In my mid-fifties, with almost 20 years in parish ministry behind me, I began to think forward to the possibilities inherent in retirement. I was eight years into my ministry as rector of a vigorous and challenging program-sized church when I began to ponder this transition. It was around this same time that I received some wise advice from a friend. At a gathering of seminary classmates the talk turned to what I call “ministry in the last years.” In the midst of the discussion, my friend leaned over to me. “Whatever you decide to do,” she said, “don’t stay where you are until you retire.” “Why not?” I asked, somewhat surprised. “You and they will simply fall into a waiting period where no growth or change happens while you patiently wait for your retirement date to arrive. That will become the focus of what’s happening, and you don’t want ministry to be about your retirement.”1
My friend knew what she was talking about. She’d been around the church quite a bit and had served as a consultant to many parishes in transition. A month later, while attending a seminar designed to help clergy assess their own ministry and plan for the future, I found myself thinking more about what she had said. I checked out her perception with some of the leaders at the seminar and it was affirmed. Yes, they said, a large congregation engaged in dynamic, mission-oriented ministry can stall in its energy and focus if it begins to wait for the pastor to retire.
That seminar was one of the best gifts in ministry that I have received from the church.2 The plan I developed there for my life and ministry was energizing and forward-looking. Interestingly enough, my participation in the seminar occurred just as the parish was undergoing a major planning effort as well. My plan called for, among other things, further education and continued discernment for future ministry. Upon my return to the parish, I continued to encourage the planning process and began thinking about what other ministry I might be called to. Retirement, for me, was five to nine years away, and I had become clear that it would not be in the best interest of the parish for me to stay that long. By the time a year had passed, I was convinced that my time at this particular parish was not far away. How far away I did not know, but I knew it was coming.
From the standpoint of most congregations, the departure of the primary pastoral leader seems sudden and disruptive. In cases where the pastor is not retiring, the preliminaries happen behind the scenes. Typically, the pastor begins looking for a new position (a process that can take a couple of years, along with much time and energy focused elsewhere) and only people who serve as references know of the pastor’s job search. This secrecy seems necessary in order to keep an effective relationship between pastor and people active. The dynamics involved here are tricky. The relationship between pastor and people works best when both are invested in ministry together. Sometimes the search process leads nowhere and the pastor stays on, renewing the relationship, and most folks have not disengaged.
When and if the pastor accepts another call, the announcement is made, resignation is accepted, and frequently, at least in the Episcopal Church, the pastor is gone within a month. The last month is, of course, filled with good-bye celebrations. The congregation is ambivalent—pleased that their pastor is going on to something exciting and new (often representing a step up in the responsibility hierarchy) but sad and perhaps angry at feeling rejected. After the pastor leaves, it takes a long interim process to sort out the feelings, work through the grief, and move on to a new future.
I began to wonder if there was another way to negotiate this kind of transition in ministry. Was it possible for a lead pastor (rector in the Episcopal polity) to plan for a healthy and positive transition that would enable both pastor and congregation to part, released into a new life? I discovered that it was indeed possible, with the help of my spouse, parish leadership, colleagues, spiritual director, and my bishop and his assistant. Together we planned and carried out a healthy and spiritually fulfilling transition.
In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Addison Wesley, 1980), William Bridges talks about the potential that is possible during important life changes, and the danger that is inherent in them:
Considering that we have to deal with endings all our lives, most of us handle them very badly. This is in part because we misunderstand them and take them either too seriously or not seriously enough. We take them too seriously by confusing them with finality—that’s it, all over, never more, finished! We see them as something without sequel, forgetting that in fact they are the first phase of the transition process and a precondition of self-renewal. At the same time we fail to take them seriously enough. Just because they scare us, we try to avoid them. 3
Bridges describes the fruits that can come from attending to transition intentionally, by focusing on ending first, then moving into what he calls “the neutral zone” of being neither here nor there, and then finally making a new beginning. Instead of carrying old baggage into a new place, we can move into new relationships renewed and, in many cases, transformed and ready for them. Although his book primarily addresses individuals, I believe it can be applied to groups as well. This kind of intentionality for both pastor and congregation is what I had in mind.
As I look back, I can see that there were crucial steps that enabled it all to happen well.
The first was discernment. I believe this was the most important part of the whole process. The sense that I had done the work I was called to do at this parish continued to grow in me. But I also firmly believe that discernment is not a one-person process, instead belonging to the community as a whole. In my ideal world I would have called together a large gathering of leaders in the community and invited them into conversation and prayer about my belief that it was time for me to move on to a new ministry (even though I didn’t yet know what that was). I couldn’t do that because the topic was too tender for many to even consider. Some were too attached to me, others not concerned enough. Discernment of this kind requires folks who carry the “big picture” of the church as a whole—its development and history—who are committed to moving forward with God’s mission yet spiritually detached about outcomes. Such folks will be able to recognize that God’s Spirit may be moving the whole community to a new place and will use that “frame” to interpret their understanding of present reality and possible future. In my case, I eventually involved two major leaders in the parish. Both had been involved in my call process to begin with, both had been involved in my ministry assessment seminar process, both had served on the vestry (governing board) twice during my tenure, and both were respected and valued members of the congregation.
