Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Taking Leave

Charlie Brown, that great 20th Century nihilist philosopher, speaks for so many of us here. I know he speaks for me.

I hate goodbyes.

The problem is goodbyes are inevitable. Whether we like it or not, someone always leaves.

This Sunday will be my last Sunday at Christ Church Cathedral. Friday, ,July 1 will be my last day functioning as Dean, though I will officially be on the payroll of the Cathedral until the end of September as I finish off my sabbatical and vacation time.

Goodbyes are hard (though there are some partings that are long-awaited and joyful ... and some will greet mine in that vein!). We hate them. But it's important to do them well.

In the church, we have a checkered history on goodbyes. Maybe it's our theology of our interconnectedness as the Body of Christ ... or maybe it's because at our best we lay our whole lives on that Eucharistic table together that makes it so hard to let go of relationships that have meant so much to us.

But let go we must. So I want to talk about that a bit.

One of the things I have had to learn as a priest is the difference between being a priest and a friend.

Friends are wonderful, and I hope you have lots of them. I know I do, and they are fantastic!

Being someone's priest is different. As your priest, my primary job is to gather you with the rest of the community around the presence of Christ and lead us all in laying our lives on the table with Jesus. It is to preach the word of God in ways that lead you to do the same. It is to have relationships with you where my primary concern is always your discipleship of Jesus and how that is lived out in the church and in the world.

Like friendship, it involves a deep, deep love and affection. Like friendship it involves holy companionship. That's why the two are often confused.

But unlike friendship, while you might have many friends, you don't have tons of priests. Having someone as your priest is a unique and specific role ... much in the same way that I have many sibling priests but only one Bishop.

I had the conversation about this distinction with Chapter when I became your Dean, and someone at the table said:

"But when you say you aren't my friend, it feels like you're saying you don't love me."

My response was "I completely get that it sounds and feels that way ... but it's actually the opposite. The greatest joy of my priesthood is that I am called into a loving relationship with you that is incredibly deep. The difference is it is a relationship where I am called to put your well being, your discipleship of Jesus and care of you and the community above any need or desire of my own. It means that I need to be willing to speak truths to you and hear truths from you that I might not be willing to from a friend because of fear of damaging or losing the friendship.

"The difference is also that, frankly, I'm probably not going to be friends with everyone in a congregation ... and if I'm friends with some and not with others, that can send the message that Jesus loves some of you more than others ... and what a perversion of the Gospel that would be!"

"Our relationship as congregant and priest is wonderful and difficult. It is a unique blessing. And the truth is, if I am going to be sure I am being your priest, I have to be clear that I am not your friend."

So what does this have to do with saying goodbye?

One of the most common things clergy hear (and, regrettably, say) as we leave congregations is
"it's OK ... we can still be friends."

We can still talk. We can still hang out. I can still come to you.

It is that Charlie Brown piece of us talking. That piece that hates to say goodbye so much and that wishes so much we didn't have to ... and that even thinks it's stupid that we need to.

I feel it, too.

I hate this goodbye.

I think about not being here to sit at your bedside as some of you die and not being able to lay your ashes in the chapel. I think about not being able to baptize Anne and Perry Trolard's new baby. I think of not being able to watch Annaliese Dace graduate high school or celebrate Ron Friewald's retirement someday or be at the opening of Debbie Nelson-Linck's fantastic new exhibit or to hear Pat Partridge play the organ and it breaks my heart and fills my eyes with tears. But those tears are the cost of a calling that allows me the privilege of loving each you so deeply -- and of accepting your love in return.

So why that cost?

Because I have not been your friend ... I have been your priest. And in a few days, I will not be your priest anymore. And you -- and this Cathedral congregation -- will need someone else to fill that role. And if I am still there -- even if we call it "as a friend" -- it will be all the more difficult for someone else to come in and fill that role.  And that will be bad for everyone.

Also, I will have a new congregation. New relationships to build. New lives to share. A new community to stand in the midst of and say, "I appeal to you holy siblings, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." And my focus will need to be with the people of All Saints, Pasadena. Not because they are better or I love them any more but because I am a priest and that is my new call.

