The Other Goodbye: A Pastor’s Lament

I see lots of articles and blog posts written by pastors to “the Church” about their relationships with their pastors. I sometimes agree with them, sometimes don’t, and something think they hit the nail on the head. But I rarely, if ever, share them. And though I would love to write a whole slew of my own, I don’t do that either. It’s almost impossible to do that as an actively serving parish clergy member without coming off passive aggressive toward your own congregation. So, some day… 😉

This particular blog post is going to break that rule for three reasons. It’s mostly positive, so absolutely my current congregation may, and should, read it about them. I won’t veil it but give you the exact links to why I write it now (so there is nothing passive about it). And… well. I wanna. So there!, rules (of my own creation), I bite my thumb at you.

It’s fairly common for congregations (particularly in this day of social networking and instantaneous communication) to go through a public lament when a pastor leaves. (It can also be common for them to celebrate but that’s another blog post.) I have seen bafflement, hurt, anger, and a palpable sense of betrayal. We have strong bonds with our pastors. We let them behind walls we don’t let other people. We go to them for guidance. We entrust much to them, which means we appreciate the gifts of good pastors in our life. I can still remember key sermons and children sermons all the way back to my early elementary years. Pastors really can make profound impacts in our lives (like teachers, a great mentor, or a really close neighbor – howdy Mr. Wilson). So when they leave, often with little sense that such a thing is even coming, it feels confusing. When they cut a cord of long shared memories and experiences in order to make way for them to join a new community and for you to welcome a new pastor, it can feel like a personal affront.

It is hard. And it hurts. And all that pain is real and spoken.  Done well – we have coping processes in such transitions for the communal expression of it through transitional staff and upper counsels of the church helping to guide us with steadfast leadership through the wake of that grief.

It should be said that for many pastors those very transitions are just as hard. It may not seem that way on the outside as we are excited about a new community we are headed to, or the opportunity God has connected us to outside ministry altogether. But leaving those tight bonds is no easier on the pastor. This pain is often masked because they have easier to see green grass on the other side.   But despite being harder to diagnose in the swirl of emotions, it’s there. A death and rebirth are happening for both sides. And if you do not think its hard on pastors just look at how many struggle to truly leave behind former congregations. I still regularly use wisdom of my former congregation and talk about them way too often – and its 5 years later! Furthermore in my case (like most) while I leave one “job” to another “job” (they aren’t jobs really, and that’s my point, but for a moment just roll with it) that transition is far different for my family. When we left Palms Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida it would be easy to say that I left my former job for an exciting new job with new challenges and responsibilities. But my family also lost their church home. Our first house. The church where 3 of our children were baptized. The congregation who helped raise them. The preschool that helped teach them and mold them. The people who defined our life for 8 years. And we had to cut those ties. Transition. Its not easy. And the hurt resides on both sides.

I want to name all that because it’s the breaking of relationship we normally think about and talk about most readily. We have policies for limiting pastor contact to former churches in person, on phone, and even in social media. (Which some day I will struggle to do when I move to another call… but don’t worry this isn’t that day. That would be REALLY passive aggressive.) We have rules about coming back to perform pastoral functions. We have processes and expectations for it all that made me foresee and have wisdom for how to handle both the reactions of abandonment and hurt as well as my own sense of leaving behind a community I would forever be grateful for, and concerned about, whether I could express that, and act on that or not. But again, this blog post isn’t really about that either.

You see there is yet another loss that almost no-one talks about: when congregation members leave.

I am not talking about a beloved member who dies (though it is so often bitter sweat to preside over moments of mourning such loses when we ourselves are also mourning).

I’m not talking about members who get mad at us and go elsewhere (that would the passive-aggressive article I’m waiting to write until I retire).

I’m not talking about the members who fade away or stay only tangentially engaged while saying all positive things to you (though that’s closer to the mark… its still in that passive-aggressive area).

I’m talking about active, engaged members with whom we work, laugh, struggle, confide, hear confidence, and cry together… who for reasons of family, work, or life-stages find themselves moving away and leaving behind a church they love and the people who love them.

