Friday, May 29, 2009

Your Correspondent Is A Bit Concerned

Years ago, fresh out of seminary, Father Anonymous served a congregation with a proud history, a gorgeous Gothic building, a fine worship tradition, a little money tucked away -- and a long trail of bitter conflict.

Things didn't go well.  Fr. A was not the the font of pastoral wisdom he has since become.  He spoke his mind, he tried to fix things -- and, truth be told, he probably made them worse.  The level of conflict in the parish was tragicomically high.  We still remember the week that a communicant attempted to stab an usher during Holy Communion.  yes, that's right  stab with a knife.  In the guts.   We remember even more sadly the response of the Congregation Council, which was not to condemn both men for their gross misbehavior, nor to invite them into a process of public repentance and reconciliation, but rather to choose sides.  Half the Council sided with the stabber, half with the stabbee.

Father Anonymous left soon afterward, despairing of his ability to preach the Gospel in such a way that those who heard him bore good fruit.

The best thing he did, during this unhappy period, was to invite a team of outside consultants to come and work with the congregation, attempting to interpret its history through the lens of Murray Bowen's theory concerning how families (and other groups) operate systemically.  The congregation may not have been ready to learn this stuff, but Fr. A was, and it became the focus of his attention for several years thereafter.

Oh, and he did one other thing of which he is still proud.  On his way out the door, he made it clear, both to his bishop and to the bishop's assistant tasked with filling vacant pulpits, that this congregation was deeply troubled.  "It requires," he said, "an experienced interim pastor, acquainted with parish conflict.  And under no circumstances should a pastor fresh from seminary be sent here.  Under no circumstances."

Within a few months, the bishop's office offered a new pastor to this parish.  She was intelligent, mature, well-trained -- and fresh from seminary.  Three years later, having suffered terrible personal costs, not least the breakup of her marriage, she left.  (She has done very well since then, because she's a damn good pastor.  That's not the point.)  Shortly afterward, the congregation entered the final stages of its long downward spiral, and it now essentially dissolved.  Cost our synod a fortune in legal bills, too.  

They didn't listen, and Fr. A has not forgotten.

In the years since, Fr. A has often remarked that he was working to become the pastor that congregation had originally needed.  He has served several parishes in interim positions, starting with one which had experienced minor conflict, moving to one which had experienced significant long-term conflict, and most recently requesting one from which four consecutive pastors had left amid turmoil.  

This last has been the best of the bunch.  It has the most engaging membership and the best location.  It has -- we may as well say it -- a proud history, a gorgeous Gothic building, a fine worship tradition, a little money tucked away.  And a long trail of bitter conflict.

Naturally, Fr. A believes that this is not a good place for a newly ordained pastor.  Great people, great neighborhood, plenty of reason to expect good things.  But the administrative load is very heavy, complicated by the urgent need to raise about $3.5 million over ten years, and to execute a massive restoration of three buildings.  And although the level of conflict has been very low, even still water has sharks swimming beneath it.  Four consecutive pastors.

Fr. A has made all this clear, in as much detail as he can muster, to the people who make the decisions.  He has given his advice:  Don't send a seminarian.  Beyond that, Fr. A is honor-bound not to interfere with the process.  Now there is nothing left to do but wait and pray.

So now we wait, and see if they are listening yet.


Pastor Joelle said...

Oh Lord - this is the same old story.

I just read another blog post on this story. I could tell you stories of my own.

You've done it again - you've given me an idea for my own blog instead of writing a copious response again.

Pastor Joelle said...

This is what I say
Just Let them Die

Pastor Joelle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks Fr. A and Joelle. I wanted to post on Pastor Joelle's blog further reflections on the dying congregation scene we're living through, but encountered tech problems. Any others have this problem? Any suggestions? web

Anonymous said...

I, too, had a problem posting to Pr.Joelle's site. But I am in complete agreement with Father A. and Pr. Joelle. O that the "synod office" would actually listen to the troops on the ground. it is so unfair to send a seminarian into shark infested waters. I say "let 'em die" also. Continuing to allow dysfunctional congregations to "exist" is not only unhealty, it is unfaithful.

Wounded and Healing said...

I left one of these congregations last year. Thankfully, my marriage was still intact, but barely. My church had requested an older, experienced pastor, but got me (29 at the time and fresh out of seminary) instead. The good news is, my successor is in her mid-fifties, is very familiar with family systems, and has experience as both a pastor and hospice chaplain. I'm currently learning as much as I can about family systems theory while doing a CPE residency.