Pastors say good-bye to congregations. Sometimes our good-byes are timely and sweet; sometimes they are jarring and painful. But as we hear the click of the front door of God’s house and stand on the sidewalk, we face a unique journey of grief.
In our ministries, we brushed up against holiness; so do we now, in our good-byes. Now we must pull apart the strands of self and role, individual and community. Now we must confront regrets, confusion, and dislocation. Now we must figure out where and who God is at this juncture in our lives.
But before we step out, God invites us in—into Word and Sacrament, into relationships, into our offices, and into our emotions about leaving. Within all these areas we look for answers to the big question we suddenly face: What makes a good good-bye?
As we leave our congregations, we have to discern how to wrap up our era of ministry. We need to figure out how to get out the door without regrets about not having acknowledged the good-bye or not paving the way for the next pastors. Each pastor will define his or her own good good-bye. But as unique as each of our good good-byes may be, we share much in common as pastors at this moment. All of us, in our leave takings, will face spiritual themes of fulfillment, surrender, community, legacy, and separation. We can face them together.
“Each goodbye is a rehearsal for death,” mourned Tristram Shandy in Laurence Sterne’s famous eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman. No wonder all of us pastors are nervous about our good-byes. Our robes and stoles can make our good-bye look like a dress rehearsal for death. We’d sooner not read from this script.
Professional actors learn that they must speak one at a time and take care not to step on one another’s lines. But at the rehearsal for death entitled “Good-bye to a Pastor,” we can easily become so anxious that we overlap the lines of others, rendering us unable to hear them or ourselves.
Someday, back at home after our congregational good-bye, we will be able to perform our own separation and grief soliloquy. But during the weeks and months of pulling apart at church, a whole cast of characters competes to express their sadness, fear, confusion, anger, and relief. Old assumptions raise the anxiety level. What’s going on?
- Some parishioners assume that pastors are God’s representatives. When we say we’re leaving, these folks may feel disbelief and denial. God is not supposed to change!
- Some parishioners fear that a church’s entire mission will depart with their pastor. When a congregation “loses” a pastor who helped to enact a vibrant ministry, the grief can be pointed. Who will they be without this leader who loved and led them?
Most congregation members hope that their pastors will be human enough to know how to talk to them about real-life issues, yet godly enough to somehow rise above this world. When pastors say good-bye, we pull back the curtain a little on our interior selves. We reveal that we’re very human people with feelings about particular places and ministries.
It’s always hard to keep the “I’m just like everyone else” and “I’m set apart for a specific task” aspects of ourselves sorted out. The separation process makes the issue even more pointed. We face a dual challenge as we say good-bye—being both a pastor to our congregation and a friend to ourselves.
Ordination language proclaimed us to be set apart as the spiritual leader of a congregation. A congregation called us to lead them through this experience of our departure, just as they called us to shepherd them through other stages in the life of the parish, such as a building project or redevelopment. Leading can be very tricky in this time of change. It’s not easy to avoid slogging around in the muck of everyone else’s separation anxiety!
As we get ready to go, we’re just as prone to be sad, anxious, and scared as our congregation is. So while we’re leading them, we’re also figuring out how to take care of ourselves and our own separation anxiety. We also need a pastor to take care of our needs. It’s tempting to make our parishioners our sounding board for all our emotions—especially because they are so available—but that is unfair and confusing to the people we lead. Our congregation is not our pastor.
We need someone to support us from outside the congregation. Leaving sparks many reactions for us, from joy to distress. We need to find someone with whom we can be open and honest so that our feelings about departure don’t bleed all over the people whom we are called to serve. We need someone who has the distance, the perspective on our leaving, to remind us that even a dress rehearsal for death is not death itself. We are not dying; we are leaving. We need someone who is close enough, safe enough, brave enough to walk with us in our intense grieving. We feel an extra-large wallop of despair about losing our job, our congregation, and our colleagues all in one fell swoop, as well as relief, closure, and gratitude for the mission we accomplished together. We need someone, because we can’t simultaneously be the chaplain for others’ grief and the healer of our own grief. Someone from outside the congregation can help keep us from inadvertently confusing our issues with parishioners’ issues. We ultimately want to be there for parishioners but be somewhere else for ourselves.
Yes, each good-bye is a rehearsal for death. We feel your good-bye pain, Tristam Shandy. Saying good-bye to a congregation may be excruciating work. But here’s some news for you, Tristam, news that God taught us. Death comes whether or not we rehearse for it, and every death is a rehearsal for life. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5).
This article is adapted and excerpted from The Graceful Exit: A Pastor’s Journey from Goodbye to Hello by Mary C. Lindberg, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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The Graceful Exit: One Pastor’s Journey from Good-bye to Hello
by Mary C. Lindberg
Pastors say goodbye to congregations. Sometimes their goodbyes are timely and sweet; sometimes they are jarring and painful. But as they leave, they face a unique journey of grief, one shaped by their role. They face both the outward grief of leaving people behind and the inward grief of leaving an identity behind. In The Graceful Exit , Lutheran pastor Mary Lindberg shares insights from her experience of ending her service to a congregation, as well as wisdom from other pastors who have changed their life work. .
The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry
by Malcolm L. Warford
The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry tells the stories of eight men and women from their days as students at Union Theological Seminary in New York through their work today as pastors in local congregations over thirty years later. This book is a distinctive resource for ministers, congregational leaders, and those in theological education whose role it is to prepare women and men for their sojourns into ordained ministry. .
A Time for a Change? Re-Visioning Your Call
by James E. Hightower Jr., W. Craig Gillia
Many professional ministers struggle at some point with the desire to pursue another career. Jim Hightower and Craig Gilliam have written this book for those at such a crossroads. Together they pose questions for clergy to consider in exploring their future, offer practical suggestions gathered from other ministers who have traveled this path, and share insights from their own experiences of career change.
Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Power of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend, Jr.
This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation.
Think Spring! Enroll now in one of these two Alban spring learning events.
Vision and Skills for a Long Pastorate
Skills and behaviors that lead to a long, effective relationship with a congregation.
April 9-11, 2013 | Simpsonwood Conference Center, Atlanta, GA
Leader: Ed White, Alban Consultant and author
Strategic Planning in Congregations
Skills and processes for charting an effective and vital course in your congregation.
April 16-18, 2013 | Doubletree Airport hotel, Cincinnati, OH
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban senior consultant and author