as a congregation?
Discernment leads to dreaming. Reflecting on the above questions will help you get the creative juices flowing and allow for space to imagine and experiment. The beauty in the transition arrives most often during the dreaming stage. It arrives at this point because it is during the dreaming stage that experimentation begins to happen. You start asking “what if” questions. What if we did this instead of that? What if we move this element of the service? What if we turned our focus to __________? What if….? With experimentation comes creativity.
The “what if” questions will help you discover what kind of gifts and skills to look for in your next pastor. The match between the congregation and pastor is everything. You need to find a pastor who will support you becoming who God is calling you to be at this particular moment. Pastors are not cookie-cutter images of one another. Each one is gifted and skilled in their own ways. Focus on what kind of pastoral gifts and skills best fits with who God is calling to you to be today rather than who God called you to be five years ago.
Once you have moved through the dreaming and discerning, it is time to actively search for your next pastor. MC USA has this part outlined on the website, under “Ministry Transitions.” Your conference minister is also a resource, so please loop them into your search process. It is quite literally a part of their job to support congregations during pastoral transitions!
In a time of pastoral transition, I offer these words of hope and challenge. You will find a pastor. It will take time to find the right fit. Don’t rush the process. Do not, under any circumstances, compare your congregation to other congregations. Every congregation is different. Remember, pastoral candidates need clarity and so does the congregation. When I say “clarity,” I’m referring to a job description and inclusion questions — among other things. Is there a job description? If not, stop reading and start working on it. Is the congregation open to a female pastor? What’s the status of inclusion for LGBTQIA+ folks? Be crystal clear on these things. If you aren’t, your search not going to go well for the congregation and any interested pastoral candidates. I’m serious about this. But let me state again, your congregation will find a pastor, no matter your congregation’s theological beliefs.
And while I’m at it, let me dispel a myth. There are people looking to minister within Mennonite Church USA (MC USA). In the last month, I spoke to seven people interested in pastoral ministry. Most of them have a particular conference of choice. While I do encourage pastoral candidates to be open to all 16 MC USA conferences, some conferences are a better fit than others, and I respect their choices. Also, the building and shaping of pastors begins at home. Does, or has, your congregation shoulder-tap anyone to consider ministry? Does your congregation offer financial support to seminarians? I encourage you to reflect on what your congregation is doing and what you can do to call and support MC USA pastors.
If you are part of a congregation in the midst of a pastoral transition, my challenge and hope for you is that you look up to see the beauty and goodness that is rising in front of you. It is by looking up that you will experience the beauty of a pastoral transition.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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