Shuck and Jive

Monday, April 21, 2008

Poaching Pastors

Snad alerted me to this article in the Savannah, GA Morning News: Presbyterians May Punish Poaching Pastors. I do like the title!

In February, the Savannah Presbytery created a new policy that prohibits pastors from performing weddings, baptisms, funerals and counseling services for members of their former congregations, except at the invitation of the new pastor.

The policy also limits how ministers can respond to those requests.

Punishment for violating that policy may result in removal of ordination.

The "Separation Ethics" policy is still a proposal under the Savannah Presbytery, the governing body over 42 Presbyterian (USA) churches in southeast Georgia, said Interim Executive Presbyter Greg A. Garis. Leaders are expected to vote on the policy May 20.

It is unfortunate that the presbytery has to go to this length to keep ministers from interfering in the lives of their former church members. Whenever we have to make a rule in the book, trouble must have been a-brewing.

I am grateful that I have never had this hassle (yet) either from former pastors who meddle or meddling myself. I tend to move across the continent on each move so it makes it tough for me to meddle. Frankly, I have enough to do without stepping on the toes of the clergy who follow me. I deeply respect boundaries. Meddling is not providing pastoral care to the hurting. It is meddling. It creates divisiveness and it keeps the congregation and the new pastor from building relationships.

Yet, most of the time, we handle this without a rule in the book. There are ways in which new pastors can include the ministry of predecessors who live in the community. It requires ongoing conversation and shared guidelines between the former and current pastors.

I am curious as to how my colleagues have experienced this (as well as parishioners).


  1. ok but, if you're pastoring a wedding or somesuch, isn't it because the people ASKED you to? and if they did, how is that poaching?

  2. Very interesting. And timely from my little RC corner of the world.

    Our former pastor retired (and as you know the whole RC set up is quite different but some issues like this crop up).

    He had been at the parish for 20 years and we are a huge parish. He was a top-down guy, but not an asshat by any means. Just all business in his running of our large and prosperous parish.He was a bit of a control freak.

    To his credit- he is eminently likeable and a great preacher in a teaching way.

    He was retiring about 2 years ago and our new pastor was apparently an old nemesis of his.

    Our current pastor in my eyes is one of the best priests I have ever, ever known. Its not that bad- I have known many good ones. (and also many awful ones!)

    In any event, old pastor is still in the area and loves to stir the pot and meddle when he can.

    He is frequently asked to be the celebrant at weddings and funerals given his long tenure there.

    To my current pastors credit, he is above the fray at all times. I wish I could say the same for ex-pastor... Who just spent a week with us when current guy was away.

    He was doing major, major pot stirring.

    Anyway, we have no such rules and I am just as glad.

    This long winded comment is ultimately about how we are all human and foibles are foibles and all are opportunities or traps, depending on where you come from.

    And a trap is ultimately an opportunity in the end, no?

    I think it is.

  3. I have mixed feelings on this. This is the Presbytery that my grandparents and aunts & uncles belong to (between two congregations in two different towns). My granmda's church in particular has suffered declining numbers due to fights (though from what I can tell, over money, not the gay for once). First, their longtime pastor (the guy who baptized me BTW) was wooed with the promise of a very big salary by a rich congregation down the coast, and the church started to lose direction. Someone got mad at someone else (apparently someone didn't like the new pastors), so half the congregation joined a small congregation on the other side of Savannah. My grandma's church seems to have found a decent pastor after having gone through a couple that didn't work out at all, but their membership numbers are in the tank after all this arguing.

    That having been said, I don't know how appropriate it is for the Presbytery to limit how its pastors exercise their responsibility to pastoral care. Now, if grandma asked their former pastor to come to her church in Savannah to do her funeral when the time comes, it may be appropriate for that pastor to ask the Session for use of the facilities. The Session may even ask the advice of the current pastor. However, in the (unlikely) event that grandma asked to have her funeral done at the former pastor's current church, I don't think that her current pastor has to give his blessing. We don't have parishes in the Presbyterian Church by design.

    Lemme put it this way, John (and any other MOWS out there): if one of your former congregants in Montana asked you to preside over their wedding, would you ask their current pastor permission, regardless of the location of the ceremony?

    In the interest of full disclosure, I would not use the Savannah Morning News editorial page to line a bird cage. It's so bad as to cast serious doubts on the quality of its other reporting (the paper's small enough that the editorial board also does a lot of reporting). They've published one of my letters complaining about them, but mainly to showcase the out-of-town liberal (Savannah has an undeserved inferiority complex when it comes to Atlanta).

  4. This is a difficult issue:

    First, I know nothing about the presbytery situation or the newspaper's reporting of it.

    I thought it interesting in a more general sense. In my experience, I try to really work as a team with former pastors and with current pastors when I am the former.

    What I mean by team is how can we best serve folks together? I am thrilled to have a former pastor participate in these things if the family wants it and the minister is willing. I think it sets a nice example of former/present working together.

    In my practical experience it has been good. We don't need rules usually, just common sense and decency.

    Fly asked a great question:

    "Lemme put it this way, John (and any other MOWS out there): if one of your former congregants in Montana asked you to preside over their wedding, would you ask their current pastor permission, regardless of the location of the ceremony?"

    In short, yes. I would contact the pastor and say, "This is what is up, how do we want to handle it?"

    I would bet that 99% of the time, we would find a way of working this out that would be good for all involved (in my experience with similar things it has been 100%).

  5. I should add if someone from a former congregation wanted me to do a funeral or wedding because they did not like the current pastor, or didn't feel the current pastor would do a good job or whatever, I would decline doing the wedding or funeral.

    I would only do it if I and the current pastor had a good working relationship.

  6. I believe that the UCC has a very strict policy that once a pastor leaves a congregation, they are not allowed to have any contact with members of that congregation.

    My non-religious significant who indulged me by going to a UCC church for a while with me had a difficult time with that policy. The pastor left, and my SO had become attached to the pastor, but could not contact her. It was a difficult rupture. But the example you cite shows why policies like that are in place.

  7. Correction to what I just wrote--I was told that the policy was no contact for a year. After that period, contact is permitted again.

  8. I don't care for poached pastor. I prefer mine broiled with a bit of spicy hot seasonings.

  9. See, even though I have been burned in the past by pastors with political axes to grind, this personally just rubs me the wrong way. The church I grew up in and subsequently got the heave-ho over The Gay FINALLY got rid of its demagogic senior pastor (who is now working full time for a conservative advocacy group that doesn't deserve the publicity). However, when my sister got married last year, he was still there. She is still technically a member of the old church (she and my brother-in-law are checking out churches in their new town), but she was married by my pastor in my church. I do not know if my pastor and the demagogue had a conversation before the wedding (I get the distinct impression that he just wanted us the hell out of his way), but I do know that they do not have a good working relationship. At all. His organization has issued nastygrams against her in our various favorite organs.

    Had a policy like this being discussed in Savannah Presbytery been in effect in Greater Atlanta at the time, we (my sister's family) would have fought tooth and nail to keep my sister from having to have her wedding presided over by someone who detests us.

    I certainly understand the concern here, and I know firsthand the pastor poaching that is rampant in Savannah Presbytery (and in other denominations down there as well), egged on by conservative news outlets like the Savannah Morning News. I just don't know if this is the solution.

  10. Allow me to correct myself: last night I happened to have dinner with the person who actually drafted the Greater Atlanta Presbytery's poaching rule, which is in effect. Kind of a kick in the side to learn that my family is now so dead to our old church that we didn't even need to bother to get their permission to have one of their members married in another church by another pastor.