WHEN THE SPIRIT MOVES: A Guide for Ministers in Transition. By Riley Walker and Marcia Patton. Foreword by Stephen E. Ott. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011. Xiv + 161 pages.
There are pastors who have served only one congregation during their careers, but most of us will at some point move to a new congregation. The reasons for moving are as varied as the need for something new to having been forced out. Some move because their spouses have been transferred, while others move because they have accomplished all that their gifts will allow them to accomplish in a setting. Whatever the reason for the move, it is important to understand the processes involved and the probable consequences. It is to situations like these that When the Spirit Moves speaks. Authors Riley Walker and Marcia Patton, both judicatory staff with the American Baptists, bring their own experiences and expertise to this question (between them they have spent more than forty years in such ministries), offering invaluable advice and guidance to clergy and to those who will be with them in times of transition. Having been through a few of these transitional moments myself, I wish I had had this book to read along the way.
The book is extremely practical and deals with each step along the way. They begin with asking the question – should I stay or go? This is a question that we should all be asking as we evaluate our ministries. Am I where I need to be? Although the book is written for those in the process of transitioning from one ministry to another, they remind the reader that evaluation should be an ongoing process. Once we’ve answered this question the next issue is matching skills to settings. And this chapter is an extremely important one, for too often we find ourselves in settings that do not match our skills and gifts. They make the point that size is the most important criteria. They write:
Congregational size largely defines the minister’s responsibilities and authorities. Smaller congregations assign broader personal responsibility and little authority to ministers. Larger and more complex systems invest more authority and oversight to the minister. It is essential to success and survival that we know what the congregation expects our role to be (p. 17).
Since the expectations and responsibilities differ, so do the skills needed. Thus, someone whose ministry and own personal experience has been with small churches, moving to a larger congregation might be extremely difficult. Before we move into a setting we need to know who we are and what we’re prepared for. Although the presentation is brief, they discuss the various kinds of churches and the skills required, which will again help in discerning where one might chose to go in ministry.
In a chapter entitled “Crossroads in ministry,” they return again to the question of evaluating where one needs to be. What are my skills and my calling, and am I in the right place? Simply deciding to stay put may not be the best situation for the pastor, the pastor’s family, or for the church. Thus, again we must evaluate our gifts, skills, and calling. Are they being well used in this setting? Do I delight in this ministry setting? Is this what I love doing? Or is it time to move on to a different place or a different kind of ministry or career? How we handle these questions may determine future success in ministry.
Sometimes the question of moving is forced on us by the congregation we are serving. When a minister is fired or forced to resign – I can speak to this from experience – no matter what the reason for this is, whether it’s one of economics, a bad fit, or a divided congregation, the effect on minister, minister’s family, and congregation can be devastating. No one comes out of a situation like this unharmed, but there are ways to successfully navigate the reality of such an eventuality. I would say that, especially from personal experience, this might be one of the important contributions of this book. It’s not a topic most of us wish to consider, and many judicatory personnel are not well equipped to help clergy and congregation navigate a crisis such as this. Because most of us will be put in this position at least once in our careers, knowing how to handle a situation like this will prove invaluable. The authors speak to everything from establishing an exit agreement to negotiating the terms of dismissal. They speak to questions of outplacement and assessing one’s skills and callings, and how to handle the time between resignation and leaving, so that even under difficult circumstances, one might leave well.
Beginning with the questions of assessing whether one should stay or leave and discerning one’s own gifts and calling, the authors then turn to the question of discerning where one might serve. That is, they speak to the question of examining the congregations one might consider serving. They give guidance at how to look at an organizations employment history, organizational structure, the culture of the community, as well as looking at how the family will fit into this new situation. They remind us to look at the leadership styles of the congregation, the kind of ministry team present in the church, along with the way a congregation worships. They discuss special situations, such as conflicted congregations and churches that are living after clergy misconduct. All of these variables need to be considered as the candidate discerns whether this is a good fit.
From there the authors move to the specifics of the search and call process. They work here with a realization that every tradition operates differently, but there some commonalities. The church will prepare itself for the search, in part by doing a self-study, prepare information to share with candidates, while candidates will do their own preparation, including creating resumes and profiles and contacting congregations. If a congregation and candidate find themselves interested in each other, then there is an interview, and the authors give helpful advice as to how to engage in this interview, suggesting questions to ask and protocol to follow. In the following chapter they point the candidate to deeper questions such as job description – they suggest that clergy not accept a position without the development of a clear job description – a work agreement, including details on salary, housing (parsonage or housing allowance), benefits, and reimbursements or allowances. They remind us that we should never leave such things to chance, for they will have an effect on ones’ ministry.
If one chooses to leave, then there is the question of the ethics involved in this process. These ethical issues include such things as the way one leaves, including how one announces a resignation, as well as how one relates the church after one leaves. Although it should go without saying that having left a congregation one should not accept weddings or funerals except with the invitation of the new pastor, reality suggests that we need the reminder. Continuing that theme, the authors, focus in more specifically on the time between resignation and leaving. They also remind us never to threaten resignation. If you make such a threat, then you may be taken up on the offer. And once you have resigned, the clock begins to tick. So, don’t resign, unless you must, without a place to go. For one thing it’s easier to get a new call when one is in active ministry. They tell the reader not to let themselves be bullied, and when the resignation is given, it should be marked by a termination agreement. And then leave well, knowing that there will be a sense of grief and loss involved in the move. The book concludes with four appendices, which offer a brief skill/gift assessment, a sample description (very handy), a brief description of the various processes for search and call, and finally a resource for congregational/personal evaluation of one’s ministry, which is borrowed from the United Methodist Church.
Personally, I hope I don’t need to use this book any time soon. But, if you are in the position of considering a move, then this is an essential resource. If you are involved assisting clergy in the search and call process, especially if you are regional judicatories, then this is also a book for you to read. By reading this excellent book you will be better equipped to make a good, prayerful, and careful decision about whether to move and then where to move.