Pastoral Transitions in a Social Media World

Today is my final day as the pastor of Mission Bay Community Church and this post will be the last time, for a while, that I’ll focus on my pastoral life there.  It has been a splendid 11+ years, our good-byes were healthy and, after a few last administrative hand-offs, it will be time for us to move onto the next stage of our ministry.  For those who have gone through this process before, you know that it can be a difficult one for all involved and that there are no hard and fast rules about how approach the transition in this day and age of social media.

photo: Leslie Rodriguez Photography

First a little context setting. As a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation MBCC will work with the local governing called a “presbytery” to move through a process of seeking and calling a new pastor. This usually means having an interim pastor, doing some kind of search and then calling someone as their new pastor. As for me, since I am not headed to a new church AND I am staying in the area, I will become what is called a “member-at-large” and will affiliate with a congregation as a Parish Associate. This is usually not a paid position, but one that allows a minister to support the pastor of a congregation and is usually held by folks engaged in other areas of ministry that are not congregational in nature.

Throughout the entire process, we strongly encourage the departing pastor and the congregation to extricate themselves from each other’s lives in order to allow room for new pastoral leadership to take hold. In a case such as mine where I was the founding pastor, it is even more important that I do not inadvertently influence the life of the church as they go through a pastoral search for the first time and seek to discern God’s hopes for their future. And while it seems severe and harsh, this means being very clear about boundaries of interaction after I am no longer the pastor.

Creating these boundaries are often difficult to maintain, especially when the pastor stays in the area. Most of us have heard of many a pastors have an unhealthy influence on a congregation after their time is as pastor is done. With the best of intentions and love, many pastors who can’t let go can end up doing harm to the very community that are trying to help. Usually geography helps to build separation, but in this day and age of social media, geography no longer can be assumed to be a determining factor in creating healthy space between the pastor and the congregation.

In the case of Mission Bay Community Church, social media was not seen as a strategic use of technology, but a way of life. Via texting, email, Twitter and Facebook we cared for one another, shared news and enhanced the nature of how we were church together. It would be one thing to acknowledge that we will bump into each other at the local cafe or farmers’ market, but when there are hundreds of updates showing up in Twitter and Facebook streams, there is an added layer of intentionality that must be addressed when a pastor leaves.

As we talked about interaction after I was done being their pastor, we went from being painfully rigid, trying to think of every possible interaction that might happen to being overly general and just trusting that folks would figure it out. As I worked this out from my perspective thinking through what I believe would create difficulties it became clear that I hit the, “It’s going to be really hard to create division” trifecta: I’m not leaving the city, I’m all up in the social media and I’m not moving to serve another congregation.

In the end we came up with a “covenant” for our future rather than a list of dos and don’ts.  While the elements may feel somewhat harsh, I feel it is necessary, especially as the founding pastor, to highlight the importance of creating separation if they are to be most open to where God may be leading. I don’t think that anyone feels that I no longer care about their individual and communal joys and struggles in life, but we need to be clear that it is no longer my place to offer pastoral care, input on congregational life and/or commentary on pastoral leadership.

Here is the Covenant for Our Future that was received by the congregation on May 8, 2011 when we officially dissolved the pastoral relationship between myself and Mission Bay Community Church. Feel free to “liberate” and or all of it for your use.

A Covenant for Our Future
understandings about the future relationship between
Mission Bay Community Church and Bruce, R., E., A. and A.

The intention of this covenant is to act as a reminder of the importance of the relationship between pastor and congregation.  To ensure a healthy transition from the current called pastor to an interim pastor and then to a new permanent pastor all must exercise great self-restraint in order to allow time for all to reflect on past ministry, dream about future ministries and allow for a relationship with future pastors to flourish.

We also acknowledge that there are complexities which can and will influence the nature of this particular pastoral transition: existing social networking relationships, the Reyes-Chow/Pugh Family remaining in the area, Bruce not moving to pastor another congregation and his visibility and involvement in the public arena.

The following measures may seem harsh, even legalistic, but the intent is to be forthright in our commitment to create space for all involved to grieve, reflect and dream.

With a posture of grace, understanding and trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit . . .

We all covenant to . . .

  • Hold one another in prayer.
  • Refrain from all intentional interaction online or in person until at least one year after the installation of a new called pastor including online commenting, texting, phone calls, etc.
  • Treat online interaction with great care understanding that some people may need to “unfriend” on Facebook, “unfollow” on Twitter and/or find ways to remove undue social media visibility.

The Members and Friends of Mission Bay Community Church covenant to . . .