I have been in congregations where this has been done poorly -- and it is bad all the way around. I have been in congregations where former clergy left the jobs but stayed connected to the community,  and it made the job so much harder for I and other clergy who followed -- because there was no incentive for the people to do the hard work of building the new relationship with the new priest when the path of least resistance was to maintain the familiar relationship with the former priest. It's not impossible. But it is a lot harder.

At worst, this has included former clergy meddling and second guessing ... but even at best it has not been healthy or helpful .. particularly for the new clergy that arrive and are trying to take their place at the altar and in the midst of the community.

I don't want to do that to my successor and I don't want to do that for you.

If I were to try to maintain friendships after I left, frankly, it would be selfish. It would be me putting my own desire to stay connected to you over what is best for you and this congregation. And I'm not going to do that.

My deepest desire for Christ Church Cathedral is that you be a community of bold, joyful, healthy disciples of Jesus Christ. And the best thing I can do to help you continue on that road is truly to leave so that you can embrace and love your new Dean -- whomever she may be -- and to hold you in prayer for the rest of my life.

So that is what I will do. And that is what I ask you to do as well.

When I walk out the door on Friday, July 1, I will be holding you on my heart, and that will never change. But I will not be maintaining relationships. I will hold you in prayer always, but I will not be checking in to see how you're doing. There are a few folks who are out of town in June who have asked if we can have a farewell meeting later in the summer so that we can say goodbye properly and, with Lorraine's and Amy's permission, I am scheduling a few of those, but for all intents and purposes I will be gone, and we will let each other go.

Does that mean you or I need to duck behind a shelf if we run into each other in Left Bank Books between now and when I leave town? No. We don't have to be rude to each other or make a big deal of scrupulously making sure our paths never cross or names are never spoken of again. If I see you at Busch Stadium this summer I'll say hello. If you are ever in Pasadena on a Sunday, please do drop by All Saints ... I will be thrilled to see you.

If your new Dean decides she wants to invite me back at some point and that is something I am able to do, then that could happen someday ... but that will be her call. In the meantime,  I won't be reaching out to you and I ask that you not reach out to me. Not because I don't love you or because I think you don't love me ... but because of the opposite. Because while it has been the deepest honor to be your priest for these past seven years, I know the best way I can honor that is by getting out of the way so someone else can come in and experience the incredible gift of being your priest without me hanging around.

I take heart that Charlie Brown's yearning -- and my own -- never to say goodbye actually will be fulfilled. It is both present reality and sure and certain eschatological hope. St. Paul reminds us that

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Though we are parted, we are always connected. That is the joy of being the Body of Christ. And it is that joy and hope that lets me do what I need to do and lets you do what you need to do ... and that is to part well, pray continually for one another, and entrust one another and all our lives to Christ our Lord.

Our time together is ending.

The love of God in Jesus Christ is forever.

Thanks be to God.


Valéria M. Souza said...

Take care and best of luck in your new position in Pasadena! Goodbye, Mike. Best wishes, Valéria

Anonymous said...

Mike -Most well said! Godspeed. Being an LA Boy, next time I visit 's family in SoCal I absolutely will make a visit to All Saints Pasadena!

Anonymous said...

Mike -Most well said! Godspeed. Being an LA Boy, next time I visit 's family in SoCal I absolutely will make a visit to All Saints Pasadena!

phil said...

Good luck... I am more a Linus fan...go in peace.
Phil kauffman

Lee Evans said...

Hi Mike. Can't believe I called you Mike. You've always been Dean to me and that's how you will stay. I am so glad for you. All Saints appears ready to follow you as you have tried to get us to do. But God is good and this call is a perfect fit for you and your family. So take care of your self and by all means have a good life.
Life is Good,
Lee Evans

Anonymous said...

Always criticisms about congregants either being too needy, lacking restraint, you name it. The measure of the priest is in the strength of the church he leaves. Weak now!

Rowena Kemp said...

Thank you so much for this letter. Well said!!

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