This week’s article is written by Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata who is currently working on a book about her research on pastors who have closed churches. The UCC provided data for this project, and several UCC pastors were interviewed and completed the survey for this Louisville Institute-funded endeavor. We are grateful to Dr. Cafferata for her willingness to share some of the results of her work prior to publication. Previous postings can be found here and here.
A pastor had written an article for the church newsletter and given it to the church secretary, who in that small, rural congregation was also the congregation’s executive and church musician. When the pastor went to church on Sunday she found a stack of new church newsletters outside the sanctuary that she hadn’t ever seen; she put them in her office to read on Monday morning. Monday afternoon she received a call from the secretary (who had been absent on Sunday) saying that some folks hadn’t received their copy and “Where are they?” After a brief pause the secretary exclaimed, “Oh never mind, my husband said he found them in your office and gave them out.”
This is the season of Lent, a time for self-reflection about how well we are keeping our baptismal promises to God, among them forgiveness of those who hurt us. If you are at all like me, it’s easier to remember the hurts than to forgive. Boundary violations like the secretary’s husband removing something from the pastor’s office or not being included in decision-making (editing of the church newsletter) are hurts that are easy to remember, and challenging for a pastor to forgive. (Creating a church environment where events like this will be unlikely, or dealing with them well when they arise, are issues for another day.)
As part of “The Last Pastor,” a national, ecumenical study of pastors who have experienced the closing of a church, Lutheran (ELCA), United Methodist, Presbyterian and UCC clergy are relating their experiences with congregations in the transition. Most are stories of abounding grace, but a few, like the above, break their hearts and ours, and why? One reason is that a core value for baptized Christians is dignity. In many denominations, baptismal vows include our covenantal promises to God, as in “Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple(s), to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?” (Book of Worship, p. 137). What does it mean to be treated with love and justice, or dignity, not only in the closing of a church, but at any time in the life of a congregation? What does it mean for us to treat others with respect and dignity even when we are the target of unhealthy behavior? In this time of Lent we pray, “How do we forgive?”
Donna Hicks’ book Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict outlines the “dignity” model that she and others used in conflict areas throughout the world. Aspects from this book and other ethical principles of love, justice and dignity were incorporated into my research on closing churches. Among pastors in these four mainline Protestant denominations, more than eight in ten were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the respect they received from the congregations they served in a trying time of decline and congregational death.
But what happens when we, like the pastor above, don’t experience respect? What if we are in the 20% who feel our congregation lacks compassion for us? Like many pastors in my study, I’ve experienced dignity violations in my interactions with members of a congregation or with judicatory representatives. I’ve handled many with grace, and others, regrettably, with less than love and respect. Even when I’ve responded to someone prayerfully and to the best of my ability, done everything my denomination and training encourages me to do—notify a judicatory executive, find a mentor, join a colleague group, find a therapist, talk to a friend, sometimes there are still broken hearts in need of healing—mine, and the person I may have hurt with a careless response. Once I prayed “God, please fix Jim…he’s harming me and others.” On my knees in fervent prayer, I suddenly realized that I had acted just like Jim in another situation. Lent is the season for bringing our broken hearts to God in prayer—prayers for those that hurt us, and prayers for God to heal us, trusting in God’s abounding compassion and grace exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata
Center for Practical Theology
Boston University School of Theology
Book of Worship, United Church of Christ Office for Church Life and Leadership, New York, 1986.
Hicks, Donna, with a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.