Thursday, August 22, 2013

When My Rector (Pastor) Resigned

I have been ordained 52 years.  My spouse and I have attended and belonged to two different Episcopal Churches since I retired at the end of the year 2000.  We've been in our present parish two and a half years.  During this brief period of time it has been my privilege not only to mentor my priest but also to become his friend.  Even though he is seven years younger than my youngest child, I thought of him as a son.  We became very close and when he let me know that he was leaving I became very sad.

Several weeks ago I had a hunch that it was time for him to update his resume and personal profile, and I was going to talk to him about this at our next luncheon.  Then the Rector called me the Sunday before to tell me that he was going to resign the parish and take a position on the staff of a Diocesan Bishop.  It was then that I shared with him that I thought it was time for him and his family to move on.  Now then, was this the Holy Spirit or mere coincidence?  I like the idea that it was the movement of the Spirit of God.

I moved several times during the 40 years of my active parish ministry.  Each time I felt a measure of sadness and grief because I had made good friends with several members of each parish.  I missed them for a brief period of time, and many of us remained friends throughout our lives.  But I also had the energy and the drive to start up a new ministry in a new place and make new friends.  Therefore I moved on to my new set of relationships without a prolonged period of grief about leaving the old parish.  The point here is that for me, leaving a congregation as a priest is altogether different than being a parishioner and losing your priest.

Now I know the immediate sadness of losing a priest AS A PARISHIONER.  Sure, I know about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief and I've pastored many folks over the years as they coped with their losses.  And at my present age of 76 I've had to manage several acute losses in my own life.  But the sadness I feel in the loss of my young priest is surprising, startling and somewhat amazing.  I can't believe that it is happening to me because I am deluded enough to think that I'm immune to such things.  But the truth is that I was really unprepared for the grief that I felt precisely because I am a member of the parish.  At last I can truly identify with members of the parish and I truly understand what they are going through, because I am going through them myself.  I also understand in my head that the feelings of grief that I bear are perfectly normal even though it surely doesn't feel good.  Because of this my empathy for the congregation is acute.

Sometime soon the search committee will start a ministry to look for a new rector.  But now is not the time to begin.  The members of the congregation need time to process their feelings.  As a trained interim I know that this is true. As a member of the congregation I know that this is true.  As an experienced parish priest I know that this is true.  Frankly, I'm clearly not ready for a new priest.  But with God's help and the help of other people in the parish, I will process my feelings of grief.  I will reach a stage of acceptance, just not now.

I will trust that the Holy Spirit will guide the vestry and the search committee.  But I really hope that they and the diocese do not rush into it.  As my friend and fellow blogger Gary Gilbertson says, "that's a recipe for disaster."


  1. Well said, my friend. The average tenure for rectors in the Episcopal Church is under five years - way too short a time to accomplish parish and personal goals; a major factor is the rush to issue a "Call." The congregation needs time before a new rector is selected - or else expect a short tenure.

  2. Thank you,Bob. Life in the pew is different for us and we see things so much more clearly and so deeply. It makes me wish I had been more aware of the feelings of others at the time.

  3. I'm parish music staff and it's always traumatic to change rectors. You pray that a new leader will accept staff as talented ministers and not, as often, appreciated as hired help. It's a healthy music ministry that makes worship joyful in high hopes that it pleases God first and makes the Rector look better than he or she may be, second.

  4. Thank you from a parishoner who is processing the loss. Your message is valuable.

  5. Bob, I am profoundly moved by your essay. I have now for some weeks had a professional organizer help me go through massive amounts of personal and professional memorabilia that in some cases goes back into family material of the early 19th Century. This has caused me no end of massive emotional reactions, including deep feelings about every parish I have served and/or lived in. I am beginning to get some focus on the range of personal, family and vocational/professional aspects that constitute "my story." To have that focus, as I read your essay, gives me spiritual and emotional "tonalities," as best I can sense the very rhythm of my/our lives as humans and priests.
    To Anonymous, I so identity with your concern. I was fortunate to have come into Christ and St. Michael's-Philadelphia with "a music man" who I knew immediately was the very key stone of that congregational ministry. He, I and we, as staff and congregation, with at one time fifty singers and liturgical dancers made our way across Jamaica, all because of this guy named Bob Bush. The right congregational music is the medium for pastoral, organizational and spiritual life. Thank you for pointing up a profoundly important concern in professional ministry transition.

  6. Blessings on you all. This could not have come at a better time for this surgeon and his parish... my patients and participants in the H.O.P.E. groups I started in 1987. My practice was like a ministry. H.O.P.E. is seen as a ministry, and now it is time for me to move on. Thank you all.
    Blessings, Ken Hamilton, MD

  7. I am a lost episcopalian. My priest was removed and we were never told why. He was a true gift to our church. We now have a joke for a priest. I miss the priest that opened the door to my understanding of the faith. The Bishop and do what ever he likes. Yet, the priest are pushed down into the darkness. Why did this happen, is my priest ok.

  8. Thank you, Bob, for your insightful expression of thoughts and feelings about our rector's decision to move on to the next step in his priestly ministry. Your words help me to deal with my own sense of loss. I am grateful to God and to you, Bill and Marshall for your continuing presence and service. Painful though our situation may be right now, we certainly are richly blessed.