Of course, I started with my husband, George. Both of us were gainfully employed. If that was going to change we needed to plan for it. Conversation and discernment with George took a few months, some of which occurred during our summer vacation. At first he was perplexed by the idea that I would want to leave such a successful ministry without knowing what ministry I was going to. We talked through all the options we were willing to consider and finally concluded that we could begin to plan for financial change. His support was the first essential piece of discernment, beyond my own sense of call. Without it I would not have moved forward.
Shortly after that conversation, I began talking with the two leaders in my parish
. It was a conversation that grew naturally out of the planning process we were involved in with the congregation, a process that invited us to think 40 years ahead, to a time when most of us would not be present. What did we think God wanted this congregation to look like then? The energy and sense of mission that flowed from that work resulted in a plan that will be reassessed and worked on each year. For me and the two leaders I was consulting with, it also raised a question: How do we plan for and carry out the transition to a new rector that is inevitable someday? Through that conversation we began to see that “someday” might be sooner rather than later. However, we left the question of timing open while I talked with my colleagues, my spiritual director, and my bishop.
In good discernment the pieces begin to flow together and a pattern emerges that shows the path to take. The conversations I had with my various colleagues and supporters eventually led to a collaborative meeting with my spouse, the two leaders from my church, and my bishop, in which we all talked about my future ministry and the parish’s ministry and mission. At that meeting we agreed upon a final date that was six months away, followed by vacation time and a three-month discernment/sabbatical time for me. Planning how to carry out that agreement is what came next.
Planning the Process
A small colleague group made up of clergy who were rectors of similar-sized congregations offered crucial advice for my planning process. During our years of monthly meetings we had discovered that the dynamics of our congregations were similar and that we all had faced similar issues in different guises. As we discussed my forthcoming transition, my colleagues all brought wisdom to the table. They were invaluable in helping me plan how and when to tell the congregation I was leaving as well as what to do afterward to assure a healthy transition.
Based on my colleagues’ advice, the church leaders and I wrote out a definite plan for my transition, which we then carefully followed. My announcement would officially take place at our annual meeting. A few days prior to that I would meet with the vestry and ask them to accept my resignation approximately four months later, one month after my 10th anniversary with the parish. On that same day I would meet with the staff. The next day a letter from me would go to the whole congregation letting them know I was going to “officially” announce my resignation. The following weekend, the vestry would go on retreat and plan its work for the year, which would necessarily include the beginning of a new call process.
The rest of the plan was more open. How people responded was key to what would happen next. Some of my colleagues wondered how I would be able to continue to be present and engaged when there was to be such a long period before my actual departure. In the end, this was perhaps the biggest challenge and gift. I learned how to hold the tension between wanting to just “get it over with” (for good-byes are painful) and staying present to the process that I had initiated and in which all of us were now engaged.
What emerged was that I became more of a coach to the leadership than part of the leadership. This gave me the opportunity to see how much I had accomplished in nurturing the parish into affirming and assuming its mission to know and love Christ and to serve others. Additionally, we were held by the liturgical year as we moved through Lent, Holy Week, and the Easter season together. These provided important theological groundings for the work of forgiveness, honoring the past, letting go, and affirming the new life God was giving all of us.
Calling an Interim Pastor
Part of our plan involved calling an interim pastor while I was still present. I was to be involved but not make the decision about who that would be. There was to be some overlap time so that the interim could get a sense of what had been going on and be oriented and ready to be a part of the leadership of the parish. This ran contrary to the common practice in the Episcopal Church, in which there is no contact or overlap between the departing rector and the interim. Initially I had no idea about how all of this would work, but the lay leadership wanted to do it this way and I trusted their wisdom.
The process we followed worked well. About one month after the announcement, our bishop’s assistant provided two members of the vestry with the names of people who seemed to be well-qualified and were interested in the position. The two vestry members conducted phone interviews and determined who should be interviewed in person. I attended the personal interviews, primarily as an observer but also as someone who could answer questions the vestry members might not be able to address. At the conclusion of the interviews, the two members consulted with me, sharing their own thoughts and ideas. Based on our conversation, in which I was careful not to sway them one way or another, they took two people to a special vestry meeting for interviews. I was not present for this interview. The vestry then prayed about it and came to a decision at their regularly scheduled meeting five days later. Some members had missed the interviews, so those present shared their impressions. Again I served as a coach, helping them articulate the strengths of each of the candidates and what their likely effect would be. I affirmed the person that they discerned should be their interim rector. She overlapped with me for two weeks—just the right amount of time to move in, get oriented, meet the staff, and begin to understand how the parish had been functioning.