  • Pray for the emotional and spiritual well-being of Bruce, R., E., A. and A. as they discern God’s calling on their spiritual and church lives.
  • No longer approach Bruce or his family regarding issues of pastoral care, congregational life or future pastoral leadership.
  • Allow ourselves adequate time to honestly, fully and faithfully grieve the end of Bruce’s time as pastor and the departure of his family from the life of the church.
  • Welcome and embrace new pastoral leadership and joyfully engage in a process of discerning God’s calling on our future.

Bruce, R., E., A. and A. covenant to . . .

  • Pray for the emotional and spiritual well-being of Mission Bay Community Church, as individuals and as the gathered  beloved community as they discern God’s calling on their ministry.
  • Allow ourselves time to grieve the end of a pastoral and congregational relationship.
  • Seek out a new worshipping home and fully participate in the life of the larger church.
  • Bear the primary responsibility for maintaining healthy boundaries, refraining from and discouraging any interactions regarding issues of pastoral care, congregational life or future pastoral leadership.

Obviously, as churches go through these social media enriched transitions, each person will need to decide how much he/she needs to be cut off from “exposure” to the activities of the departing pastor or the congregation.  For some this will require unfriending/hiding people on Facebook, unfollowing on Twitter and/or deleting contacts, but for most it will simply require extreme discipline to resist even the most innocent of interactions. We must not underestimate the power of the relationship between pastor and congregation and there must be time given for that relationship to lie fallow if a new form of relationship can ever be explored.  This tension has always existed for random face-to-face interactions after a pastor leaves; social media has only heightened the frequency that these interactions might take place.

And for those that want some concrete advice, here are  few things to be sure to do in terms of social media connections . . . or at least what I have done as the departing pastor. If you have any other good ideas or insights, please offer them here or on the Facebook Status Update. It would also be great if you could share any litanies, prayers or other resources like this Litany of Farewell offered by youravgpastor.

  • Send a “final” email out to folks (at least elders and staff) so it is clear when you have begun this new phase.  Email conversations can go on and on, so it is important to offer a mark of finality.
  • Create an autoresponder for your church email list that directs folks to new church connections as well as a way for non-church contacts to remain connected.  Send an email to bruce@missionbaycc.org to see the one placed on my church email.
  • Remove yourself from internal communication lists, groups, docs, etc. on Google, Yahoo and other sharing platforms. With so many ways that people communicate, share docs, etc. it is important, for your own sanity, to not see conversations that you are no longer meant to be part of.
  • Delete any groups or lists that you created that set aside congregation members in your news and updated streams.
  • Have your administrative access removed from all congregational social media platforms.  This might include having the church change passwords and other access points.

The “line” over which we must not cross when it comes to pastoral transitions is wide and gray thanks to the expansive nature of social media. I strongly believe that how pastors leave a congregation is just as important as how one arrives at the beginning of a call and serves during their time, so the more we can offer each other good models, perspectives and insights the better.

And a last thank you to any of the MBCC crew who may be reading this, it has been a privilege to be your pastor. Peace.

  • Bob Young

    Thanks for a great article, with practical, useful stuff. Just FYI, you might want to update it or remove the reference to the auto-responder email. Here’s what I got when I tried on July 6, 2011:
    “Hi. This is the qmail-send program at server318.com.I’m afraid I wasn’t able to deliver your message to the following addresses.This is a permanent error; I’ve given up. Sorry it didn’t work out.bruce@missionbaycc.org:This mailbox does not have enough space to receive your message.”

  • Chris Fry

    Hi Marilyn -  I so appreciate your words here about the unhealthiness of “forced banishment.”  I experienced something like this, as you may know, when as a minister I became ill and had to take a medical leave.   Eventually my colleagues’ “rules” about how I was to be treated by the church led to my resignation.   I am especially concerned with the impact of some of these “banishment” rules on our children and family members.  Often, they lose their first and/or important spiritual home and receive little support or recognition for their grief, anger, and confusion. — Rev. Chris Fry

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  • Trudoc

    I appreciate especially the high level of care that this covenant extends to the congregation. Being public about the need for separation, while it can puzzle a congregation, at least sets out the guidelines plainly and points to the door opening rather than the one closing. This is something that ONLY the departing pastor can do for a congregation and I think it is a precious parting gift, however bittersweet.  I have heard of pastors unfriending and understand this could be another way for some to go, depending on the circumstances. I hear of many problematic circumstances when pastors self- define what boundaries are OK in the future. I appreciate the conversation here about what works over time, since a community of pastoral practice can help define “wise practices” and help guard against wishful thiniing. However, as you say, this is a distinction a pastor makes throughout a pastorate. I appreciate the wisdom and grace with which you share this.

