Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Challenge - Pastoral Changes in a Digital Age

What does a pastor do when he leaves a church? In order to give "the new guy" (sorry, I'm LCMS) a break, he tries to make himself as scarce as possible. I recall one situation in which a very popular pastor left a church after being there for a couple of decades. His first stop? Hawaii - there was a church out there, and he served as a fill-in pastor for a time.

However, in our digital world, there's no such thing as getting away. I know several pastors who blog regularly, and presumably their ex-parishoners can track them down really really easily.

I thought of this when I read this post from Karl:

I am beginning a new call at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon in mid-November. e-vos will take a break during the transition between calls. Next week will be the last installment of e-vos for a while.

People with direct ties to St. James need to realize that my relationship with them as pastor is and should be coming to an end as of November 4.

Why did Karl write this? Because he knows what's coming.

Churches, unfortunately, are often steeped in human traditions, and there are going to be some people in Karl's old church who will conclude that the new person is just not right. Here's what Jeff Myers had to say about this:

This kind of scenario is played out almost every time one pastor is replaced by another. These things happen all the time....

Even if a church thinks they know what kind of a pastor they are calling, they are almost always surprised when he gets there and starts his ministry. And this always leads to disgruntled people. Always. Often these disgruntled people always call the old pastor and complain. But they will always call their friends and anyone else they might think will "help" them and fill their ears with how bad things have become at church. There's nothing new under the sun.

This has happened to me twice, once when I left an associate pastor position and again when I left my senior pastor position to come to St. Louis. In both instances, once the new replacement pastor was called I had people calling me about the new man's problems. He doesn't preach like you do! He's teaching strange things. He contradicts what you taught us! And on and on. And what inevitably happens in these cases is that people trump up their "charges" against the new man in order to justify their leaving the church. If they can find something nasty to charge him with, they will....

And if it's a doctrinal issue, all the better.

I left a church that I had nurtured into maintain[ing] an up-beat, joyous mood during worship....The man who came after me was more of a Banner-of-Truth-type guy....[E]verything I was doing in that church before he came and everything he led the church to do after I was gone - it was all well within the acceptable bounds of standard PCA practice. But he did change a few things very shortly after he arrived. According to the whiners, he changed the mood of the service to a more penitential, somber one. He got the session to go to more infrequent communion. He wouldn't let younger children be interviewed for the Lord's Table....

More than half a dozen people called me and complained about what he was doing. And they were looking for justification from me for their leaving the church. I wouldn't give it to them. I told them to stick with the man. Give him more time. I tried to convince them that he was orthodox and just had different emphases....

I eventually called the new pastor myself and talked to him about the anxious people. Even though we were on different ends of the spectrum in the PCA with regards to some issues, I told him I would help him maintain the unity of the church. I tried my best to talk to the people who were poised to leave about their commitment to the people of the church, not just the pastor. But many of them just wouldn't listen. They convinced themselves that there were deeper theological and practical problems that demanded their separation from the church. Some quietly left and didn't cause a stir. I commend them for that way of leaving. But others exaggerated their "charges" against the man so their consciences would be clear when they left the church. This is what some people do. I've seen it happen over and over again.

So what happens when you don't even have to pick up the telephone - when you can just comment on a blog post, or send an e-mail, or perhaps a tweet? (I'm sure a lot of pseudo-doctrinal controversies can be encapsulated in 140 characters.) It's hard.

Now I don't know Karl's church (frankly I don't know Karl; our only connection is that we both graduated from Reed College, but at different times). But I hope that the old congregation is welcoming to the new pastor, and that Resurrection Lutheran is accepting of Karl.

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Steve Burlew said...

You raise a very interesting point on the far-reaching impact that the Internet has had, not only on our society and culture, but indeed the church, and at the local level. Your statement is very true, "In our digital world, there's no such thing as getting away." I do confess to smiling a bit at the comment, "The man who came after me was more of a Banner-of-Truth-type guy." I wonder what that means? Hmmmm, perhaps I better not ask!
Steve B.
Manager, Banner of Truth, USA

Ontario Emperor said...

I'm not expert on those controversies - we have enough of our own in our denomination - but this whole thing illustrates the balance between orthodoxy and inclusion. If you go too far towards inclusion, then you end up with a meaningless church. If you go too far towards orthodoxy, you end up like Harold Camping, outside of the church altogether.