Leaving Well is a gift to the congregation and to the spiritual leader. Giving this gift both to the congregation and to myself, guided me as I navigated three years of intentional preparation for retirement. My departure has been one of the most satisfying seasons of my ministry.
Leaving a congregation well is an act of spiritual leadership. As the leader, I had the opportunity to shape the emotional, organizational, and spiritual process for the congregation. I could frame theologically the meaning of saying good-bye, the gratitude for ministry shared, and the promise of ministry for the future. By leaving well, I had the opportunity to create a bridge to the future for the congregation and for me.
Certainly clergy had departed this congregation before. There was a history of hasty departures; some initiated by the clergy and some initiated by the congregation. The congregation had never experienced clergy departure as an intentional process. For over 60 years, they had never been guided through the experience that spiritual relationships change during the leaving process. In varying degrees of sadness to acceptance to confusion to anger, members had limited practice differentiating between emotional cut off and redefining the relationship.
The intentional spiritual process spanned three years. The first year, I prayed. I weighed the losses of role, responsibility, decision-making, and shaping the life of the congregation. I weighed the gains of time to pursue long -delayed projects, time with family, and a different rhythm of life. I discussed the pros and cons only with my husband and one close spiritual friend.
In the second year I internally tested my decision as well as externally listened for the needs of the congregation. Only when I discernment that I was listening to the presence of the Holy Spirit both in my life and the congregation’s, then did I set goals for my ministry of leaving well.
For the third year, the focus of my spiritual leadership would be to put the congregation in the strongest possible position to attract strong candidates as the next rector. Two projects emerged: First, a capital campaign to address the long-standing physical needs of our 14 acre campus; and second, the continuation of building a strong and informed governance structure for both in the parish day school and the parish.
The church’s governing board engaged a well-regarded capital campaign firm. We raised almost half of our goal. However, it was enough to start a fund to address the most pressing needs. Promises for giving in the future were also secured. As importantly the process raised unresolved issues from a capital campaign of fifteen years ago that the congregation could now begin to discuss
For the strong, informed governance structures, the approach for the school’s Board of Trustees and the Vestry took different directions. By expanding the school’s Board of Trustees to include more alumni parents, the Trustees gained a wider view of how governance guides the mission of the institution.
For the church’s governing board, the first step was identifying the future needs of the congregation and the second step was honoring our history. To encourage the congregation’s leaders to look three years into the future, I included in my monthly report information about our congregation as an organization. One month I shared current compensation norms for lay professionals and clergy in comparison to the congregation’s compensation structure. Another month focused on the jobs of the office staff. Another was a presentation about the healthy relationships between a church’s governing board and a school’s board. The budget draft included three scenarios: current resources, resources needed to address compensation needs, and resources to address compensation, staffing, and physical plant needs.
To honor our history, I and others retold the story of many of the leaders, benefactors and memorial gifts given throughout the congregation’s history. A team prepared a forum on the congregation in the 1850’s to 60’s, including listing church board members who were slave owners. We then looked at the change of our context when the suburban area around us expanded in the 1980’s. One board meeting I shared Christmas and Easter bulletins from the 1960s to the 1990s. Lay leaders claimed their current leadership as part of a larger whole.
Throughout this time of addressing the congregations needs, I intentionally did not share my decision to retire recognizing that embedded in the congregation’s history was a pattern of conflict during clergy transitions.
In September, entering year three of my process of leaving well, I told two key lay leaders and two members of the clergy team that I would retire the following spring. My top priority during this phase of the transition was that both the congregation and the school maintain their momentum. My second priority was that the congregation experience leadership change as a spiritual unfolding of grief and gratitude.
Our team began the process of planning for the transition. Three phases of transition were worked out in advance so that the congregation could be clear about each stage and focus on the purpose of each stage. First, the initial planning before the January announcement; second, the three and a half months of saying thank you and goodbye; and third, the farewell on Sunday May 1. The subsequent May annual meeting would reset the transition process towards the search process.
In the initial planning stage from September through December, our team to defined roles for clergy and lay staff, discussed interim clergy, and the relationships beyond the church. The retired Bishop, who at the time was serving part-time on the clergy staff, offered to serve as interim. He knew the congregation. They trusted his judgment. His relationships among staff and ministries were strong. And, he and I shared the view that clarity in leadership is good pastoral care for the congregation.
To keep the momentum moving we implemented the most needed capital campaign projects, updated the parish picture directory, launched a ministry for mental health awareness, initiated a staff and lay pastoral care coordinator, transitioned lay leadership for the Pastoral Care Commission, hired a new associate rector, planned for the final term of our clergy resident, as well as kept all the ministries moving forward. We built the bridge for the clergy and lay leaders to work together with confidence through the entire transition.
