Nancy E. Petty & Jack McKinney
Text: Proverbs 3:13-18
Many of you have heard me say that one of the parts I love about my job is doing funerals. Here’s why that is. At funerals, at least Pullen funerals, we value telling the truth about a person’s life. In speaking of the deceased, we name the parts of that person’s life that radiated light as well as those places where life was lived in the shadows. We name the joy with the pain, the hope with the despair, and the success with the struggle. For all of us, our lives are comprised of light and darkness; and in remembering and honoring an individual’s life it feels essential that we try to speak a word of truth about both. Even in death, telling the truth in love about someone’s life is what brings respect and honor to that person and the life they lived.
This morning, Jack and I would like to use this model of how we do funerals at
Pullen as we attempt to speak a word about our life together as pastors. It would be easy for us to speak only of the joy, the hope, and the success because those are the things that fill our hearts these days. But to only name the joy and the hope and the success would not be the whole story of our life together these past seven years. So we will also share with you what we have learned in the places of pain and struggle. In doing so, it is not our intent to try and reconcile all parts of the co-pastorate. We simply offer to you our reflections in a spirit of honesty, grace, and compassion, and with a deep sense of gratitude for what has been.
In an effort to be the best partners in ministry that we could be, for over three years now, Jack and I have met regularly with a consultant. While it wasn’t always convenient for our schedules, we took the time for those meetings for the health of our relationship; but mostly for the health of the church. And while our “couple’s therapy” has been, in my opinion, the single most important thing we did for our professional and personal growth, those sessions were not always easy. Originally it was a crisis in our professional life that sent us to consultation. But in the end it was our love, care, and respect for one another and our desire to be the best pastors we could be that kept us going back. Now, as we transition out of our life together as co-pastors we want to name with you what we have learned—after all, it was you who gave us the opportunity and privilege to share the role of pastor for these seven years.
So, lesson number one: presumptions about what your co-pastor is thinking are rarely accurate. To use the vernacular this one translates: “What the heck is she thinking and doing?” Let me paint for you a picture of a typical Monday morning after all-day Sunday meetings in the early days of the co-pastorate. It was common for me when arriving on Monday morning to “check-in” with Jack. Usually, I would knock on his door and upon entering I would find him sitting at his desk responding to emails. I would begin the conversation with something like: “So, how did you think Deacon’s meeting went last night?” Often, after a moment of silence, in which I could tell he was carefully choosing his words, he would say something like; “Guess we should have talked about how we felt about…” I’ll let you fill in the blank because that’s not the point. The point is that in those early days of the co-pastorate Jack and I would often surprise one another with our responses in certain situations. I thought I knew what he was thinking and he thought he knew what I was thinking. But after some very awkward moments we quickly learned lesson one: don’t assume you know what your co-pastor is thinking. Through lesson one, comes our most valuable learning: daily communication is essential. Every one of us knows this truth. Open and honest communication is the basis for a healthy relationship. It’s easy to say, we know it is true, and yet it may very well be the most challenging aspect of any relationship. For your co-pastors, learning this lesson was both our joy and our struggle.
Lesson number two: sharing everything is counter-productive; sharing nothing is disastrous. In the beginning it was important that Jack and I share the role and responsibilities of being pastor equally. That meant equal time in this pulpit. It meant both of us going to certain council and committee meetings together. It meant both of us being involved in all aspects leading and pastoring this church. From the beginning, some of you challenged this assumption and maybe rightly so. But for the two of us, we needed that time together to figure out and sort out how we would do our work together. As time passed, we learned that sharing everything was not necessary. In fact it was counter-productive; not a good use of our time. And yet, as we reflect on our experience, it is our firm belief that to not have shared anything—to have simply defined parts of the job that he would do and parts that I would do with no overlap would not have been healthy for the co-pastorate or for the church. In the end, it was learning the balance of what we needed to do together and what we could do separately that created and nurtured a true partnership.
Lesson number three: differences need to add to the conversation, not distract from the conversation. One of the things that we have heard most often from many of you is that you have appreciated hearing two different voices from this pulpit and in meetings. It is no secret that Jack and I are two very different people. We think differently. We speak differently. We have different strengths and vulnerabilities. It has always been important to me and Jack that we value our differences. Throughout the co-pastorate, we have felt your encouragement in this area and deeply appreciate it. And yet, we learned that we were at our best as your pastors when we allowed our differences to add to the conversation rather than distract from the conversation. Sometimes that meant one or both of us not saying something in a meeting until we had time to talk about how we felt and how we wanted our voices to be heard. This was not a compromise. It was learning patience and showing respect for one another. It is true, our differences need not separate nor isolate us. If we have the courage to own them, they can bless us. Jack and I discovered this truth.
Sometimes we would joke about the co-pastorate being like a marriage. If you think about these three lessons that I have named that Jack and I learned together being co-pastors, they really are no different than what we all struggle with in our significant relationships: communication; separate but together; and valuing differences. It has been the deepest joy of my professional life to work on these lessons with an individual whom I deeply respect and admire. Jack, you didn’t just give me the gift of the co-pastorate, you gave me the gift that is you. I will forever be grateful to you and to this church.
“Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” (Proverbs 3:13) So true, but so hard to get there.
The Bible is consistent in its teaching that wisdom, the feminine expression of the divine according to our Hebrew ancestors, is the great treasure worth searching for. She points the way to what is true and meaningful. She points the way that avoids the vain and vacuous. The problem is that the one thing we know about wisdom is that it takes a very long time to attain it. No wonder our mental picture of the wise person usually includes gray hair and a slow gait.
Eight years ago, without quite realizing it, I suggested an idea to the church that could have been titled “A Plan to Accelerate the Rate of Wisdom Accumulation for Our Young Pastor.” You see, what I know now that I didn’t know then is that if you want to gain wisdom quickly you should try a partnership with someone completely different from you. If you are a slightly introverted male from the desert of West Texas, find an exuberantly extroverted female from the mountains of North Carolina, throw them into a job-sharing arrangement, and sit back and watch what happens. What happened was a lifetime’s worth of lessons that I will be leaning on from this point forward. Let me share three of them with you.
The first thing I would say about the co-pastorate, or any other relationship where two people are working closely together, is that there will be comparisons between you. Sometimes you compare yourselves to one another. Sometimes others do the comparing. Either way, your feelings will get hurt in the process. Surely you know this experience in your own life. Maybe you’ve had a sibling or friend or co-worker you always felt compared to. You may be married with children and feel like your parenting skills are always being compared to your partner’s. There are many times in life when we find ourselves in close enough proximity to someone that constant comparisons are the norm.
Nancy and I have lived in this bubble for years and have experienced the pain that comes with it. Our sermons were compared, our skills at pastoral care and counseling were compared, our leadership styles were compared; almost everything about us was held up in the harsh light of comparison. For a long time we struggled to know what to do with this dynamic, but a couple of years ago we figured it out. We realized there was nothing we could do to stop it; in fact, I think we came to see it as an inevitable part of our arrangement. We made peace with it by resisting the comparisons and becoming each other’s main advocate. We set aside the temptation to compete against one another and worked harder to be good partners for one another. You may have never seen the difference, but we did. And I can tell you, if you are in any relationship where you are sharing responsibilities, it is so much more fun when you resist the comparisons and embrace the partnership.
The second lesson I carry with me from the co-pastorate is that it helped reduce the feeling of isolation that destroys so many good clergy. One problem that many leaders face in all walks of life is that they have few people they can talk to who will truly grasp what they are saying. Having served as a solo pastor in five churches before arriving at Pullen, I knew the realities of that isolation. What Nancy and I had that few pastors have is someone down the hall whose office we could walk into and say, “Do you realize just how crazy these people are we are trying to pastor?” And the other one would smile, and nod, and confirm the general lunacy of this lovely congregation. Those are the moments that help you maintain your own fragile grip on sanity, and it makes you very grateful for a partner.
So, you might be thinking, if this model for pastoral ministry helps undercut isolation, why shouldn’t we always do it this way? Well, the thing is, for any partnership of this magnitude to work, something essential has to be present. You have to like the other person. You have to like them so much that your differences don’t matter. You have to like them so much that you will trust them with your most vulnerable places. You have to like them so much that you will forgive them when they let you down. If you find someone like that in your life, fight to hold onto the relationship, and don’t assume you can easily replace it. Such partnerships are rare jewels that you protect with all your might.
My final lesson from the co-pastorate is that this arrangement has the potential for improving or exacerbating one of the biggest problems in a liberal church: how to manage power. Power is present in every relationship and institution. This is especially true in the church where the history of abusive power is the great stain on our tradition. Unfortunately, progressive congregations can so internalize a fear of abusive power that they start to shy away from defining power at all. This is why a church like ours is far more likely to struggle with questions like who is supposed to be in charge in a given situation; what is the role of staff and laity in leading the church; and how do decisions get made in a non-hierarchical structure? To the degree that the co-pastorate added to the murkiness of these questions about power, it failed us.
On the other hand, the co-pastorate was a living, breathing expression of shared power that reminded us that authority can come in different packages. When power is well-defined, opened to qualified people of all backgrounds, and shared among equals regardless of gender, race, or sexual identity, then you move beyond a structure for getting work done. Suddenly you are making a prophetic statement about the way the world can work at its best. To the degree that the co-pastorate aided our church in making such a prophetic statement about shared power, it blessed us.
These are some of the lessons from the co-pastorate that accelerated the rate of my wisdom accumulation. But there is one lesson that precedes these and will go with me as I leave Pullen. That is the lesson that great growth and learning require a willingness to take great risks. I am grateful to this congregation for taking the risk and trying a pastoral model you had never experienced before. I am moved by the staff’s willingness to bless and support the co-pastorate when they had so much at stake in the arrangement. Most of all, I am honored that eight years ago Nancy Petty took the risk to join me in this adventure that had no map or guide to show us the way. Nancy, we got lost a few times; but, by the grace of God, we always made it through. I love you and will always cherish these years we shared.