Nothing ever really prepared me for that in ministry. No-one warned me about that being a hard part. I see very little conversation about it. There really aren’t coping strategies and public laments and rituals we can go through to express the hurt that is felt when you lose a great co-worker in the community of God from your ministry… and you are happy for them.

I share this now for the fact that this Sunday I will say goodbye to three such members. A couple who has been here at my community for far longer than me who is moving to be closer to family in retirement, and another…. friend (? they say we cannot be friends with members… I do not know who they are and how they work a ministry.. but even Jesus called his disciples friends in the end. Friend may not be an adequate word to describe a more nuanced relationship than that, but if it was good enough for Jesus its good enough for me) who is moving for professional/relationship reasons. And in both cases, I totally think they are making the right call. I’m happy for them. But I’m not. I mean I’m not happy. I’m happy for them… but not me. I don’t like bidding adieu to friends and co-workers. And we did it last month as well, and last fall, and… well. We are always doing it. It is always happening. And I will admit I notice more now than I used to because I’m in a middle-sized congregation working hard to revitalize our ministry in God’s name and every person looms large in our half empty sanctuary. And every loss of truly engaged friends notably hurts. In much the same way as watching a pastor leaving hurts.

Ministry will go on. God provides. I have no doubts – life has taught me to laugh at the times I have expressed such doubts. Life… and Bonnie (who moved to Portland and is probably reading this and knows full well that I’m keeping a seat on session warm for her return #someday). I remember calling her my first summer after a decision of Session (governing board of the church) that I was very concerned about and I felt looming failure and concern and I called her from a park while watching my children play, “Bonnie, this is horrible. This isn’t going to work. People will leave. The church is going to die. And I just bought a house!!!” And Bonnie took a young worried pastor under her wing and said all the right things about trust, abundant life, breathing deep, worry, and resilience. And I will always be a better pastor for that moment, and a more steadfast leader for knowing Bonnie is in my life. But I, selfishly, would like her back at my church and meeting me at our favorite lunch spot to bounce ideas and hopes and concerns off of each other.

Co-workers. Friends. Confidants. Cheerleaders. Gadflies. Sparring partners…. Beloved.

And you know what, as one who always wishes the best for people (even the people who test my graciousness… but that’s another blog post… when I retire…), I am very happy for you all. I love you – who wouldn’t be happy. But I do grieve. It makes me worry. It even hurts. Because I love you. I depend on you. And I felt stronger when you were (more tangibly) on my team (God’s team… but our team).

And there is no point to this blog post except to share that because sometimes I imagine you all think we pastors just say nice things because it’s our job, our paycheck, and on account of how horrible many of us are at conflict. (Just like we know you really didn’t like last week’s sermon.) Sometimes – I admit – we do just that (because we like to please and suck at conflict… whose kidding anyone here) but more often than not, in deeply felt and often hidden ways, we really mean it. We are sad to see you leave. We hurt for losing you. We worry about who will fill your shoes and not do so with quite your style and manner and excellence. We know we will just flat out miss you, apart from the church even, as a friend and traveling partner. And we do all that with a smile, a hug, a wave, and shout out from the front of the Sanctuary (maybe that’s just me that does that?) that we are happy for you. Because we are all of that too.

Community is hard work. Love has as least as much heartache as joy. But I would not want it any other way. So I’m happy for you, good luck, and for God’s sake (really mine) make sure you find a good church on the flip side who doesn’t know how happy for them they should be that God has brought you there.

Posted on September 12, 2017, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Jonathan I Wilson

    I mean, you’re right. I’m glad it hurts a little (because it shows you’re engaged). I don’t think you hear it talked about too much because everyone experiences it. The more invested you are in a friend – or even good rival – the more you notice when they’re gone. Its good to name that loss of a congregation member is not entirely different from loss of a pastor. You do have over two hundred of us though. If and when you choose to move to a new call I’ll be happy for you. But I wont. Too.

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