a little r & r

As we begin this Sunday our next sermon series on What Ministers Wish Church Members Knew, based upon former KC Disciple pastor Jan Linn, I thought you might be intrigued by material I call “Recycling Relationships: 4 Predictable Stages in all human relationships.” These four stages apply to marriages, family relationships, jobs and careers, as well as to the length of pastors’ ministry in churches they serve.

The 4 stages are: Courtship, Commitment, Trust & Productivity & Disillusionment. A normal cycle for these 4 stages lasts 5-8 years, meaning it is often possible for each cycle to be renewed many times. A typical cycle lasts 7 years, made popular decades ago by a famous movie titled, “The Seven Year Itch,” with actors Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe.

Relationships of all kinds are not bound by 7 years. To Wit: René and I have been married 50 years, suggesting we have gone through approximately 7 cycles of 7 years each and are now in the second year of our 8th cycle. So, when you read “Disillusionment” as the 4th stage, I don’t mean this is the “Final stage,” though this often is the case in many clergy-church relationships where a pastor moves on around the 7th year.

The stages are easily recognizable. The Courtship Stage is the Information Gathering Stage. Questions are asked about expectations, “chemistry” in the relationship , whether the 2 parties are a “good fit. The song “Getting to Know You!” from the musical “The King & I,” captures the theme of this first stage. This stage usually lasts 3-6 months in the Pastoral Search.

The second stage is the Commitment Stage. Clearly, this stage overlaps the other stages as the other stages overlap each other, but initially there is a public dimension. The wedding ceremony, the installation of the new pastor, an official welcome at work (though not usually for minimum wage or temporary employment), are typical public announcements. Often there is a “honeymoon” in the relationship when it feels like “all is well in the world!” Between clergy and congregation this stage normally lasts approximately six months, even though good feelings persist much longer.

The third stage is marked by Trust & Productivity and composes the major balance of time in the 5-8 year cycle. This stage is based upon mutual satisfaction between pastor and parish, when a partnership is forged that produces many positive results in and for the church.

The final stage in this single cycle is Disillusionment. Normally some fatigue sets in. But this stage needs not be debilitating to the relationship. Educators and clergy sabbaticals usually occur at or near this stage in acknowledgement (spoken or tacit) of the need for refreshment and increased creativity. The Eli Lilly Endowment support for pastoral sabbaticals is even called “The Clergy Renewal Project” and can happen in conjunction with this stage.

This 4th Stage is often marked by an awareness of flaws in both the pastor and the church, which may need attention. If conflict arises—a clear mark of this stage—anxiety can grow in the relationship. But if performance issues arise for either or both parties, these need to be brought out in the open.

Many churches function with a committee, called a Pastoral Relations Committee, which serves not as a conflict management team, but as a strong support to the pastor. Regional Ministers can be of great help to a church in defining how the “PRC” can function in support of the pastor.

A danger sign for the church is if their pastor begins to feel no one is there to support them. Pastors can easily feel increasingly isolated in a profession that will always remain difficult to explain to anyone who is not a pastor.

How else might a church recycle their relationship to a pastor so she/he can move into a second cycle of 5-8 years? One thing they can do is “Renegotiate the Relationship.” In fact, another title for this cycle is “The Role Renegotiation Model.” The best way to do this is to consciously return to Stage One and start all over again. This is a time to court one another again and listen to each other’s changing needs and stories. This is the healthiest way to approach the 4th stage of Disillusionment, before it grows out of control and leads to a parting of the ways. Like good marriages, there is a basic understanding of how needs and wants of each partner may have changed over the initial 7 years.

But there are other alternatives, not as healthy and likely to end in parting company.
One is to try to re-engage at Stage 3: Trust & Productivity. Doing this may give the appearance all is well when it is not and when needs and expectations remain unmet. I have often told engaged couples preparing for their wedding that a recipe for conflict is when expectations (not just hopes) go unarticulated. Vocalizing those expectations and needs and listening to the partner is the best course for ensuring a new cycle will unfold. This is true of the clergy-congregation relationship.

Another lesser alternative is to “Kiss and Make-up” or sweep everything under the rug and hope the unhappiness will just disappear! This is like returning to the 2nd stage and recommitting without asking the questions of Stage 1. Both parties end up failing to listen to the other partner’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and disappointments.

Normally these last 2 alternatives: “Kiss and Make-Up” or acting as though “Trust & Productivity” are all in place only accelerate deterioration of the relationship leading again to Disillusionment, but in much less time than the 5-8 years.

Of course, one other option remains and that is when the first cycle moves to Disillusionment and the pastor chooses to move on. This decision doesn’t always have to do with dynamics in the clergy-parish relationship; but is often the case. Many times churches have no idea why the pastor resigned, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of a beloved pastor’s departure. This why the care and feeding of the pastor throughout a cycle is so critical. We will talk about that later in this 3-part sermon series coming up through this month of July.

René and I are always open to visiting with anyone about the things I have mentioned in this r&r or in any other r&r I have written. I truly believe learning about these 4 stages in “Recycling Relationships” can lead to another happy, productive relationship with a new pastor as well as happier relationships in other areas of our life. Feel free to hang onto this article for future reference with your new pastor whomever he or she may be or for any relationship that you treasure.