Letter from Pastor Jim

Blessings to all,

It has been one year since we became united as pastor and parishioners. It has been a year of change and challenges, which is to be expected during a time of pastoral vacancy. In many respects the relationship between a pastor and the congregation can be viewed as a marriage. When a pastor leaves a church (with the exception of them retiring or passing away), the feelings which are felt are very similar to a divorce. When I work with couples who are planning on getting married and one or both of them have been divorced, I always ask them the question, “what did you do to contribute to the breakup?” If I just ask “what led to the breakup” I would get the answer, “my spouse did thus and so”. This is a pattern which we have picked up in our society today – we deflect, deny or blame others for everything.

We have forgotten how to accept responsibility for our actions and ask for forgiveness. (Our inability to ask for forgiveness also impedes our ability to give forgiveness). This inability to acknowledge of sinful behavior happens in the church as well. When I was doing a lot of supply preaching, I was often in vacant congregations, and I frequently heard that the reason there were problems was because of something the pastor did or, the other favorite target, it was the synod’s fault.

I lived out this reality when I was called to be the pastor at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Villas, New Jersey. They were only 40 years old but I was their 6th pastor. The average length of pastoral service was 2½ years before I came. I came after they had been vacant for 27 months and they had gone through a slat of 9 candidates before calling me. When I asked folks why they had lost so many pastors, the response was, “It was the synod’s fault. They kept sending us bad pastors.” There was no concept that the congregation had done anything to contribute to the problem.

My first day on the job, I came to the church and saw that my name had been put on the church sign, but it hadn’t been painted on like the rest of the sign. They put it on with press on letters. When I inquired from our sexton as to why the choice of press on letters, he informed me that that was what he had been instructed to do by a council member because “the pastor won’t be here that long.” Even thought there was this rough start, I worked with the congregation and finally got them to acknowledge they had some bad habits and some alligators in the congregation which needed to be addressed. It took hard work and the removal of those alligators, but the church stabilized and grew. I ended up staying for 6¼ years (still the longest pastoral term at that church to the best of my knowledge).

Part of the challenge of forming a healthy relationship between pastor and people is that this is basically an arranged marriage with the Synod functioning as the “matchmaker”. The purpose of the year long interim process is to give the congregation a chance to address the question which I put to my couples: what did you do to contribute to the breakup and what needs to change so that you don’t repeat the situation? This is basically the reason behind the survey and all the congregational conversations.

You have worked very hard at this process and there are a number of results which have come to light. One is that there are two distinctive ideas of what kind of pastor you want. One group wants a shepherd to guide you and the other group wants a pastor who will only do “spiritual” things like lead worship, baptisms, weddings, and funerals leaving the rest of the running of the church to the congregation. The disparity between these two approaches is significant and will need to be dealt with so that a unified approach can be pursued.

Another aspect of your self identity is that you see yourself as a “congregation led” church. If that is indeed true, then I want to throw down this challenge. At the annual congregation meeting, Phil Deck made a strong case that Peace has two areas which must be addressed to have Peace move forward:

  • declining attendance (membership)
  • even faster declining giving.

The congregation did vote for a budget to be balanced through increased giving. It seems as if the congregation recognizes the need, so how is the congregation going to deal with these issues? While not surprised, I find it interesting, that in these two key areas there are no committees or working groups to address either the growth of giving (stewardship) or growth of membership (evangelism).

What I have heard is, wait till we get the new pastor and let her/him do it. Really, is that “congregational led” ministry? Again from personal experience, I can tell you that what will happen is that when the church doesn’t grow and the tension once again rises, you will quickly turn to the pastor and blame her/him for the lack of growth. Not really fair!

Put yourself in the place of an interested pastor. When you look at the attendance and giving figures what do they tell you about the future of Peace? Does it make it an attractive site? While I recognize that both of these issues are long term projects, I can tell you as a pastor, while I look at the historical figures and see decline, I would be much more inclined to come there if I also saw and active and vibrant stewardship and evangelism committee which was working hard on the issues. That is a situation which I would look forward to working in.

I can tell you with no doubt that your next pastor will not be perfect. They will have their faults and problems, and my guess is that if you go into the process of choosing a new pastor without dealing with the issues of why you have had difficulty with the last two, then history will repeat itself.

One of the opportunities of the interim time is to give the church a chance to practice new behavior. A pastor looking to consider coming to Peace will look at how you are currently dealing with your pastor and leadership as a barometer of their desire to come here.

There are probably a number of you who are upset by what you have read to this point, but I have been here long enough for you to know that my task is to hold up a mirror to help you see yourselves and the elephant that is in the room. When you took the MAP survey several months ago, over 80% of you said that you know that change needs to happen and that it needs to happen within the next 6 months. That is why I keep holding up the mirror.

Finally, please don’t misunderstand me. Peace has done a lot of hard and important work this past year and the necessary and difficult changes you have made are significant steps forward, but I don’t want you to slip into a false sense of security thinking that once the congregation profile is sent in the work is done. Far from it, that is a sign that the real work now begins, and you prepare for you new marriage.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Jim Heckman

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