by Rev. Kerry Greenhill
As many of you know, June marks my official return to ministry work after three months of maternity leave. Anneliese Joy was born March 10, and my husband Dave and I could not be more thrilled to have her in our lives. Of course, there have been plenty of challenges along the way, and I recently started thinking about the parallels between having a baby and moving from one ministry appointment to another. Since so many colleagues experience that process of transition this time of year, I thought I’d share a few reflections.
1. There tends to be a lot of crying and sleepless nights.
Babies wake so frequently because their stomachs are too small to hold enough food to sustain them more than a couple hours at a time, and they cry because that’s the only way they know to express themselves. New parents end up crying, too (at least in my experience), both because of hormones and sleep deprivation, and because becoming a parent can be overwhelming at times, and crying is a good way to release pent-up energy and stress.
Any major life transition, whether changing jobs, moving house, ending relationships, or having a baby, brings some degree of emotional upheaval. Most pastors – and many congregational leaders – will experience a gamut of emotions during a time of transition, which can take its toll on everyone’s physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational health. In time, this tends to improve, but having others to talk to about the challenges can go a long way toward making the hardest parts more manageable.
2. All your routines will change, and you may have to learn some new skills.
Gone (for now) are the days of staying up to watch a good TV show or deciding at the last minute to go out for happy hour with friends; now I am happy to go to bed by 10:30 because I know I’ll be waking up around 6 or 6:30 (and that’s considered an excellent night’s sleep for a 3-month-old!), and the fun of going out to eat is always balanced against the challenges of nursing in public. I am becoming more skilled at preparing and eating food one-handed, changing cloth diapers, and catching baby spit-up before it reaches my clothes or the chair I’m sitting in (sometimes).
Whether you’re moving across town or to a new state, you will need to learn not only where the nearest coffee shop, bar, or diner is to the church (depending on your personal and community preferences), but also how worship is planned, who must be notified in person of major decisions that will come before the Church Council, and which 60-year-old painting of Jesus can safely be moved to a less conspicuous location without provoking unnecessary drama. And depending on the staff and lay leadership of your new appointment, you may need to increase your understanding of best financial practices or running an in-house preschool, brush up on your basic plumbing and carpentry, or get more familiar with the inner workings of the office copier and folding machine.
3. You have to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others.
I recently flew across country with Anneliese in my lap, and after the usual safety speech, the flight attendant made a point of coming up to me and making sure I understood that there were four oxygen masks in the compartment overhead, but I had to put mine on before I could help my baby. Given that it was my first time flying with her and I was on the verge of panic to begin with, I really could have done without this pointed reminder of the potential dangers of air travel!
Like parenting, pastoring can put you in a position of feeling responsible for the wellbeing of others, which is exhausting and ultimately unsustainable. When your own resources are diminished, you are less able to lead from the best parts of your heart, mind, and spirit. And when everyone’s anxiety increases, a healthy leader has to protect their own health in order to continue functioning well for the sake of the group. Sometimes that means an outgoing pastor must continue to be firm about their Sabbath day even though the work of transition keeps mounting. Sometimes it means making time to get together with friends or to practice spiritual disciplines. Sometimes it means deciding not to attend a meeting or declining an invitation to a social gathering with parishioners. When we as leaders are healthy, we are better equipped to promote health in the congregation or community.
4. Transitions take much more than a single day of dramatic change: work must be done both before and after the official turning-point.
This leads to two corollaries:
4a. It’s good to acknowledge and grieve your losses, even when you have much to celebrate.
4b. Learning continues long after you are no longer “new” to the new arrangement.
Transition, the internal process of adjusting to external change, always involves “(1) an ending, followed by (2) a period of confusion and distress, leading to (3) a new beginning” (William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes).
For those excited about the next chapter (as my husband and I were about becoming parents), acknowledging and grieving the ending of the old circumstance may not make sense at first. On the other hand, those who have not chosen the change may feel stuck in the loss of the old and resent being pushed to acknowledge the new possibilities that might lie ahead. For both situations, a healthy goodbye is essential for everyone preparing to say a new hello.
And just as with becoming parents, entering a new pastoral appointment is an ongoing learning process that goes on much longer than the “meet the pastor” house parties or even the “honeymoon period” of the first six to twelve months.
5. The people closest to you will also feel the discomfort, both of your change and of their own. Be kind as you explore the new roles and relationships together.
