Congregational Communications-Changing Appointments

A few weeks ago, I got the call.  United Methodist pastors, you know the one.

I see a lot of boxes in my future.

I’ve been in my present appointment for seven years.  We’ve been doing great ministry that’s been growing the church and making a difference in the community.  So this is hard.

I want to see the congregation I’m serving now keep moving forward. And I know that the way a pastor enters and exits a congregation makes a big difference. I want the transition to be as smooth as possible  for my own sake, for the congregation’s sake, and for the sake of my successor.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this question: what are the right messages to communicate during this time of transition? What are the right strategies for talking to your congregation about an appointment change – both as a whole and one-on-one?

Our conference has a prescribed format for making the announcement of a new pastor (which we used last week). Here’s our announcement, prepared by our SPRC chair from the script. The first two paragraphs are according to the prescribed format, with the third paragraph a self-description written by my successor and the fourth and fifth written by our SPRC chair. This announcement was read during worship, sent via email and posted to Facebook immediately after worship, and then sent via snail mail and posted to the church website this week.  In each case, we used exactly the same text.

In our annual conference, the two announcements – that the old pastor is leaving and that a new pastor is coming – are typically made on two separate Sundays. Knowing that there was a prescribed format for the announcement of an incoming pastor, I was surprised to learn there wasn’t a prescribed format for the departing pastor. I was on my own for that. Here is the text of the email / FB / snail mail announcement I made on February 10.

I’ve only moved twice, so I don’t have a lot of experience with this. And it’s also something they don’t teach in seminary or during the provisional membership process (though they definitely should). So I’m wondering – what are your best practices for communicating the news around a change of appointment? For example, how do you handle it when:

…the appointment is working well and the move is due to a bishop & cabinet decision rather than in response to a request from the church or the pastor?

…the appointment is not working well and you (or the church) have requested a change?

…people have concerns, questions, and challenges to the appointment system in general?

…there is a significant time between the announcement of your departure and the time when your successor is named?  (This is a unique challenge and I wonder how pastors can help people keep faith with the process when it happens.)

I also have begun to think about best practices for reminding the congregation – gently but regularly – that itinerancy is part of the deal for us as United Methodists. This is important because regular communication around that point makes these transitions easier. I always talk about this in new member classes. We also make it a point when our lay representative gives the annual conference report to say, “I’m very happy to announce that our bishop has appointed our pastors to the church for another year…”  (Well, except this year.)

I’d love to hear how other UM pastors remind their people of the nature of our system, and your lessons on what to do and what not to do when communicating around appointment changes. It seems to me that so long as we keep doing church this way, we should learn to do it in the best way we can.

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