Retiring and Former Ministers Told to Stay Away

Something that many Unitarian-Universalists may not be aware of is that when a minister retires or moves on to a new pulpit, they are told not to have any contact with other members of their former church for an extended time.  There are in fact no hard rules on the books about this, but apparently retiring ministers are supposed to stay away from other churchmembers for six months to a year, if not longer.  Ministers who have moved on to new churches (even under amicable conditions) are not supposed to talk with former parishioners for even longer: one UU minister filed a greivance against another UU minister because, three years after he’d moved on, friends from a former church ran into him at GA and went out to lunch with him.  In another incident, a UU minister complained about a retiring minister taking the phone calls of other people in the church; the retiring minister had been with the church for many decades and lived nearby, while the complaining minister had only been at the church for a few years.  One minister who retired in the summer felt she had to refuse a longtime churchmembers’ loaf of home-baked bread at Christmastime, because the defensive new minister might find out.

This is a difficult situation to handle.  On the one hand, it is cruel to tell retiring ministers that they cannot talk or visit with their lifelong friends at precisely the moment when they are undergoing one of the biggest and hardest transitions of their lives–transitions that may be compounded by all sorts of other circumstances, such as personal illness or that of a close family member, moving out of the parish to an unfamiliar location, and so on.  And it is absurd to imagine that former ministers now serving other churches should not have any contact with people who have been christened, married, and (had loved ones) buried by her–such ties don’t severe merely because the pastor has moved up the road to a new church.  Strict interpretation of such guidelines is hurtful to both minister and churchmembers, and is a sure way for a newer minister to seriously alienate his flock.  At times some ministers have interpreted this policy in surprisingly illiberal ways, implying that the members of a church “belonged” to him and not the former minister, as if any UU layperson would stand for being thought of in any fashion as the spiritual property of any minister.

On the other hand, there is a real need for ministers to begin to relax those ties with people who they used to pastor: he is no longer professionally responsible for their spiritual care, and laypeople have to learn not to continually hound him for advice and sympathy.  Likewise, new ministers really do need to establish rapport with their new congregations, and having a former minister still hanging around in some manner is a sure way to muck up this process, perhaps even sabotage it completely.  These situations do really exist, where ministers emeritus try to hold on to their position in the community and work behind the scenes to manage the new minister as a puppet, or turn the laypeople against her altogether.  That is why the UU Ministers Association cautions against regular contact with one’s former congregation in the initial time period following the relinquishment of a pastorate.  For more info, consult section IX of the UUMA Conduct of Ministry Guidelines (available here in pdf).

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12 Comments

Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

12 responses to “Retiring and Former Ministers Told to Stay Away

  1. ogre

    after *three years*?

    I’ve watched the process–and understand the whys of it. But three years? After allowing a year (or two) for interim ministry, and a couple years (or one… if…) for a new minister to forge bonds with a congregation….

    Ok, I don’t know all the circumstances (and am not asking). But on the face of it, that is absurd and depicts someone with a profound lack of self-confidence behind the pulpit. Yow.

    (No duration will ever cure that.)

    A grievance over going to lunch–with some former congregants who are friends–after three years seems absurd. In the context of it happening at G.A., well… I hope that the grievance was resolved appropriately. Without using a rolled up newspaper, tempting as it might have been.

    (We had a very open discussion in a congregational meeting about the hiatus around connection with the retired ministers, the reasons, and the guidelines. Guidelines. Not rules. “… the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard…”. All parties–the new minister(s), the old minister(s), and the congregants need to be aware, to be party to the understanding–and to respect it. And NOT to make complete asses of themselves about it being followed like rules carved in stone.)

  2. I understand the need for these guidelines, but it seems that the focus needs to be more on what is right for the congregant and less on what is right for the ministers.

    For instance, if someone loses a spouse and wants the minister whom they knew for 20 years to do the eulogy rather than a minister they’ve known for 6 months, that should be honored.

    As a potential someday “new minister” myself, I can understanding wanting to bond with my congregation. But seems like that would be easier if they knew my thoughts were about what would serve them best, rather than my need for bonding.

    By the same token, a retired minister not allowing a congregation to transfer their need for spiritual care and leadership to a new minister is doing the congregants a disservice. Retirement, if you’re really retired, means you can’t provide what they need. Let them turn to someone who can.

    Insecurity or possessiveness on either part means the congregants aren’t the priority. Like Ogre said … “Guidelines. Not rules.”

  3. Is this unique to UU Churches?

  4. Did these guidelines arise out of some misbehavior? They sound as if they did.

  5. Yes, Ms Theologian,

    These rules arise out of misconduct on the part of previous ministers.

    And as is so often the case with responses to misbehavior the subsequent rules are draconian and lead to other hurts.

