Friday, December 11, 2009

Good Church Order

Often times congregations are unaware of something called ‘Good Church Order.’ It is a manner of operating a congregation or a synod or diocese in a manner that is workable for all. Bishops, priests and pastors and deacons are all responsible for good church order. Some of Church Order is published as rules of order, by-laws or canons but others are merely understood as custom or recognized as ‘polite’ behavior. Some of these customs bridge denominational lines. One of these is: “a pastor does not return to his/her former congregation without the express invitation of the current pastor.”

The social dynamics of churches are often volatile things. Given the political climate of our times, it is not surprising that the emotional climate of most congregations in the US is precarious at best. There are many things that upset folks in our churches these days and the management of good church order is often more like riding a bucking bronco than anything else. The surprise entrance of a former pastor into a current congregation is difficult and often becomes an unsettling element in the parish’s life. When a former pastor attended a church event and asked the present chair of council if he could preach that Sunday, I was stunned. Not only had he ignored the good order of the church, he had crossed the boundaries of the development of affection that were trying to be built by me in my current parish. He wasn’t being mean or malevolent. He was just trying to touch that missing sense of love he had known while pastor.

One of the sacrifices that clergy must make in their lives as priests and pastors is the friendship with those they have served. It is the MOST difficult sacrifice I have had to make in order to be a priest. I work hard at the friendships in the pastor/parishioner relationships in my congregations. I try to give my all to these people in Christ’s name. I spend myself for them. That is not only my job; it is my calling. Most of the time, that service, love, affection and respect in loving them is reciprocated. I get loved back and that feels wonderful. It is in that reciprocal love Christ is most often identified and glorified. It is fulfilling, healing to others and myself. It is the most Christ-like way to lead the community of the faithful.

However, when I leave that position as pastor or rector, that particular dynamic of love and reciprocity is ended for good church order. I cannot expect to give or get the kind of love that I did when I was leading the congregation. It is one of the down sides of my vocation. Even if I have spent my whole life in one congregation, I cannot expect to depend upon those friendships when I leave because those friendships must be reoriented to the new pastor or rector. It is my duty to those I have loved and served not to return. It is my duty to cause no undue tension in the congregation or focus the attention on my needs for love and friendship. It sometimes means that I am lonely after I have left a church. I want to say “My friends can change their relationship from pastor to friend.” But quite frankly most can’t.

When I leave a church there are voids in my life that hurt unmercifully. But that is a sacrifice I must make for good church order. It is the final act of loving for a parish I can do. And even if my successor is a numbskull, a pitiful preacher, or a unloving SOB or not even there yet, I cannot step in to that parish, or even have friends in that parish, until that present pastor has his/her feet on the ground and has developed the reciprocal love that is necessary for his/her leadership in that congregation.


Fr dougal said...

I know the feeling very well indeed and had to strugle in my 1st post with a predecessor who retire dinto the town and keept worshipping there it was very awkward indeed.

Ann said...

I wonder how this will work out for those of us in Mutual Ministry congregations-- how to keep appropriate boundaries and still work and live in the town where we have often grown up and had many friends before being ordained. I think it is possible priesthood may have to change some and we will need to test this out more - the dynamic is reality but are there other ways to live this out?

Muthah+ said...

Ann, one of the reasons why CNY was unwilling to ordain vocational deacons was because of this issue. As I have said, the role of priest or deacon is one which has much more power and status than those of us who live out those vocations are even aware. The one thing that happens these days is that I doubt if we will ever get to retire. Even after we have served our congregations, we will always be doing supply in congregations in our area.

I have found that being totally willing to work with and be transparent with the newly called clergy is the way that we don't cross those boundaries. At present I am serving only 6 miles from a parish I served at the beginning of my career. That new rector and I have become good friends and I have asked her to let me know if I cause any problems among her parishioners. It is that openess that allows us to be good colleagues for each other and respectful of her needs as rector.