by Dan Hotchkiss

Q: I’m the spiritual formation intern at a medium-sized Episcopal church whose rector is about to retire. Do you have recommendations for what I can do to support the congregation as the rector prepares to leave? Most of the resources I know about seem to focus more on the practical and business aspects of this critical time rather than on what it means about relationship to God and each other.

A: Clergy help us to know the love and faithfulness of God. Through words and actions and the conduct of their lives, they teach us to trust (or sometimes, sadly, not to trust) God’s promises. Everything about our spiritual lives depends on whether we develop basic, fundamentally nonrational trust. Spiritual maturity is not belief that all will go well, but faith that, when things go badly, we can count on the companionship of God and that which is of God in others.

Representing God is perilous work, in part because people are so prone to confuse the representative with what he or she represents. Healthy clergy gently shrug off excessive praise or admiration and remind people that clergy, too, are human beings striving to be good, not gods accountable for being perfect.

Despite such efforts, the minister gets more than one person’s share of praise and blame, especially when the ministry is long in one place. Some say, “Our church is wonderful because of our wonderful rector.” Others say, “If only we could find a different rector, this could be a better church.” Both statements may have truth in them, but both assign too much responsibility to clergy and too little to the congregation and its members.

When a clergyperson retires or resigns, especially after a long, eventful, or conflicted ministry, members of the congregation face a spiritual challenge. As their coach and guide, you might encourage them to ask, “What part of my experience of the Holy depends on this representative of God who’s leaving? What part of my anger and disappointment belong to the departing rector, and what part reflects my own unfinished business with my God?”

Many people have unfinished business about separation. Part of growing up is learning, one by one, that people we depend on have lives of their own and things they must do—or that they’d rather do—than meet our needs. Those of us with siblings learn this early; we all eventually learn it from our parents. Friends, lovers, spouses—at first all seem to live to fill our empty places, but all of them disappoint us, some betray us, and we are parted, soon or late, from all by death. For a few members of your congregation, the rector’s retirement will feel as though a parent said, “Goodbye, I’m off to Florida. I’m sure you’ll find another parent you’ll like just as well.”

The retirement of a rector is a chance to practice healthy separation. By telling the congregation early, your colleague has given the members of the congregation time to part with him deliberately. There will be public opportunities to express gratitude. You can provide also private settings where people can express fear, disappointment, loss, and anger.

By helping people move beyond their infantile reactions you will help them to be ready for a more mature relation to the new rector. This is not your work alone. In every congregation there are older people who have seen ministers come and go and have learned to accept with gratitude the gifts of each. Lift up these saints and let their generous, forgiving spirits shape the space your congregation’s heart makes for its new leader.

Rev. Dan Hotchkiss is a Unitarian Universalist minister and an Alban Institute senior consultant who speaks, writes, and consults widely on clergy transition, conflict management, fundraising, and financial and strategic planning. He is also the author of Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends (Alban Institute, 2002).

Congregations, 2004-07-01
Summer 2004, Number 3

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