Gates that Open Both Ways: Healthy Friendships between Clergy & Laity

Content by Rev. Mike Hunter, CCA

In recent days a good read crossed my Facebook account about the unique relationships regarding the ethics of clergy and the churches they serve.  I posted a link.  That article speaks from the perspective of former clergy still dabbling in the lives of the churches they left, for weddings and funerals and such, and how and why they should not do that.  Hard stuff.

For more than a decade I’ve also served in my Regional church’s committee for clergy credentials and conduct.  We affirm candidates worthy of ordination and also intersect their ministries when inappropriateness arises.

Sometimes that inappropriateness is how they leave or attempt to linger in former churches. Let’s just say it for what it is.  It can be messy.  I’m not aware of any other relationship dynamic equivalent.

Your children grow up to become adults and have families of their own.  They leave you, but they don’t.  They don’t live with you and you don’t see them every day and some days in that relationship are better than others, but nothing is really lost.  You still have each other and parents are afforded that warming dimension of relationship watching children become adults, parents, employees, bosses, clergy, mentors and more in their own right.  The chain of relational dynamics doesn’t end or break, it grows…morphs into what the parental foundational work helped create.  It is poignant, yet beautiful.  I like to say that grandchildren are God’s payment to parents who give away their children.

It isn’t death or divorce, but when handled poorly can feel like it.  Especially in long tenured ministry, where clergy connect at the deepest levels with folk.  We are in their lives when they give birth, when they get married, when they start a career, when they have crises of health or anything else.  We pour ourselves into each other, fully.  Unless yours is a church that has term limits or appointments (mine does not) you do not see time a finite, until it is.  I don’t know how the Methodist system works….do they deeply connect with their clergy individually, or collectively, both or neither….how does that work?

And they are in yours.  Clergy have real lives, too.  We get sick and we make bad choices and we need friends…boy, do we need friends that can see us as real people!

And the sad thing is clergy have too few of those real friends…and no one stops to do anything about that…write a covenant or a denominational policy…

Disciples have a covenant of closure, we say out loud at the final worship service that our relationship as pastor is ending and they should turn to the next clergy to fill all those relationships.  The departing clergy is often moving on to a new call or perhaps retirement.

And no one stops to assess the triage, emotional or otherwise.  There is some limited help for the congregation, and some quick actions that point them forward in the anticipation of a new minister.  There is some excitement to the departing clergy if they are moving on to a new call.

But no one has found a fix for what you do with the personal side of those relationships.  No one has published the process for how you leave and keep your friendship without being seen as hanging on. Stuff goes on, kids keep growing up, graduation and weddings, funerals and crisis, health and otherwise…

In some cases, the departing pastor isn’t ending on good terms, so closure, while unhealthy, is complete.  The harder instances are those ending well, long established, with many families that have weddings or hunting trips or backyard picnic pictures of kids growing up together…all with clergy and clergy family faces therein.

Through my denominational work and in at least one church I’ve served, I’ve had to deal with a minister or two that did not cleanly and completely leave.  It is not good.  It is not good for the church or for the ministers that follow.  And because of those errors my denomination has the covenant of closure and we hold preachers accountable, to the point of removal of credentials, when they don’t stop doing preacher diving functions in their old church pool.

Because of all of that, I’ve erred on the side of absolutely breaking all relationships when leaving the congregations I’ve served.

It is not as easy as it might seem. Yes, I have found new friends, fewer than past, not because the folks where I serve are not friendly, but because our family dynamics have changed.  While rewarding, the relational has been very different. I am not about to pivot this to become something of self help.  In the moment, I am fine…good, in fact.  The work where I serve is really taking off!

This conversation needs to be bigger than me, the church, local and otherwise needs to take the time to work on the both/and of this.  Churches do need to be left healthily for the next clergy, but we must also find ways to allow enduring friendships and means to retain lasting relationships.

The church, I’m convinced will always be ok. But the preachers…if they do this wrong…not so much.Why?

The church, I’m convinced, will always be ok.  But the preachers…if they do relationships…not so much.

Some could say I’m, as one clergy colleague recently said about himself, “playing the back nine” of my career.  In a few years, retirement will come.  And if I leave my final church as I left the others, what will I have then, friendship wise? Do I have to start over in a new place to have any real friends at all?  Start over with what, exactly?

I’m drawing a new line in the sand.  I want to work on both parts of that…and also apologize to any of my former church friends if my complete closure left you feeling something different than all the years of being in each other’s lives.

It doesn’t feel any better on my end…in fact I could make a case it feels worse.  But I’m going to work on that…and this serves as rebuttal posting to the article I mentioned and to some of you I now know it touched a deep place…I acknowledge that it did for you…and for me.

The real question for us, and for the church at large:  What are we going to do about this?

We must build a gate that opens both ways…

2 thoughts on “Gates that Open Both Ways: Healthy Friendships between Clergy & Laity

  1. You have exposed a weakness in our Disciples system …a painful weakness. We do come to a place in our life when we lack the energy to initiate new relationships… and it is at that stage of life that we depend on previous relationships. But our denominational ethics states clearly we cannot do that… so, do we die alone? ♡

  2. Maybe I’m seeing this too simply. No doubt I am. I’ve always thought weddings, funerals, and such could be done by the new minister and, if there is a close relationship with a former pastor, let them assist in the service. In my own experience, the only newbies who are territorial are generally insecure, carefully marking their turf. The secure ones…again in my own (limited) experience…invite all hands to participate. Surely there is enough to pray for…enough celebrating and grieving…that there is room for all.
    How can there be a complete break? There is an old story that says if you put a gold bar and a silver bar together, some of each of the metals will migrate to the other…forever. I hope that’s true for metals. I’m sure it’s true for people. There is no such thing as a complete break when love and friendship are shared.

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