How to say Goodbye to Current Pastor and Hello to the New One
By Lindsay Peyton En Español
The UMC’s itinerant system grew from the practice of pastors traveling to various churches on circuits. These spiritual leaders are sent, not hired – and serve where Bishops appoint them. During our Annual Conference, we are reminded of the itinerant practice, allowing pastors to stay with a congregation for a certain period of time. While losing a pastor to a different congregation can be a difficult transition, saying hello to a new pastor has a purpose and can come with a number of benefits.
“There’s ministry to be done, not matter where you are,” said the Rev. Shuler Sitsch, Associate Pastor of Lakewood UMC, Houston. “The kingdom of God is everywhere. Being able to serve wherever you can -- there’s a sense of fulfillment in that.”
When Sitsch was still in seminary, itineracy was a comfort. He knew that once he finished his studies, God would provide a position at a United Methodist Church.
“It eliminated a lot of pressures that I saw my friends going through who weren’t pastors or who weren’t pastors in the United Methodist church,” he explained. “There was never a worry of not getting placed somewhere. And that was a huge burden lifted from my chest.”
Sitsch knew he would go somewhere – just not where. He had hopes of heading to Houston, where his wife Sara was already working.
Then, he got the call from Lakewood UMC in Houston – and he did not have any time to wonder if the congregation would welcome him.
“Within 30 to 45 minutes, I got a call from the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC), saying they were so excited I was coming here,” Sitsch recalled. “From the jump, I knew this was going to be awesome.”
Being contacted by members so early on only foreshadowed how warm and embracing Lakewood UMC would be.
The first Sunday he arrived, the congregation held a short welcoming session for the new pastor between the two morning services and a longer celebration afterwards.
The church also showered Sitsch and Sara with gift cards to local restaurants.
“This was a great place to be placed first as a pastor,” Sitsch said. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
Now, 10 months later, he enjoys meeting and speaking to the range of members at Lakewood. “I get to walk alongside them, regardless of where they are,” he said.
Eventually, Sitsch knows he will have to move to another congregation. It’s something that he keeps at the back of his mind, because leaving Lakewood would be extremely difficult. Still, he remembers from his own experience the positive impact the itinerant system can have.
Growing up in the United Methodist church, Sitsch recalled when pastors of his youth moved on to new congregations.
“With every pastor that I had, I remember the pain of having them leave,” he said. “Then someone else comes in. Each pastor is different, and each has a different spiritual gift. Being able to see those gifts utilized is a blessing. That’s why the itinerant system works.”
Still, Sitsch explained that spiritual advancement of each church is the goal. “Being comfortable is nice, but the spirit calls us to grow,” he said. “And sometimes to grow you need a new face.”
Carol Tevebaugh, a longtime member if First UMC, Hallsville, has offered training at the Texas Annual Conference to teach church members how to receive a pastor. She served as SPRC chair at her church and knows the challenges of changing leaders.
Tevebaugh explained that she wanted to make the entire experience positive for everyone, the congregation, the outgoing pastor and the incoming pastor. She started by talking to her congregation in short announcements on Sundays, telling about the new pastor and celebrating the old. She also included important transition dates in a letter to all church members.
“I stressed that this change was not about them, that it’s not about the present pastor and his family and it’s not about the new pastor,” Tevebaugh recalled. “It’s about God and God’s church. It’s about doing God’s work.”
She explained that a number of members of the United Methodist Church do not truly understand the itinerant system. She made it a goal to help everyone understand the benefits -- from assuring retiring pastors that someone will take care of their flock to acknowledging specific needs of a congregation.
Tevebaugh spoke to her congregation about how difficult it can be for a pastor to leave. “We have to love and support them in this big change they are going to make,” she said.
Hallsville members sent the pastor a letter of congratulations and made them a quilt, with blocks signed by the congregation. They also had a goodbye luncheon and gave cards and gifts to show their appreciation. On moving day, the church came to help the family load up their belongings and gave them a cooler full of drinks and snacks for the journey.
Then, Hallsville members started cleaning the parsonage for their next pastor. They also set up flowers, a fruit basket, breakfast for the family and a lasagna in the freezer. They filled the bathroom with new towels and toothbrushes.
“We fixed it up like a hotel so they could make it through the night without unpacking everything,” Tevebaugh said.
Then, the church held a welcome service, gave gift cards to local restaurants and opened their arms to their new pastor.
“It was the smoothest changeover for a congregation who loved their pastor,” Tevebaugh said. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was worth it. Our new pastor felt very welcome.”
Tips for “Saying hello and goodbye” to your pastor: