Thursday, February 28, 2013

How Do Pastors Leave?

Today is Pope Benedict's last day as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.  Reading the news about his departure sobered me. Even though I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, I have roots in that faith and understand a bit of what this resignation means.  Of course, none of us really know what it means, because all we have to go on are official statements, and most of us suspect there's more to it than that. And yet for all my suspicions, I'm not that interested in knowing. I'm glad that if the Pope needs to leave, there's a way for him to go.

As someone who now worships on the Protestant side of the Christian family tree, I wish evangelical pastors had a way to step down when they recognize that they're not up to the job anymore.  In the absence of a protocol, most burnt-out pastors either dream up some grand new call of God that will take them across the country or around the world (Rob Bell, Francis ChanJay Bakker)...or they have a big-time moral scandal that pretty much guarantees they won't be asked to do this pastor gig again for quite some time (Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, et al).

Doesn't grace demand more options than this?

I think it does.

I've always loved how the Bible talks about our relationship to Jesus in wedding terms. And like the vows Steve & I took at our wedding, I believe that my decision to follow Jesus is constructed of similar stuff: it's a forever thing, not an opt-out when life gets rocky thing.

But I don't think the call to pastor a church is of the same order.  I think it's okay to have an exit strategy in place, and to talk about it long beforehand, when everyone is still thinking, This is all so awesome, we'll never need this silly plan...  For all the questions and speculation and "Wow this hasn't happened in 600 years!"that accompanied the Pope's announcement, the church has a plan for where he'll go, and a plan to choose his successor.  They're not scrambling (other than a bit of media management) because the process was determined long ago. The Pope was the leader of the Catholic church, but he was not the Church.  They knew all along that eventually, someone else would be waving from the Popemobile (although as it turns out, no one else will be tweeting from his Twitter.)

I think we Protestants can learn a thing or two from this.


hes said...
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James Patrick Conway said...

Good post, I think its important to remember that this is not unique to the papacy or to the Catholic faith. The Archdiocese of Chicago requires priests to leave their parish after 6 years (when priests refuse it always makes the news), and other archdioceses have different requirements, but typically its expected that a priest should serve different flocks in different capacities over time.

Many mainline denominations have similar rules, I can only speak to the Methodist tradition since I am going to marry a pastors daughter, that they tend to be moved around every 4-5 years. The downside is its incredibly hard on men with families but my future father in law is the first to say change is always welcome and a great way to avoid burnout, in a way its like being a pastor again for the first time and rediscovering that faith through new people in a new congregation with new challenges. Another good friend from high school had a dad who was an Episcopalian priest and went from being Tufts chaplain, to asst. pastor at St. James to being the no 2 at the cathedral in a relatively short period.

Its definitely an area where evangelicals can learn from the Catholics and the mainline, but I suspect it will be a difficult lesson since so much of that tradition is based on institutional freedom and low barriers to starting churches and getting moved by the spirit, it elevates preaching above other qualifications and it tends to elevate charismatic figures who are difficult to replace. Strongly believing in the universal priesthood prevents it from adopting the kind of institutional rubrics for changing pastors more easily.

Finding the via media has always been a great challenge for Christians but its something I think we are called to do. We can even look to the apostolic church for examples where leaders (partly because of the threat of martyrdom) had to hand over the reins gracefully. Its probably the most reform minded, modernizing, and pastoral decisions Pope Benedict XVI has made.