The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ
May 28, 2023
When I was in search to become your minister, I received two pieces of advice. Love you as a congregation. And the best thing I could do, no matter how long my ministry with you, was to leave you well.
I think the latter advice was tailored to this congregation because of its history. Of the six Settled Ministers before me, four had had complicated departures:
- One was arrested and lost fellowship for financial misconduct (Bill Fortner)
- One died while serving (Paul Mueller)
- Two had negotiated resignations (Tony Johnson, Susan Rak) which typically follows when there has been some kind of conflict
Only two of six had either good or unremarkable departures…
Recently, a long-time member told me of how he learned of Rev. Susan’s leaving on the day she was cleaning out her office. The tension around that negotiated resignation was still very much here when I arrived two years later, even after the stellar work with your interim minister, Rev. Carol.
Not only that tension, but the ghost of the former beloved minister, Rev. Paul, was ever-present as well. You could say it was a little crowded with the ghosts of ministers when I arrived. And as is true with so many transitions, those ghosts return when it’s time for another goodbye. Will they haunt our goodbye? Or will we learn from the past and do better?
It is my hope that, given the generally positive rapport we have experienced in these 7 years of shared ministry, that we can aim for what might be called “leaving well.” I want to do what is mine to do and I want to enlist you to do what is yours to do in this shared endeavor.
Leaving well does not mean, at least not to me, that everyone says only polite things, keeping at bay the more difficult reactions and emotions. Instead, leaving well means taking time to review our shared ministry together – the accomplishments, the disappointments, and what is left undone. Leaving well means taking the time to express appreciation, even, or perhaps especially, when there were disagreements or tensions. Leaving well means using our covenants to work through confusion, rather than pushing it away, which is a form of avoidance.
Avoidance of that ilk does not serve the health of the congregation, nor any particular individual’s spiritual health. Such avoidance tends to suppress questions, concerns, confusion, only to have them surface later, often impacting future ministries or a congregation’s capacity to trust – trust future ministers, trust each other.
I’m going to tell the story of a conversation I had with someone from this congregation who risked being candid with me, which is to say, they trusted me and our ability to work through a painful experience. I won’t share their identity (that is up to them to do so), but I think it others may benefit from my sharing this story.
After catching up with each other and a polite and genuine wishing well for me in my new call, this person told me of their deep displeasure that I had “lied” to the congregation. Lie is a strong word. And while it stung, I understood their telling me to be a gift. Though the impulse to act defensively arose within me, instead, I gently asked for them to tell me more.
They felt that I had lied, having said that I would stay until August, 2024 when it was clear that I had been planning to leave this year.
I don’t think this is the only person who is feeling this way about my departure. Perhaps there are people hearing/reading this who feel this way. It would make sense: the Listening Circles we had in late January, as the congregation was considering its future options, the question of how long I would stay at TUS came up. What many heard was that I would stay until August, 2024, when, in fact what was said is that I would be gone by August, 2024.
This may sound like semantics. However, this is my chance to tell you: I worked hard to not overpromise the whole time I have been your minister. The whole time I was here, I reminded you regularly that ministers come and go, while congregants stayed. And once I knew that I would be leaving, I told leadership right away, who in turn, informed you right away.
This may not change the emotional feeling you have about my leaving – logic and reason are not the only companions we bring to our experiences of saying goodbye – but I hope it allows you to bring curiosity to your experience of the announcement of my departure.
Here is where I must practice letting go of the narrative you will end up telling about our shared ministry and about my departure. Here is where I think of the offertory just played – “Who Tells Your Story” from Hamilton the Musical. I don’t get to decide who tells my story here at TUS in large part because it’s not my story, it’s your story.
The reason I am addressing this is not so much to influence what you think of me or my leaving, but to influence your capacity to trust future ministers. It is for this reason that I hope you do come away from this transition with the narrative that “our last minister lied to us,” particularly when it’s not the case. Instead, maybe the narrative could be, “we wanted our minister to stay longer than she did and the announcement of her departure came as a surprise” or “the timing of her departure might have been good for her but it didn’t feel so good for us.”
Leaving well – it can look like many things. Earlier, I name these three things:
- Allowing space for all the feelings and reactions, even the hard ones
- Reviewing our shared ministry together – accomplishments and disappointments
- Expressing appreciation
- Using our covenants to work through any confusion rather than allowing avoidance to have the day
I invite you to consider the narrative – the one you tell yourself personally and how you contribute to the one that will get told collectively.
More on this later, for this is the end of the first part of this morning’s sermon. It is time for Joys and Sorrows.
Our Time For All Ages story, using Judith Viorst’s The Goodbye Book, is my way of exploring all the strong feelings that can emerge in the midst of any goodbye – and any goodbye, in part because even small goodbyes can touch on past goodbyes in our lives. Ones that went poorly and ones that went well. I recognize in the little boy’s reactions some of my own: anger, a sense of betrayal, a hope to bargain one’s way out, the impulse to withdraw or punish (“I won’t ask you who you ran into last night…”). We can sometimes feel silly or embarrassed about some of our own reactions. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that we are having such reactions. But they are, I believe, deeply human.
