Why We Can’t Be Friends Forever, or
Why It Takes a Year to Say Good Bye

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Mark D. Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 20 May 2005

As this morning’s story made clear I have lived most of my life in the embrace of religious community. I went into the ministry because I understood the power of community and wished to help grow, nurture and sustain Unitarian Universalist communities for others and for myself. Leaving Toronto First and the ministry is a huge departure and it took a long time for me to discern that this is the right move. With three months left I stand at the edge of the grief of saying farewell, fear of an uncharted future, but also the relief of not carrying the responsibility for the institution and the lives of its members. The demands of ministry are many; it is a weighty calling and even after 26 years I am trying to live up to its demands, particularly today.

Exactly five years ago I was struggling to write an essay entitled "After Running Through the Thistles the Hard Part Begins." I was to deliver it at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly. It would be the Berry Street Essay for 2000. Delivered to my colleagues it was meant to explore why, from a ministerial perspective, this leaving-taking process is so difficult. When I delivered it I knew this day would come—theoretically at least—but I had no idea when or how difficult it would be.

My essay was an elaboration on a booklet written by church consultant Roy Oswald which he entitled "Running Through the Thistles: terminating a ministerial relationship with a parish." [Roy M. Oswald, The Alban Institute, 1978]

Roy Oswald grew up in rural Saskatchewan and as every farm boy knew the quickest way home from school "was over the fields" in bare feet. He writes: "It was shorter … but occasionally we would come upon enormous thistle patches." He and his older brothers either had to walk around or find the narrowest gap and sprint across. He continues: "I can still vividly remember the experience: running full speed in bare feet across 20 feet of prickly thistles yelping in pain all the way through." At the end there were always a few thistles stuck in his feet, but the ordeal was over. Oswald uses his story to point out how many ministers manage their departure from a congregation. We deal with our farewells by waiting as long as possible then steeling ourselves and running like hell. We know it is going to hurt so we rush full tilt ahead hoping to get it over with. The quickest burst of speed I've seen was a colleague who announced his resignation on the way out the door to the UUA GA in mid-June and by the end of the summer during which that congregation didn’t meet he had packed and skedaddled leaving both the congregation and his fiancée behind.

I think some of us are using this technique to deal with Donna's and my departure because leave-taking is always difficult. At the moment we seem to be looking for the gap in the thistle bushes. How do I know? Because I know human nature. People don’t practice leave-taking, they avoid it like the plague. As one convenor confessed, "I don’t want to go there yet." The Committee on Ministry asked the Living in Spirit groups to sponsor a series of small group meetings. They were billed as "A Chance to Reflect on our Ministers’ Leaving." And asked: "Are you having difficulty dealing with our ministers’ departure? Do you wonder what your experience will be like with all the change that will follow?" As far as I know none of those sessions took place because only three people called. Sounds like a little avoidance to me. Donna was invited to a women’s dinner in part to say good-bye, but then they never got around to talking about leaving. I’ve caught myself deflecting people’s overtures. We would all like to put this off but we can’t any longer. Time is passing and a big party and a final farewell worship service at the end of June will not suffice.

You may wonder: ‘Why is Mark fretting about this?’ In an article entitled "Finishing Strong, Ending Well," Roy Oswald writes: "[R]esearch… has revealed that when a congregation does not do its closure work well it can get stuck in the past." And goes on, "We all know of congregations in decline that have not yet gotten over a pastor who left them 10 years ago." And concludes, "This is where "ending well" becomes an important part of this process. I instruct the transition committee to plan a series of events that celebrate the life and ministry of the departing pastor." That was the COM’s plan but so far we seem instead to be following Oswald’s other script: wait, wait, wait until the last minute and then run like heck through the thistles.

We have had a year to prepare, and given we also had to attend to Diane Bosman’s departure, I think we needed all this time. And I do notice that the feelings are eking out, a tear, a hug, a thanks, a memory, a query. It’s been happening slowly week after week as Donna stands in line shaking hands after the service. The Living in Spirit groups themselves actually did the leave-taking session. But we seem to prefer to say good-bye in oblique kinds of ways—dozens of quick I’ll miss you’s and thank you’s, a few written notes, one meeting, and a lunch date. It is what needs to happen, but I want you to know it is happening. I want you to note its importance and to use it as an opportunity to self-consciously practice leave-taking.