    On the one hand previous ministers need to let go of being the minister. Pretty much full stop.

    On the other hand new ministers shouldn’t expect that bonds of affection and even love can be sundered by the act of a change of who stands in the pulpit.

    There is here a middle way, that is exercised in many, almost certainly in most cases.

    But the extremes are truly sad…

  6. This is not unique to Unitarians. My SIL and BIL are ELCA Lutheran ministers and they operate under similar guidelines.

  7. The Eclectic Cleric

    I don’t want to sound like a scofflaw, because I have always attempted to follow both the letter and the spirit of the Guidelines throughout my nearly 30 years now in the UU Ministry. But I also agree that some of the interpretations of the Guidelines I hear are so stupid and wrong-headed they make me want to cringe. The one enduring principle (well, two) that should be taken to heart is that NO minister should ever perform any “sacerdotal act” within another minister’s Parish (or whatever the modern equivilent may be) without first consulting with them and (in effect) getting their permission (which should always be given liberally, unless there is a specific reason not to). And likewise, no minister should EVER speak critically about the ministry of a colleague behind their backs, and especially to anyone who is currently a member of the colleague’s congregation. If you feel that a colleague is really acting out and is out of bounds, the first step is to try to speak with them directly, the second is probably to contact a Good Officer, and then perhaps involving some sort of denominational official like the District Executive. But again, all the emerging legalism around the Guidelines really leaves me cold, and also makes me worry about the future of our ministry.

  8. Transient and Permanent

    Good comments, all. There are a few questions in here but I think they’ve been answered satisfactorily by other commentators. (Ogre, your diagnosis of profound–one is forced to say “unhealthy”–lack of confidence on the part of the minister in that particular example is exactly on target)

    I’m glad no one went on rants about evil ministers or evil parishioners, the point here wasn’t to stir up trouble but to point out guidelines that ministers know about but few laypeople, and cause laypeople to reflect for a moment on the difficulties posed by changing situations. James’ comment that most people manage to practice a reasonable middle way is much more representative than either of the extremes.

  9. Anonymous

    I was asked to make such distance, and I’m a layman.

    Our UU church had a failed ministry; our pastor was dealing with severe health problems and a divorce. He simply couldn’t do the work of ministry. The district rep came in and brokered a resignation.

    I’d always been an active volunteer. I went into overdrive. I led many Sunday services, the small group ministries, the Vespers, many other things. Too many other things. Eventually we got an interim.

    A few months later, the district rep and the minister asked to meet with me. They told me that I had taken on too many of the ministerial duties of the church, and this activity was an unhelpful block to new ministry. They told me this for almost an hour. Then they asked me to quit all of the volunteer positions I held in the church. And they wanted me to quit attending the church for a year when the new settled minister arrived. They also asked that this conversation be kept completely confidential. (This was all delivered in a tone that… well, they weren’t thanking me for my volunteer service.)

    I mostly complied with the requests, but it tore me up. It was complicated by the fact that the interim minister refused to meet privately with me. I almost quit the church – friends of mine who received lighter versions of this treatment did leave the church. I eventually called the District Rep and pointed out that clergy who removed themselves from their churches had other institutional support, I wouldn’t have any. And if I left, practically, my family would have to leave too. He relented.

    Time has passed. Today I’m active (but not that active) in my church. But I still shake my head. It still hurts.

    • ogre

      Anonymous, as someone who might wel have done the like–I and one… maybe two… others in the congregation–the idea that this was done *to you* fills me with horror and anger. So wrong.

      I’d have reacted rather differently. There’d still be scorch-marks.

      “Relented”? Um, let’s be clear here–there is NO ONE other than the board or congregation that has the right to ask you to leave. For a representative of the district to ask you to exit is grotesque; a violation of polity for starters. For the interim to do so…

      Then there’s the cloaking it all in confidentiality. Really? How bloody convenient for them–whose interest was at stake here?

      I’m appalled.

  10. Pingback: Layperson Told to Leave Church Because He Helps Too Much « Transient and Permanent

  11. New to U

    This is my first comment, and while I am “New to U” I have actually been a UU for a very long time. I have always thought the guidelines asking ministers to leave the very communities that have been their home is inappropriate to say the least, especially if we believe there is any depth behind the word community. To ask someone, however politely, to leave their home and friends implies a level of insecurity, insensitivity and immaturity on the part of congregations and ministers alike.

    I have been a member of two churches where ministers of very long tenure have retired, and I am happy to share that in both cases a formal, written and signed covenant was developed between the “old” and the “new” minister and in both cases this understanding, widely shared within the congregation, lead the way to healthy and right relationships.

    We are a denomination that has always challenged rules, and we frequently pride ourselves on responding with both head and heart. Sounds like maybe some laity and clergy still have lessons to learn.

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