I found the amount of time that I had to say good-bye to individuals and groups was enormously helpful. Over the four months, numerous individuals met with me over meals or tea or simple visits in my office to honor what we had shared together. Like most clergy, in 10 years I had presided and preached over numerous Sunday and Holy Day services, baptized the children of folks I had married, and buried their parents, or siblings, or even their children. It takes time to honor those relationships in meaningful ways. Various groups—both committees and classes—also became important as we looked to the past and anticipated the future. Having the time to personally explain to people my discernment was not only helpful but, I believe, allowed people to affirm my decision without feeling I had abandoned them. It also gave the staff time to adjust and begin to imagine a parish without my presence.
Roy Oswald’s Running through the Thistles: Terminating a Ministerial Relationship with a Parish (Alban Institute, 1978) was an invaluable resource in anticipating and planning for the necessary good-byes. As Oswald suggests, I made sure to contact those who had had difficulty with my tenure and assure them of my blessing. Most were not interested in face-to-face honest conversations, but a few folks were. We were able to admit our faults and ask for forgiveness in a healthy way. A couple of smaller gatherings were planned by folks who had been in leadership. These were wonderful ways to recall and celebrate and laugh about the good and difficult times.
The final celebration was held on my last Sunday, in which I presided and preached and the interim rector was present and visible up front. We adapted a liturgical honoring of parting that mirrored the celebration of new ministry 10 years before. Symbols and gifts were exchanged. My family was honored and thanked for their ministry. At the end of the service the interim rector called all the people forward to lay hands on me in a final blessing and sending forth, and the bishop’s representative gave her blessing on the whole congregation. We gathered for lunch and more frivolity afterward. It was a good celebration, with tears and laughter and a sense of accomplishment and fulfil
lment by all present.
There is no question that the final liturgy was essential for me in letting go of this congregation. I feel enormously blessed by God and truly privileged to have served this particular congregation of Christ’s faithful people. We engaged in a good ministry of transformation together. The transition process as a whole enabled me to get a sense of all that we had accomplished together (people really start talking when you’re getting ready to leave!), and to feel that the parish was in good hands, with strong leadership and a hope-filled future.
In addition, especially because I was not moving on to another location, I had planned an extensive trip to Europe and then was away for much of the summer. Removing myself from the church and the local setting provided just the space I needed to continue the process of letting go and, I believe, for the congregation to do so as well. Of course, this congregation and many of its people will always have a special place in my heart, but I have been able to let go of that ongoing feeling of responsibility and oversight.
The Neutral Zone
At this writing I am now living in what Bridges calls the “neutral zone.”4 I am using this sabbatical time to read, reflect, write, and integrate much of what I have learned in the past 10 years and more. From what I can tell from a distance, the congregation is in that same phase, as they are shepherded by a capable interim rector, forming a call committee, and engaging the congregation in reflection about past, present, and future.
The neutral zone is a strange place. I’ve been used to having a role and title in the church. Now, when I worship with the congregation that will be my “resting place” for a while, folks hardly know how to refer to what I’m doing. Most seem to say or think I retired. At first I tried to disabuse them of that notion, but lately I’ve just decided to let it be. I’m doing my work: reflecting, listening deeply, and attending to the movement of the Holy Spirit. When the “new beginning” comes along, I’ll be ready! I think my former parish will be, too, and I’m excited for what lies ahead for them and their new rector. We did good ministry together and we have honored that with a good-bye that truly is “God be with you.”
NOTES 1. Special thanks to Anne Franklin of Episcopal Divinity School for her wisdom.
2. Since the late 1990s, the Episcopal Church has offered its clergy the Clergy Reflection Education and Development Opportunity, an overall assessment and planning seminar better known as CREDO. The seminar involves a 360-degree view by selected people involved in the person’s ministry, as well as health, spiritual, and financial assessment. Participation in this intensive seminar produces a comprehensive ministry plan that is intended to guide future actions.
3. William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1980), 90.
4. Bridges, Transitions, 112.
Questions for Reflection
- As you reflect on previous pastoral or personal life transitions, what has helped you develop a new sense of life and ministry as you have moved into the next stage? What has kept that from happening?
- How would you plan a transition out of your current congregation? What would need to be in place or accomplished before you did that?
For Leadership Groups:
- Has your congregation ever planned for a pastoral transition? If so, what went well and what would you do differently? If not, what might that look like?
- Can you have this conversation with your pastor without making it seem like you want him/her to leave? Why or why not?
- What needs to change in order for you, as a group, to engage in discernment about ongoing ordained and lay leadership of your congregation?