In addition to teaching parents the importance of staying consistent rather than giving mixed messages, it offers a lesson to departing ministers that it’s okay to trust that the next minister will know how to give the right kind of care just like the babysitter does at the end of the book, helping the kiddo to wave goodbye.
It’s time now to talk about the (for some) dreaded “B” word: boundaries. It’s time to talk about what our relationship will look like upon my departure.
Much of the information I am about to share with you I have also included in my final monthly Minister’s Musing that will come out mid-week. In fact, there are more details there than can fit in this already too-long sermon.
The UUMA is the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association. It is the professional organization to which I belong as a minister and whose Code of Conduct establishes expectations for ethical behavior and guides the choices I make. Rather than specific rules, this code has guidance for professional boundaries around the transition of departure and around communication after departure. A summary of that guidance, in three points, is
- Future well-being of the congregation is best served by a “fully effective departure;”
- Times of ministerial transition are vulnerable times and ministers are expected to “exercise particular care to minimize their influence and presence within the congregation;” and
- No contact between departing minister and staff or congregants until a covenant has been worked out with each subsequent serving ministers, holding as primary of any such covenant the well-being of the congregation and the new ministry.
While you may have been told by previous ministers that there is are specific rules with specific timelines, this is not quite accurate – it’s actually apocryphal. Someone somewhere at some time said “there’s a two-year rule” or “there’s a one-year rule” and it got passed on, without being fact-checked, perhaps in part because it is easier to point to a rule with a concrete timeline.
There is room for subjective interpretation given that these are guidelines, not specific rules. So, I want to acknowledge that this can make it confusing for congregations who experience one minister doing it one way and another minister doing it a different way.
As I name the boundaries I intend to follow, I invite you to notice your own reaction. Name your own reaction. See if you can understand where that reaction comes from. Is it grief? Relief? Does it touch some other story from your past when you experienced a good-bye – either because you left or someone else did? Is there a way to use your insights to help you contribute to our ending well this shared ministry?
At this past week’s board meeting, I asked board members their response to the boundaries I am about to share with you. Several Board members, who have been through several ministerial transitions, were familiar with the boundaries and did not experience much of a reaction.
Yet this might not be true for those for whom this is the first ministerial transition. In fact, I have heard the word “harsh” and “stupid” used to describe the UUA’s rules. (Just a reminder: these aren’t rules and they aren’t because of the UUA. They come out of the code of conduct that guides my professional ethics.)
Here are my boundaries
- My last day in the pulpit is Sunday, June 18th. After that, I will be at General Assembly. During GA, I will be on call for pastoral emergencies while at GA and until the end of the month. There are a few days at the end of June when I be tying up loose ends, but not meeting or communicating with congregants outside of the Board and the Administrator. Really, for most of TUS, June 18th is the last day – and it’s only three weeks away.
- I will be unfriending all TUS congregants (not just members) on my Facebook page. Anyone on Facebook can still see and comment on my public posts. I won’t be responding to TUSians commenting on my posts. I won’t be responding to TUSians via Messenger, either. After a few years, if I receive a Friend Request from a TUSian, I might accept it.
- If you are a member or friend of the congregation, it is my strong belief that you should be asking your minister to officiate your wedding or memorial service. Not your ex-minister. Since this is my boundary, I can’t stop you from asking, but I can and will say no (with love).
- I won’t be reachable via the email address I use for TUS business or through the phone number you have for me. These will stop working.
My ministry is larger than any congregation I serve. This has been true while I was your Settled Minister and will be true when I am the Senior Minister in Burlington. There may be times when our paths cross – perhaps at General Assembly, or because you want to put on a Date with Death Club, or because I am offering some workshop open to the public, or because you are traveling in Vermont. The Unitarian Universalist Universe is quite small. Should we encounter each other out in the world – in-person or virtually – I will be so pleased to see you. If circumstances allow, I’ll be so happy to chat with you and will be glad to hear news of your life, though we won’t talk about your new minister or business of the congregation.
This code of conduct, it is worth noting, does not just apply to me. It applies to another development in the life of this congregation – the final step of the ministerial formation of TUS member Alia Shinbrough, who will be, in a few short hours, Reverend Alia Shinbrough. All along this formation process, Alia’s presence in the congregation has had to shift from being a lay person and lay leader who grew up in the congregation and whose parents are still members to a professional religious leader, a clergy person accountable to that same code of conduct to which I am accountable. In the way that I am bound to support next ministries of this congregation, not allowing my presence to undermine in any intended or unintended way, this is true of not-quite-yet Rev. Alia. There are topics that they cannot talk about – conflicts with the minister, opinions about Board decisions, etc and there are roles they cannot take on. I leave it up to them to communicate and clarify, but I figure it’s worth noting, given today’s sermon topic and this afternoon’s joyful event.
So that’s enough for now, but not enough on the subject. I actually wrote a whole other part to this sermon on how to say goodbye, but it will have to wait until next Sunday. It turns out that today was parts one and two. Next Sunday will be part three. Sometimes, it just works out that way.
So be it. See to it. Amen.