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,
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
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
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.