That link you see will take you to an enewsletter, I just sent out to the congregation of St. Andrew Lutheran Church. It's one of many in a series of communications with the people of the congregation I am currently serving. This one attempts to address two things at the same time. First, I'm trying to help all of us come to terms with an ending. This departure has been a bit sudden and unexpected, so I find myself continually needing to remind everyone what is reality. This includes myself. The second purpose is to begin to layout some boundaries as I begin a new call, and the congregation begins a new time in its life.
We have all heard horror stories of Pastors who stay in the congregations they serve, meddle around, or allow family members to do so. This is wrong, wounding to the congregation, usually reflects unresolved factors in the ministers family of origin, and is just plain stupid. Now that I've got the chastisement out of my system, let's look at the advantages of leaving well.
Roy Oswald wrote a little monograph years ago for the Alban Institute, I think it was called, Running through the Thistles. A good resource for its time, and still offers helpful perspectives on how to leave a congregation. Ed Friedman took the topic to a whole new level in his book Generation to Generation. Elizabeth Kubler Ross did great work on the grief process in death and dying. So my thoughts on this subject are influenced by these writings, as well as 53 years of saying goodbye.
Saying good bye is our last great gift to a place, a people, indeed a planet. It's true in geographical moves, pastoral call changes, and in death and dying. I recently buried a 58 year old man in our congregation. His last month in the hospital was the greatest month of his life. He said goodbye to all of us in such a way that was healthy and helpful. Indeed, how we die may be our last greatest gift to our family and friends. In a similar way, how we leave a congregation may be our last great act of ministry -for them as well as for ourselves. Here is what I'm trying to do:
1. The least important but still necessary tasks is to wrap up a few loose ends. These are essential but at a certain point you begin to realize that you are avoiding the bigger issues. I had one major piece of work to do before leaving, and that was to file an application to the State of RI for a new non-profit we are starting. The federal forms will be another persons job, but I said I would do this one back in June before the assembly. I did that yesterday. We tend to think that all the tasks are ever so important. One Pastor told me he spent the month of August writing a whole new Sunday School curriculum for the church before he left. The congregation never used it. And he realized, he was avoiding the more important issue.
2. The real task is the emotional process of leaving. How do I balance my own needs to say goodbye well, and the needs of the congregational members? How do I spend my limited amount of time with people in the church - I can't visit everyone at home in a 700 member congregation? How do I make clear what are the expectations going forward? These are the more important questions. Rather than come up with a rigid plan, I'm choosing to allowing a certain flow, responding to invitations for coffee or lunch, setting up one last meeting of the Bible Study group, stopping to chat at the grocery store when I run into people. The key is how I engage. Having said that I'll be more fluid, I'm coming back to this point in my edit to note that, I did infact set up three formal meetings in the week after I was elected Bishop. Anyone could come, and ask any question that they wished.
3. Am I monitoring my own anxiety? A couple people have expressed their own anxiety to me, which is natural, but how am I responding. I've tried to be open and honest. Are you glad to be leaving us? I'm entering this with mixed emotions, excitement for the next step in my life, but also deep loss at saying goodbye to St. Andrew. That's an honest answer cause it's true. There have been times when I've been tempted to rescue people from their own emotions. A few times, I've not responded in the best way. I'm working on this as best I can.
4. I know there is a fourth and a fifth, but I've run out of time this morning, as I'm off to Beach Camp with 23 middle schoolers. Somehow that's a part of this leaving well, going places, doing things with people, just being there.
I'll let you know what else I learn.