We are dealing with a death, the death of a relationship; one of life’s little deaths but nonetheless a death. When Donna and I leave at the end of June our ministry of sixteen and a half years will end—your second longest ministry. We will go to our cottage and eventually when it gets cold enough we’ll come back and find a place to live. We won’t be dropping by. We won’t accept invitations to dinner or parties. Come November we will not return in a new guise as friends you can call or have over. We will not try to navigate the tricky shoals of turning a ministerial relationship into a friendship.

We have seen too many colleagues hang on to relationships with congregation members after they left or retired. In so doing they undermine and damage the ministry of whoever followed, thereby damaging the community. Let me explain: We’ve heard of a minister who walked out in disapproval of three words a newly graduated minister said in a sermon. At that moment her ministry was over! We’ve seen a retired minister allow members of the congregation to turn to him to ask if what the new minister was proposing was okay. Donna ended up helping to negotiate her resignation. We’ve seen ministers accept invitations to officiate at memorials and weddings after they’ve left and thus undermine the successor’s ministry because it got in the way of those members building a relationship with the current minister. I did so once; it is a mistake I will not make again. We know a minister who figured out if he really wanted to know what was happening in his congregation he had better call his predecessor. His was another short ministry.

You may not have consciously realized it but we have been practicing being ministers and congregants for over 16 years. After so much practice these are not easy roles to drop. Why can’t we be friends you wonder? It doesn’t work that way. Trying to turn the relationship of minister to congregant into a friendship does not serve the community well. What needs to happen for the good of the community is that your energies go into one another and into the new minister. It will take time to build that relationship and it simply isn’t fair to the new minister to be lurking around in the background with a 16 year old relationship. Our 16 years of shared history, of trust, of affection would get in the way. It would divert your attention, and besides old expectations don’t just go away because you want them to. Even if we could navigate the change in roles, which I doubt is possible, how do Donna and I choose whom among 400 members to befriend? If we go to this party or that dinner or visit x’s cottage it says to everyone else: that was the real relationship. I don’t want to be in the position of picking and choosing or of showing favoritism—and I won’t.

As your minister the bottom line for me is this: What will best serve the needs of the community? For it was to the community, not the individuals, which I gave my primary loyalty when we were installed. This pre-eminent loyalty is what makes our relationship different from a friendship. Ours is a "bounded friendship"—bounded by the time of our tenure, and bounded by the ministerial role and the responsibilities inherent in it. What is that role? The ministers of my home congregation named me, encouraged, guided and worked with me, married me, and buried my Mother and sister, but while these ministers, who I remember fondly, came and went, it was the community that remained. What is the minister’s role? To support your spiritual growth, to help you celebrate the transitions in your life, to facilitate relationship building among you and always to strengthen the fabric of community. For it is within religious community that these important events unfold.

Our relationship is about to end. This is one of life’s little deaths. It can be a learning experience if we let it be. We do that by mindfully embracing the end of this relationship we have had to one another. Notice the feelings. One member spoke of feeling angry, and I said it made sense that feeling of abandonment, an echo of older feelings about being left, would arise. And for my part there is disappointment for there are memorial services I thought I’d officiate at, children I hoped to see grow up, and people I love and will miss seeing, and so as with every loss there is grief.

This is one of life’s little deaths. It gives us all a chance to practice how we want to deal with other losses—pets, friendships and jobs, children and parents, hopes and dreams, and our own deaths. Think about that. At the end of life is the time to reflect on what the relationship has meant, to say the things that need to be said, to give thanks and celebrate, to express regrets and move toward acceptance. I am talking about living fully and deeply, joyfully and mournfully; rather than living placid, grey lives that are like "living deaths." Living mindfully is how we find closure. Seeking closure rather than pretending the end is not at hand will allow us all to move forward with our lives, for afterwards the memories will be a source of wisdom and strength, the feeling will be that of gratitude, and tomorrow will be anticipated with hope.