The UCC resource document for congregations like ours—facing the retirement of our pastor and the work of calling a new pastor—is titled A Pilgrimage through Transitions and New Beginnings. Appreciate that title for a moment or two before reading on. Allow the imagery of pilgrimage to stir your soul.
The call to pilgrimage is not a call to certainty, complacency, or ease. Richard Niebuhr describes pilgrims as “persons in motion – passing through territories not their own—seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass will point the way.”
As we contemplate embarking on this particular journey of transition between our congregational life under the pastorate of Steve Halsted to a new life shared with a different pastor, we must endure the disturbance that marks the beginning of pilgrimage. Indeed, pilgrimage differs from your average trip for business or vacation in that it is sacred. Instead of leaving home with the expectation of returning to it, we intend that our “home” will be quite transformed when we finally arrive. If your spirit feels restless right now, thanks be to God!
The UCC resource document provides valuable guidance for our journey but does not supply all the answers. As a congregation, we have much responsibility for charting our own path. Niebuhr also calls pilgrims “poets who create by taking journeys.” I invite all members of the congregation to become familiar with the UCC resource document and to ponder what you feel led to contribute to the process. I fully expect that we’ll have passionate discussions about what to carry, what to leave behind, which routes to follow, and the speed at which we will walk.
These are some of the tasks or milestones we need to achieve:
1. Develop a plan for transition between Pastor Steve and our next pastor. Nora Foust of the Southern Conference strongly encourages us to plan on an interim period between pastorates. The UCC emphasizes that this time allows congregations to submit to five “developmental tasks:”
· come to terms with our history,
· discern our purpose and identity,
· change and develop our leadership,
· reaffirm denominational and community ties, and
· commit to new leadership and new ministry.
Even though it will be relatively short term, we need to consider the call to our interim pastor as carefully as we do that of our permanent pastor. The UCC encourages congregations to call pastors with specialized training and commitment to the ministry of nurturing churches through their transition.
2. Complete the Local Church Profile. The Profile is not a simple, straightforward document. It requires answering many challenging questions about our congregation, past, present, and future. Ideally, congregational participation in its writing will be broadly based and lively. Our final product will help guide the members of the Search Committee as they consider candidates for the pastorate; also, it will allow potential candidates to assess the possibility of a call to pastor us. The cover page of the Profile places the information it contains in the context of a covenantal relationship between the church and those who serve it in ministry.
3. Select a Search Committee. The Search Committee necessarily will be a small group (5-9 members) entrusted to represent us all in the tasks of considering pastoral candidates, negotiating a Call Agreement, and recommending their top candidate to the congregation. While their work must be kept confidential, in the end it will be accountable to the whole congregation, as we must vote to approve its recommended candidate to be our pastor. How to convene the search committee is, in itself, a challenge: we want members to reflect our diversity, to bring personal qualities that engender trust, and to make a serious commitment to an open, loving, and Spirit-led process.
4. Bid a constructive and celebratory farewell to Pastor Steve. For the next six months, we have an opportunity both to nurture Pastor Steve as he prepares for retirement and in turn be nurtured by him as we prepare and take the first stumbling steps on our “pilgrimage” through pastoral transition. We need his insights on our relationship and community to better understand ourselves. Likewise, he needs our prayers and support as he lets go of his pastoral role and embraces a new call.
You can find the resource documents and church profile at www.ucc.org/ministers/pilgrimage.html. Nora Foust, placement coordinator of the Southern Conference, also gave us a full printed version of the documents. This volume can be found in the church library. The more members of the congregation who become familiar with it, the livelier our preparations can be.
The Deacons will be creating opportunities for your participation in the pilgrimage over the next several months. So find your hiking boots and pack as lightly as you can!