Bringing a new person into the family system sometimes entrenches existing relationships (healthy or otherwise), but often provides a disruption to established roles and patterns of connection. Bringing home a baby has done more than make my husband and me parents: it makes my parents into grandparents and my brother an uncle; it means my husband and I have to work harder at connecting as a couple when so much of our energy is focused on caring for our daughter; and it means that some friendships evolve to become deeper while others fade. With each of these adjustments comes an opportunity for relationships to evolve, whether toward health or away from it.
Your family and coworkers are going through their own transitions around your pastoral move. They may have to say goodbye to beloved friends and community, or anticipate working with a new head of staff whom they have no say in selecting, while deciding what form their relationship with you will now take. Old resentments and hopeful new possibilities may be felt keenly, even in the midst of planning farewell celebrations and organizing logistics. Kindness goes a long way in these times of higher anxiety, as does self-care (see above).
6. No situation will be textbook, so you have to figure out what works for you. (There is no perfect or best way to parent or pastor, though some approaches are more life-giving for particular people in particular situations than others.)
This is true of life, actually, but remains difficult for me to accept at times – my modus operandi is to research the heck out of something so I can feel confident in what I know, and therefore make better decisions. But neither parenting a newborn nor pastoring a church can be prescribed or scored objectively. Many friends have advised me to “trust my gut” when making parenting decisions, since no expert could know what will work for my child and my family, but I sometimes struggle to distinguish between healthy instincts and panic-ridden perfectionism.
I am learning, in the midst of my frequent anxiety about whether I am doing the right or best thing for my child, the only solution for me is to come back to what I value, which is healthy love and authentic relationships, and to remember that making mistakes is not just an unfortunate side effect of being human, it is actually what allows us to become more whole, as we learn humility and grace in forgiving ourselves and others. (Someone remind me of that the next time I’m in the midst of a Mama Meltdown, okay?)
7. When in doubt, communicate, communicate, communicate.
Along with self-care and kindness, one of the best tools for navigating challenging and anxiety-ridden situations is direct, constructive communication. Dave and I continue to learn from each other how to express our expectations and experiences in ways that are both honest and loving. No good can come of letting slights and disappointments build into a simmering resentment that eventually explodes, or of flinging caustic accusations or judgments at each other. In our communication, as in other areas, we make mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and try to do better next time.
In a time of major transition in the church, there will be people who devolve into behavior that seems childish, but the role of the leader is to be the adult in the room. That means cultivating your own health so you can continue to cast a vision, communicate clearly about hopes and expectations, and work together with the community to proclaim the good news of God’s love.
8. Seek the support of your community in appropriate ways.
As a new parent, I was encouraged to ask for help often, but I still had many moments where I didn’t really want others to know how clueless or frantic I felt, as well as moments when I knew I needed help but couldn’t figure out what to ask for. And I didn’t want to take excess advantage of those friends and family who were nearby and offering their time, and often felt unsure where that line of appropriate dependence lay.
As a pastor, this can be even more challenging, since it is natural to form some friendships within the congregation, but these friendships are always colored by the pastoral relationship. When the time comes to say goodbye to a local parish, friends within the congregation are generally not the best source of support, as these members need to be free to welcome the new pastor. Appropriate support may take the form of knowing who among your lay leaders in the new appointment can help you get the lay of the land, graciously accepting home-cooked meals that are brought to the parsonage (or not, if your preference for healthy boundaries extends to greater privacy in your home), and connecting with clergy colleagues and friends outside the church who can serve as sounding-boards for grief or challenges that arise in the transition.
9. The new configuration probably won’t turn out quite the way you expect – be flexible and adapt as you go.
Even when you’ve accepted that there’s no perfect approach, and that no church or individual is going to conform to the textbook case study, you may have a certain vision of your particular farewell celebration, your first Sunday preaching at the new church, or your relationship with other staff. There’s nothing wrong with a vision, as long as you can adapt when things don’t go quite the way you’d hoped.
I went into labor knowing that any birth plan I could come up with was only a Plan A, but I still was disappointed when medical complications in delivery meant Dave and I did not get the “golden hour” of skin-to-skin contact with our baby that is the norm in our hospital’s baby-friendly birth protocol. Anneliese had to be taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and then was transported to Children’s Hospital. Spending a week at Children’s NICU was not part of our original plan or vision, and I mourned for the imagined picture-perfect homecoming that was first delayed and then complicated by an oxygen tank and tubes. But with the support of friends and a good therapist, and with the healing that comes with time, I worked through my grief and fear, and can now focus more fully on the joys (and worries) that each day of parenting brings.
Some of these could be expanded to much lengthier reflections, but I wanted to keep this fairly short and readable to begin with. Which of these resonate particularly for you? Do you disagree with any of my observations?
Rev. Kerry Greenhill