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."