News

Saying goodbye - and hello to pastors as they come and go

By Dennis Winkleblack
Special Contributor

In a couple weeks, many United Methodists will be in the season of "Goodbye and Hello" - saying farewell to present pastors and welcoming newly appointed clergy. Although most congregations are well-practiced in these rituals, these tender times are still significant for churches and clergy alike.

Done well, they provide much-needed continuity as well as inspire hope and confidence. Done poorly, they can interrupt congregational momentum, provoke division and fear and unnecessarily handicap the future God is trying to bring about.

This is the time for Pastor (or Staff) Parish Relations Committees to celebrate a ministry that is coming to an end for the church and to receive a stranger into the faith community.

Often, this committee will delegate such a responsibility to others. This is OK, as long as someone takes the ball and runs with it. Hastily conceived goodbyes and hellos usually fail to offer either an appropriate closure or a joyful beginning to a pastorate.

Saying goodbye

Most churches declare a "last Sunday" and plan their farewell party following worship, usually with a meal. Some, however, prefer to separate the final Sunday and this celebration of ministry. Thinking in advance will help your church decide which way is best.

Our United Methodist Book of Worship (p. 598) contains helpful advice for planning a farewell to a pastor. It also includes a litany of mutual appreciation that can help affirm the past and anticipate the future. With the pastor's help, using this resource can add meaning to your worship.

If your pastor is retiring, you might want to consider inviting others from congregations he or she has previously served. If there will be time for testimonies during worship or afterward, these former parishioners could add much to the occasion.

A "Book of Testimonies" also is a treasured gift. Collected from church members weeks in advance and containing written expressions of gratitude for the pastor's life among them, this book will be looked at time and again in the years to come - and always with gratitude.

Similarly, compiling photos or videos of church life over the past years will be greatly enjoyed and appreciated.

If you have a parsonage family, don't forget the spouse and children. Moving is usually hardest on family members. A little thoughtfulness - including offers to help with packing - will make their move easier.

Many churches give the outgoing pastor the last week or two off while remaining available for emergencies. This freedom from sermon preparation gives much-needed time for final packing details and attending to unforeseen details that always arise when moving.

Saying hello

A well-planned welcome of the new pastor - and family, if she or he has one - will go a long way toward making the transition smoother and the new pastor's tenure successful. Even before saying goodbye to your present pastor, your Pastor (or Staff) Parish Relations Committee needs to begin thinking how to welcome the new leader.

Because summer congregations are usually fewer in number, your church might want to plan an informal initial welcoming early in July and something "grander" early in September. Our Book of Worship (p. 595) has an excellent service to celebrate the appointment.

If your church will be blessed with children in the parsonage, how kind it is to have someone in the congregation have information ready about the local school system. Someone with children about the same age might volunteer to answer any questions that arise in the weeks to come, and offer an invitation for an evening or day together after the move.

Your congregation will want to allow time and space in pastoral expectations for the first week or so as the new pastor unpacks and settles in.

Most pastors will have investigated their new neighborhood before the move, but they'll surely appreciate suggestions for goods and services they might otherwise overlook. If there are special events coming up in the neighborhood, town or county, extend an invitation for your pastor and family to join you.

Our system of appointment-making doesn't allow much time to prepare the parsonage for the new pastor and family. If repairs or painting can't be finished before the moving truck arrives, schedule the remaining work to be done at a mutually convenient time. And on moving day, bringing by some cold drinks, pizza and brownies will be appreciated.

Your church likely has other time-honored means of saying goodbye and hello to pastors. But good intentions often go unfulfilled for lack of planning.

Now is the time to think about how your church will accomplish this essential task of Christian hospitality, and either end or begin your life together with God's greatest blessing.

Dennis Winkleblack serves as assistant to the Bishop in the New York Area of The United Methodist Church.