What is a pastor's role in disaffiliation?

April 5th, 2023

“Remember you are called
to serve rather than to be served,

to proclaim the faith of the church and no other,
to look after the concerns of God above all.”

When the bishop spoke these words at your Service for the Ordering of Ministry, chances are you had little-to-no idea you’d be trying to live into them while navigating a denominational division, intense debating inside your own congregation, competing information coming from all sides, and your own deeply-held convictions.

It’s likely that some of the United Methodist congregations around you have seen less impact. Whether due to their size or their relative homogeneity, maybe they’re seeing very little pressure to discern anew their denominational affiliation, or they’ve already disaffiliated without any significant impact in membership or engagement.

It must be nice.

But your reality may be completely different. Maybe you are serving a church with a vocal caucus that wants outside pro-disaffiliation speakers allowed in to make the case so a vote can be taken. Maybe you’re also receiving increasingly anxious emails from individuals who want your church to take a stand for inclusivity and changes to our polity, but they’re only telling you that and not speaking up in mixed spaces. Maybe you are struggling with how to lead a discernment process when you have your only convictions, beliefs, and commitments that make it harder for you to be charitable to those who believe so differently from you.

It’s an emotionally and spiritually fraught time, and your role as a leader has never been more needed. But what can you do?

We hope that some of the questions framing what follows might help give you some encouragement and clarity on finding a way forward in ministry today.

What part am I actually supposed to play in this discernment? 

Maybe it feels like, as the appointed pastor, it is your place to be the neutral party in your congregation’s discernment process. But as trained mediator Charles Pillsbury pointed out in his conversation with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, you can’t actually be neutral or impartial. It’s just not possible. 

But what you can do is find someone in the wider community who can moderate, who can hold the container for conversation. Maybe it’s a respected local leader, another clergyperson outside the United Methodist space, someone who can come in and moderate the conversations your congregation needs to have.

So much of the disaffiliation antics happening around the church are being driven by clergy themselves, or a small group of leaders in the church who try to stir up anxiety and move quickly toward a vote. Your place, while not neutral, can be to say, “We will take this process slowly and thoughtfully, and give everyone invested in this congregation a chance to be heard.” Along with the person you find to moderate any congregational conversations, agree to set up ground rules for conversation that emphasize patience, care in how we speak and respond, and working to not confuse people with the problem.

Along with making sure there is space for everyone to be heard, your role also comes in making sure that everyone has access to information. Those pressing for disaffiliation often do so by making claims about the continuing United Methodist Church’s beliefs; there are plenty of resources available from #BeUMC and other conferences that help clarify our beliefs now and into the future. It’s not a matter of desperate arguing, but instead an insistent and persistent voice saying, “You know, what you’re hearing is not the full story, and I would encourage you to do your homework and hear from the other side on what we believe and why.”

How can I move forward after this process comes to a vote, when my congregation will be divided nearly in half either way?

It is important to remember that the decisions about the congregation’s future and the decisions about your future are distinct decisions–not necessarily separate or unconnected, but distinctly different. If the congregation chooses to move toward disaffiliation, and you cannot in conscience leave the denomination to go with them, or even continue to serve under appointment after that decision is made, that is your choice to make.

But in the case where your congregational vote to disaffiliate doesn’t meet the conference’s required threshold, you are facing an even messier and more challenging reality: a deeply divided congregation.

The implicit formation about congregational leaders is generally to avoid conflict and to seek to please everyone as much as possible. But here’s the thing: if you’ve led the discernment process well, everyone has had a chance to be heard. We should all expect that. We do not, however, have the right to be happy with every outcome and decision. And as a congregational leader, it is not your job to please everyone. You are called to serve, not to make everyone happy, and so your task can now change to a couple of possibilities.

For some people, you may need to help them find a congregation where they can let go of their anger, rest, and find a way forward. Caring for those who did not “win” may mean having candid conversations one-on-one to ask, “Can you still faithfully participate in the ministries of this congregation?” And if the course of that conversation reveals they cannot, helping them to find a new place where they can faithfully and joyfully serve is an important pastoral care action.

But what about the wider congregation? Lean toward development. Divisiveness creates deeply personal distraction, so help your leaders move quickly toward clear communication of a vision for congregational development. What are people going to do next to become better, more faithful, more engaged disciples? Taking small steps to invite people into more intentional formation, both individually and corporately can go a long way to resetting and rallying everyone back around a shared purpose.

As a leader, lean not only into development but into the interpersonal. It’s tempting to say, “We took the vote, it’s decided, let’s move on.” But for a variety of reasons, people can’t just move on. So some effort to work on interpersonal relationship among your leaders, and inviting them to do the same with their teams or groups within the congregation, needs to be an important focus for the months ahead.

How am I supposed to continue in relationship with other clergy, especially those who have actively worked to support disaffiliation in my congregation and others?

Let’s be candid: our system of connection between clergy is not constructed to encourage honesty, transparency, or accountability. Most of us have sat through clergy sessions where an administrative action is reported with respect to a clergyperson’s misconduct, and instead of openly naming that reality with care, we skip past the details even while many people in the room are personally aware of and affected by the harm caused in that breach of trust.

So, in this new situation where many clergy are actively working to lead their congregation–and maybe even yours–toward disaffiliation, it is important to name that reality clearly and directly. To yourself, to your leadership, and to your conference leadership. It doesn’t need to devolve into character attacks, but it does not help us to pretend like these dynamics are not happening. Don’t make light of the reality, that a colleague is doing what we consider to be a chargeable offense: undermining the ministry of an appointed pastor. It doesn’t mean you need to pursue a formal complaint, but being clear and candid that this is what they are doing–with your leadership, your district superintendent, and your bishop–is important.

Calling people out on social media or making thinly veiled passive-aggressive comments, either digitally or in-person, won’t help. But understanding your own anger can–talking through your anger with a trusted friend, partner, or therapist matters now more than ever. Being angry when others–especially those who supposedly committed to a covenant of mutual care and accountability–betray and undermine that commitment is a natural response. Which is why taking your own spiritual care seriously matters now more than ever, so be sure to have tools like Rueben Job’s and Norman Shawchuck’s classic Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants or Steve Harper’s Coming Alive: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Renewal on hand. Consider finding a spiritual director in your community or through connections at Spiritual Directors International, who can accompany you with compassion and care through this experience.

As you and your congregation move through that discernment together, may these words spoken in your ordination service also encourage and empower you anew:

Give to these your servants the grace and power they need to serve you in this ministry.
Make them faithful pastors, patient teachers, and wise counselors.

Enable them to serve without reproach,
to proclaim the gospel of salvation,
to administer the sacraments of the new covenant,
and to offer with all your people
spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

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