Q: I recently accepted a call to serve a congregation that is losing its much-loved minister of many years. How should I approach my new pastorate in the wake of this pastor?
A: There are several things that you can consider doing as you begin your new ministry:
1. Help the church achieve closure. I suggest that you get acquainted with the previous pastor and work out a friendly relationship that can demonstrate or serve as a model of the pastor’s new role as a friend of the church. Be sure that information about the previous pastor is made public so that the congregants will know where the pastor now lives, what the pastor is now doing, and how they can send greetings and best wishes for that new endeavor, whatever it may be.
2. Help the congregation understand its new relationship with the former pastor. You may want to work with a pastor-parish relations committee or some other group that can help the congregation understand how its relationship with the previous pastor has changed. That new relationship will include ongoing friendship and support, but this person is no longer the pastor! Congregations usually need to be educated about why it is not healthy for them to continue to expect their previous pastor to perform pastoral responsibilities or duties.
Make sure the members understand that not letting go of its bonds with the previous pastor will mean sacrificing opportunities to bond with the new pastor. This important work of educating the congregation needs to be done not by you, but by the pastor-parish relations committee. If you do that work yourself, it may sound like a self-serving interest.
3. Make sure that the previous pastor has a similar understanding about the new relationship. If your conversations with the previous pastor—or his or her actions—indicate that there could be an unhealthy ongoing relationship with the congregation, then I recommend that you take action. Bring into the conversation a third party, perhaps an appropriate denominational official, who can hold the previous pastor to ethical and collegial standards related to ongoing involvement with the church. If this type of intervention is needed, make sure to initiate it as soon as the previous pastor’s actions indicate that there may be a problem.
4. Be intentional about defining who you are and how you intend to engage in ministry with this congregation. Build on the stated goals and priorities of the church as communicated to you by the search/call committee. And be clear about how you plan to help the congregation carry out the strategies needed to reach those goals and implement those priorities.
5. Be patient. Don’t expect the congregation to break its old patterns and ways of doing things—how it worked with the previous pastor—until you have had time to establish new patterns and ways of doing things.
The key to your new congregation’s successful transition from its relationship with its former pastor to your ministry will be clarity: on new relationships, on your own definition of who you are and how you will do ministry, and on how you will fulfill the negotiated goals and priorities of ministry with this new congregation.
Rev. Terry Foland has been a senior consultant for the Alban Institute since 1992. He is an experienced trainer and administrator who advises congregations and religious organizations in the areas of conflict management, clergy transition, and congregational revitalization. Prior to joining Alban, he served as an area minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).