It's been a couple of weeks now since I announced to the congregation that I would be retiring next June and leaving the island. I anticipated a number of the issues I would need to deal with during this year. In no particular order, they seemed to be finding a home for Max, finding a new home for me and the cats in Astoria, dealing with all the issues of moving---packing, donating, selling, transporting---saying goodbye to all the friends and members of the congregation and the great love I have received from them, figuring out the financial ramifications of a one-income life, being the best minister I can be in the months I have left with this congregation rather than a lame-duck, thinking about who I am when I'm not wrapped in the mantle of a career.
One issue that has cropped up several times now, from a variety of folks, is "why aren't you staying on the island?" I'm very clear about why I'm not staying on the island but it's hard to explain to people. To most who live here, South Whidbey is nirvana, a progressive haven of environmental awareness, political liberalism, a wonderful, beautiful place to live. I think of it that way too, but I'm still leaving the island.
I am looking forward to living in Astoria, meeting new people, shopping regularly at Fred Meyer instead of Pay-less (commonly called Pay-more locally), being at the ocean with big waves instead of bitsy Puget Sound waves, NOT working for as long as I can stand it, finding out what I can do besides minister, counsel, teach, etc.
But that's not the only reason I'm leaving the island. I'm also leaving because I have an obligation to the new minister not to get in the way of that new relationship with this beloved community. I have an obligation to myself and the congregation not to watch as the necessary changes occur because of the new minister. I would rather not know which of my programs and sacred cows will need to be jettisoned after I'm no longer the minister (at least not right away).
If I am still on the island, I could find myself in passive competition with the new person and that's not what I want to do. Not only would it not be a collegial way for me to behave, it would drive me crazy to see congregants in the store or at events and have to redirect every conversation away from how things are going at the church. It's not good for them and it's not good for me.
I've seen cases where former ministers stayed in the community they'd served and caused trouble (usually inadvertently) because they had a hard time letting go of their relationships with congregants while seeing them around the community, and the new minister felt a little uneasy about it. It's easy to say that the new minister ought to be more confident and self-assured, but the reality is that most people starting a new job need time to learn the ropes, the systems, the community being served, and they need support.
The rule of thumb among my colleagues is that, when we leave a congregation at retirement, we stay away from the congregation for at least a year, maybe two. If we live in the same community as our former congregation, we attend church somewhere else. We don't interfere with our successor's bonding process by hanging around, offering advice, or listening to complaints about the new person.
I hate explaining this to people, I've found, because it sounds like a "turf" issue, seems to portray the new person as a wussie who can't stand on his/her own merits, and makes me look like a victim who is torn from the bosom of my community at retirement and forced to wander among the thistles somewhere, bereft.
The relationship ministers have with their congregations is both professional and personal. We live and work among those we serve; we create strong bonds of love and interdependency; we become closer to some than to others because of the ways we serve our congregants; we are with them at the most jubilant of times and the most sorrowful of occasions.
When we perform the sacred acts of ministry, we do so with every ounce of the professional training and comportment we have gained over the years; at the same time, we feel deeply and personally the great sorrow and loss of each beloved life departed, each disagreement with those we love.
The responsibility and privilege of ministry is (are?) both wonderful and awful. We rarely know this when we graduate from seminary and leap joyfully into our first ministry. It takes a few hard knocks to fully appreciate what ministry means---being professional in the hardest of times, being personal mainly in private. Sometimes parishioners know what we're going through; usually they don't.
So, yes, I'm leaving the island. It's because I want to live in Astoria. Would you mind handing me a tissue?