Stage 1: Breaking the News.

2 Jan

This is the third part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeAfter a lengthy planning process with my Director of Religious Exploration and Music Director, my first step was to send a message to the Board President suggesting we meet after worship on a Sunday in July when I wasn’t set to preach. We had several things we needed to catch up on, and my plan was to tell her as a part of that.

It was very hard to be present to the other business we had to discuss. My hands were shaking. My heart was pounding. I was sick to my stomach. But I managed to muddle through the other agenda items. And then I shared with her: “I also have other news for you. I have taken a new position. My last day at the congregation will be October 23.”

She exhaled and looked at me. I let the news sit out there in the silence for a few moments. Then I said “I know you probably have a lot of questions, and I am happy to answer them. But before I do, please know that this does not come out of any conflict.”

She was sad, but to her credit, not surprised. She had seen the evidence and had begun to put the puzzle together for herself. We talked. We cried. We laughed. I shared with her the documents I had prepared:

We came up with a plan:

  • Monday (the next day) I would meet with the staff who reported to me who didn’t already know
  • The Board President would call an emergency Board Meeting for Tuesday
  • Letters to the congregation would go out on Wednesday
  • Wednesday through Friday I would meet with a few key leaders in the congregation
  • And one week later, Sunday, I would deliver a homily at a service that our Music Director (who knew what was coming) was leading.

Not surprisingly, the reactions spanned the gamut. Some people were shocked. Others were not at all surprised – some were almost fatalistic about it. Some people were angry. Some were just sad. Some were confused.

One thing that was particularly interesting to me is that people didn’t stay where I thought they would: someone might start out not very surprised, and then quickly move to angry. Someone else might start out sad, and then move to confused.

On Tuesday, the Board swiftly moved into problem-solving mode: What was next for the congregation? I was glad that the ministry team and I had come up with one possibility to use as a starting point for the discussion.  Though I was not in on the planning in future meetings, I did walk with the Board in this first meeting by talking about the transition process and what might be next for them.

I was very surprised by one mistaken calculation I had made. I had thought that the newer people in the congregation would be the ones who were most upset: I was the only minister many of them had ever had. I thought that the longer term members, who had been through this before, would be less anxious.  In fact, the reverse was true. Newer members on the Board (and within the larger congregation) who had not been through this process were the most hopeful. Members who had been through this process once, or twice, or even more, were very, very nervous. Would they be able to find a good interim? Would they be able to find a settled minister? After living through a negotiated resignation and a failed search prior to calling me, they did not want to go through that pain and struggle again. One of the stories that I would repeat over and over again in the coming weeks was that we had done excellent ministry together and so they were a more desirable congregation than they had been a decade earlier. I hope that these assurances turn out to be true.

For me, and I am sure for most of the leadership, this was an exhausting week. Calling leaders out of the blue to set up coffee dates with them alerted them that something was up.  They were all so full of love and hope for me. I was surprised that our conversations often triggered old feelings around disappointing my parents. And at the same time, the conversations confirmed what I knew to be true: it was time for me to leave, not just for me but for the congregation. My gifts and their needs no longer matched up.

By the time the next Sunday rolled around, most people were aware of what was happening. In my homily, I talked about the mutuality of the relationship – how we had been an excellent match for seven years, and how much I loved them. While there were tears (I tend to cry in the pulpit pretty frequently) there were not as many as I was afraid there would be.

After having had the sword of Damocles dangling for a while, I thought that this stage of breaking the news would be the most difficult and that things would get easier from there. While I was indeed relieved, in many ways this stage was just the beginning of a lengthy and emotional process.

go to Stage 2: Drama

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