  • B Duke

    Having served with my husband in churches for many years, the fact that congregations and pastors had not understood this issue was often the impetus for many problems faced.  Even though it was and is a part of written ministerial ethics many refused to even consider doing what was required.  This issue definitely affects church growth, new pastoral relationships, and the ability of a congregation to move into the future.  I believe that past pastors and congregations not letting go is the basis of the often heard comment, “We can’t do that.  We have always done it this way.” Praise God to you and all the congregation who developed this covenant and are willing to allow others to use it.  Peace, love, joy and wisdom to all of you as you work through your grief process and search for God’s will in your futures.  Betty Ann Duke, Disciples Net, Ministerial Assistant, and In-training for Licensed Ministry

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  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    I think it really does have to be flexible, but as the founding pastor, I know that I can undue influence and hinder some healthy conversations that must be had. Would rather start out strict and see where there is wiggle room.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Yes, for sure.  I think how one leaves a “conflicted” situation demands even more care and nuance as to no do more damage to future pastoral relationships.

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  • Marilyn Sewell

    After serving for 17 years as Senior Minister, I have gone through two years away from my beloved community, and am just now returning, after signing a “Letter of Agreement” with the new pastor, who is a friend.  I have become convinced that this forced banishment is unnatural and not healthful for pastors, new or retiring, or congregants.  Our Jewish brethren do transition this way, apparently, and I am committed to look for alternatives.  Rev. Marilyn Sewell, Minister Emerita

  • http://twitter.com/edbrenegar edbrenegar

    Having worked a number of these pastoral transitions as a mission study facilitator, what you present is the right way to approach this sort of separation between pastor and congregation. What goes unsaid, but needs to be is that your departure speaks to the kind of relationship that you had all along. This amiable dissolution of a pastoral relationship doesn’t happen in the last month of ministry, but begins all through it. I hope you will write more about this as you move into your next stage of call.
    My God bless and keep your family in the care of the Spirit as new ventures develop.
    Ed

  • Bev Franco

    I’m very impressed by the way you and the church were intentional, gentle and clear about this.  Good job!

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  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Dang . . . how did the Yankees Fan get by my filter ;-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Of course. Thanks for sharing and i hope it helps to stir up some good conversations.

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  • Ned

    Helpful food for thought. I’m sharing on my blog’s facebook page, if that’s alright with you…

  • Samson

    Now you can cheer for your A’s full-time….after the Yankees leave town!!!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    @google-a9be16cad7b07bfad63a248e59538d47:disqus Thanks Adam for the link and yes, all of my stuff will originate from this blog.

  • http://profiles.google.com/adamjcopeland Adam Copeland

    Thanks for this, Bruce. Well done. Love the covenant. FYI (and others), I studied some church social media policies for a class last semester, and only 1 of the 4 suggested that when pastors leave the unfriend congregation members. (The paper is here: http://bit.ly/f4kTGS )

    As a pastor who has recently left a congregation as well, I totally feel the difficulty–though my tenure was nothing as long and importing as yours at Mission Bay. Only a few times have I encountered tricky issues, and they all involve how one can be a friend to old parishioners. Of course, this is an issue when one pastors at all–when are you a friend and when are you their pastor?

    Anyway, thanks again for the post. And, btw, can I delete the three feeds I have of you in my reader? Will all posts BRC related be posted here?

  • Carol Tompkins

    While my congregation was not as involved in social media as yours has been, I have mostly remained silent with “prayers arising!” as my response to issues of concern or celebration. My congregation went through a dissolution and most of the members are associated with another congregation; however, part of their transition was a weekly online prayer list, which I still receive. I don’t respond to particular items, but do keep those named in my prayers.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    I do not plan on unfriending folks. Just feels wrong and the division is not forever.  As far as other things going on, at least for the short term, i am going totally silent. At some point that will change.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    That’s a good question.  For the immediate future, I am taking a pretty hard line for myself. Even the most innocent of “Oh Bruce RT’d me” gets me back into their lives and them into mine. Eventually, but really want to leave open some social media space for whomever is next.

  • JB

    BRC, I’m curious if re-tweeting falls in your definition of connections. 

    But mostly, thanks for providing a template/starting point for a conversation that will only become more important and necessary.

    JB

  • Stephanie Wing

    Bruce, this is great.  Thanks for sharing your experience in relatively uncharted waters.  I wonder if you plan to “unfriend” or “unfollow” MBCC members, if you will leave that up to them to do, or if you will take a case by case approach.  I suppose if you do remain friends on facebook, for example, this would mean that you would refrain from comments of celebration or prayer (in response to the death of a family member, the birth of a new baby, etc..)?  I would be interested in hearing how this goes, and how you navigate this important time of transition.
    Peace,Stephanie


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