When the announcement was made in January board meeting, the overall reaction was surprise. As I tried to keep my composure I explained that after 30 years of parish ministry the time had come for me to spend more time with my husband and live life in a different key. I commented that I looked forward to sitting in church with my spouse, an experience we had never had in our marriage. On the way out of the meeting one member with a wide grin quietly commented to me, “You know, I’ve been sitting in church for a long time with my wife. It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be.” Naturally some church board members wanted to know when the search process would begin. The lay leaders of the planning team clearly stated our three stages. That church board meeting launched the second stage, “thank-you and good-bye.”
The strong collegial relationship between the retired bishop and me provided clarity, comfort, and confidence. He and I are both students of Family Systems theory. We employed our shared knowledge to reassure and to lead. As a leadership team, we were not going to jump into “fix it and search mode.” It was time to appreciate our ministry together. The announcement letter was mailed the day before a blizzard. However, by Sunday, most of the congregation had received the news.
Even with all the intentional bridge building, spiritual preparation, and leadership clarity, saying good-bye was hard to do. I was surprised by how many people assumed I would move from the altar and pulpit to a pew in the church. “After all,” many said, “my friends were there, why could I not continue to worship there?” I offered a story from the work life of sales and another from the perspective of a teacher. As a sales person, if the recently retired person who covered your new territory wanted to go on all your sales calls with you, how would that work? If the recently retired teacher wanted to sit in the back of the classroom while the new teacher led the class, how much learning would take place? With those mental pictures, most people opened up to why and how clergy not only leave the congregation but leave well.
Many times over the following weeks, I wholeheartedly said that I would miss them and the worship of the parish. I was clear with the interim, clergy, and lay staff, as well as the congregation’s leadership, that I would refer all the inevitable requests for weddings, funerals, and baptisms back to the interim. I was also clear that I would return for a special, public adult formation event that was already announced, that I would attend as a worshiper the funerals of parish members I knew well so that I could give thanks for their lives, and that I would remain on the parish Prayer Chain so that I could be part of that public and on-going ministry of the parish. Since I would continue living in the local community, I was building the bridge to future relationships that were different from my ministry as senior pastor.
The season of good-bye and thank you was emotional. We all expected our own roller coasters but knew we could not predict exactly how we would ride the waves. We anticipated the anxiety, sadness, anger, and celebration while also knowing that, as the internal planning team and as individuals, we would have to be aware of the impact on us. It was a time of both teaching and of grieving for me.
The teaching took the form of the large and small group gatherings as well as many individual meetings. Three informal receptions for the congregation were planned so that particular groups and worshiping congregations could attend. I met over forty members for individual coffees, lunches, and to thank them for their ministry. For some, I thanked them for a particular ministry and shared how much I hoped they continued serving. For others, I had presided at a wedding or funeral and I wanted one on one time with them because the time we had shared together was sacred. By saying good-bye and thank you, I was building one bridge for me into my future ministry and one bridge for their future relationship with the next rector.
I grieved as I said goodbye to the many people for whom I cared deeply. I gave thanks for our connections. I loved seeing them in church and loved the conversation we shared. I appreciated their support and their prayers. I told them how special it was to be part of their family’s wedding, or funeral, or transition. Although it made me sad, I respected the choice of the people for whom it was too hard or too uncomfortable to say good-bye. They avoided the topic. Others cancelled our planned get together at the last minute promising to call and reschedule. Then, there were some people who were challengers to my leadership the entire time I was the rector. Those were the people who showed emotional cut off, being physically present but emotionally indifferent or hostile. As the final Sunday drew closer, there were pronounced actions of refusing to greet me, turning away as I welcomed them into worship, and in one case an angry explosion as the procession was forming to go into worship. While I understood their actions, it still hurt. That is part of the process of saying goodbye too.
Since I am remaining in the community, many people said, “Oh, I’ll see you in the supermarket.” And, I might. I also might not. What I do know is that whenever I see them next, the relationship will be different. I reassured people that if we do run into one another I will be glad to see them. I’ll want to know about their families. Some asked, “Am I allowed to talk to you?” “Yes!” I replied. I spoke openly about my retirement not being an emotional cut off, but that they would be moving into new ministry and new relationships. It would be a delicate balance. If I run into a member in the hardware store and the happy announcement of an upcoming family wedding has just been made I will rejoice with them. If it comes up about who will do the ceremony, then it will be my responsibility to guide the member to the current clergy.
Leaving well is a practice of spiritual leadership to build a bridge to the future both for the congregation, the departing clergy leader, and the incoming clergy leader. The effect of intentional transition will only be fully experienced when the new leader arrives. My prayer is that by leaving well and building a bridge to the future, the parish is able to feel safe when the large transition inevitably happens. It will be time to form new relationships for new ministry, and, to form a new chapter in the congregation’s history.
The Rev. Dr. Carol Pinkham Oak is the founder of The Network for Spiritual Leaders where you can read her blog.