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Ask Deborah: Relieved of Duties
June 18, 2012

QUESTION: After more than a decade of faithful service in a number of capacities in ministry, including work as a Faith Community Nurse and other leadership positions,I have recently been relieved of my duties without explanation. I can't help feeling betrayed and used. Have you seen this before, and could I have seen this coming? I'm feeling like giving up on this work forever!

ANSWER: Oh, dear. I have seen this happen often to long-time parish nurses (and experienced it myself when I was a Minister of Music at an unnamed church before I had gone to seminary). It is based, essentially, on the power differential between clergy and other staff (and I'm sure you have seen it with physicians and nurses, as well). To be honest with you, I have never seen a case -- ever -- where there was a dispute between a clergy person and another member of the staff where the clergy’s will doesn't prevail, but that doesn't make it right or fair. And when you are in the church, the hurt is deep and long-lasting. For one thing, you are losing your trust in the inherent fairness of the decision-making process of the church. For another, you are losing confidence in yourself and the value of your abilities. You feel like you are losing the worth of all that you had contributed over the years. And finally, you are, for all intents and purposes, losing your pastor, your church, and all the relationships you have forged over a very long time. What a deep and painful loss!

While there is little I can say now to heal that which has already transpired, I will say a few things which may hold some keys for the future:

1. Communication is key. I suspect as you got busier and busier (and maybe others were getting busier and busier), that you were taking shortcuts on communication. Did you regularly attend staff meetings? (Were you invited?)

2. Leadership transitions are key. As pastoral leadership changes, you need to start from square one to communicate what it is that you are doing and your role in the church - both what you do, and what you don't do.

3. Having a team is key. Growing and nurturing a strong and healthy health cabinet or committee is worth all the effort it takes. And this is effort that has to continue year after year, with rotating membership. Build a team of support for health ministry, as this is a ministry of the church, not just of one person.

4. Pacing yourself is key. Remind yourself that you are not indispensible and that you don't have to do everything in the church. Empower others to take leadership roles in every way you can.

5. Finding outside interests is key. If your only friends are in the church, if (when?) this happens, you will be more devastated than if you don't have other interests and friends to turn to as you find your way through to a new church home.

6. Keeping a sense of perspective is key. If you go through several pastoral leadership changes over the course of the years, you will be bound to run into someone who wants to do something differently or with whom it is difficult to communicate. And while clergy can change positions (albeit, not easily), it is extremely difficult for a faith community nurse or health minister to change positions, as most are serving their home congregations. And remember, the more often pastoral leadership changes, the more likely that there are systemic communications problems in the congregation.

7. Keeping your dignity is key. Don't stoop to fights or gossip, as folks in the congregation see far more than you know and are forming their own opinions.

8. Keeping records is key. Have you been documenting what you have been doing over the years, and sharing it with your health committee and your church council or other governance body? Or have you been so busy that you have just been keeping track in your head? NPNM offers its members the opportunity to use an on-line documentation system, and other networks offer similar options, as well.

9. Keeping grounded is key. When you are stressed and lonely, you can find a lot of help in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms. Take a look at Psalms 1, 27, and 121 for starters. Your feelings have been shared by many over the millennia.

10. Keeping the faith is key. Remember the words of God to the prophet Jeremiah when things were getting tough, "For I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11).

Your ministries are needed -- hold your head up high, and follow God’s leading!

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Deborah Patterson is here for you and your church. To send in a question to Deborah, send an email and write "Ask Deborah" in the subject line. Please include your first name and location.