United Methodist pastors and their congregations know the drill all too well.
Every few years, a pastor may be moved from one charge to another. The month of June is filled with trucks being packed and goodbyes said, while open arms wait at that pastor’s next destination.
That is, until 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed that routine for the hundreds of pastors moving from one church to another in the Great Plains Conference.
For the Rev. Susan Murithi, the move from Mentor and Gypsum, Kansas, to St. Paul, Nebraska, had to begin virtually. She was introduced to St. Paul’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee and congregation online.
“There is something about meeting people that gives you a ‘feel’ of who they are and what the community is about when you drive there and get to interact to them and talk with them,” said Murithi, who has an estimated 12 moves so far in her pastoral career. This is her second in the United States.
One regret was not being able to see her new parsonage in a timely manner until a short time before her move.
Murithi’s congregations gave her two different goodbye services. One was in the church fellowship hall, with social distancing and masks in place. The other was in the city park with an ice cream social and members of the congregation bringing their own lawn chairs while keeping distance from each other.
“That was really, really difficult to arrange for, because we wanted to be mindful of the restrictions that the CDC and the county health department has put on,” said Murithi, who is moving with her husband and children, ages 15 and 10.
She said saying goodbye didn’t have as much of an impact as she was hoping, but she understood the situation in a pandemic landscape.
“You want to give them a great big squeeze of a hug, but you can’t do that,” Murithi said. “But it’s what it is, so we just ride with it.”
The Rev. Michael Tomson-DeGreeff is making the fourth move of his ministry career, from Wamego to Hutchinson Trinity UMC.
He said he missed the traditional congregation-wide farewell party that would have taken place.
“It was kind of surreal,” he said. “There was always this sense of ‘Is this really happening?’ It just felt so different from the rest of the moves. The logistical stuff was the same — packing the house, calling the movers, that kind of stuff — but I think the emotional closure and the farewell was the missing piece.”
Tomson-DeGreeff did get to meet individually with a few members of his congregation and staff, but “there was really that sense that the congregation as a whole didn’t get to say goodbye.”
In his final livestreaming sermon at Wamego, Tomson-DeGreeff talked about saying goodbye and performed a farewell ritual with his wife and four sons.
The family was given a quilt and a card shower by the congregation.
“It was touching. It was wonderful,” he said. “But I know there was a sense overall that most people did not get the chance to personally interact with me and my family, so that was different.”
He has been promised that when conditions improve — “God only knows when that’ll be,” he added — a belated reception will be scheduled in Wamego.
But he’s taking it in stride.
“As I look at all of the struggles going on around me, I think that while the closure may not be what I wanted it to be, I have so many blessings, and I have so many wonderful memories,” he said. “I left a wonderful church, and I’m going to a wonderful church. So it’s all good.”
The church is compiling a set of goodbye videos for him.
“I felt very appreciated and very loved,” he said.
The Rev. Bonnie McCord, going from Chadron to Guide Rock and Red Cloud, all in Nebraska, said the church she was leaving after four years conducted a drive-by farewell for her.
“The church tried to make it as nice as possible, and it was nice to have the parade of cars honking and the parting gifts, the hugs and maybe some tears,” she said. “It was not as intimate as previous moves have been.”
McCord said she felt fortunate that she got to meet her new churches’ SPRCs two days before Nebraska shut down public gatherings.
“I got into the narrow window in the process where I was able to go and meet them and not have any real concerns,” she said.
Her successor in Chadron was not as fortunate, she added.
“For him, it probably was very different than before,” McCord said.
McCord is succeeding a pastor who is retiring from ministry, and she is saddened that he did not get a proper farewell from the church or the Great Plains Conference because the annual conference session was conducted via teleconference.
She is trying to think of “creative ways of getting to know the congregation,” she said, while her predecessor conducted his final service June 28.
“I’ve been trying to keep a pretty low profile,” she said.
For one clergy couple, new appointments mean making one of the longest geographic moves this year within the Great Plains Conference.
The Rev. Bequi Flores, who becomes a provisional elder July 1, and her husband, Joey Flores, are moving from Wichita to western Nebraska.
She is going from Woodland UMC to Wallace-Maywood, while he has left Dawson UMC, which closed in June, for Elsie-Madrid.
“There are a lot more unknowns, a lot of things to think about in a different way,” Bequi said about her second move as a pastor.
“The process is the same — you have to get from one place to the other and prepare to say goodbye to one community of faith and begin to embrace another one — but there are so many unknowns,” she added. “That’s the biggest stressor.”
The events of 2020 have made the move more difficult, she said.
“I’m not too familiar with where I’m going to begin with, and with the pandemic that’s another layer of questioning and things to figure out,” Bequi said.
Both she and her husband, she said, have benefitted from lengthy conversations and advice from their predecessors.
“Somebody is helping me in the process as I’m stepping in,” she said.
Joey Flores’ church reopened for in-person worship June 7, said, only to have its final service on June 14.
“They didn’t have adequate closure like they would want to,” she said.
For Bequi, the goodbye included a lemonade stand in the church’s courtyard, where about 40 people came by to say farewell.
“That was good for me and good for the church also,” she said. “But it’s not like I’m sure they would have liked. It was hard for me, but I think it was harder for the church, especially people I wanted to see before I leave.”
The couple, who will live in Wallace, were also eager to find out the school system for their daughter, who is to enter kindergarten this fall.
The uncertainty of schools in a few months was also weighing on them, she said.
Bequi, the granddaughter and niece of United Methodist pastors, said her daughter is already acclimated to the denomination’s transient nature for its pastors.
“Every day (this spring), she says, ‘Is Bishop Saenz going to tell us where we’re going?’,” Bequi said with a laugh.
Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.