When you leave - leave

The Rev. Dan Webster at Church Social Media Blog reports on a November 22 Twitter™ discussion of clergy cutting ties with people of their former cure:

Last week’s chat focused on professional and personal boundaries in social media. I mentioned how when I left a congregation as vicar, I would "unfriend" parishioners on my Facebook page. “When you leave, you leave,” I tweeted. Not everyone agrees.
He recommends a brochure from the Diocese of New York for guidelines on healthy leave-taking.

The Twitter stream reveals a variety of opinions about how detached clergy must be when they leave a position. Read it here.

I know of situations where the former rector could not stop meddling and needed to cut his ties. And I know of places where clergy are mature and have good boundaries who remain supportive members of the congregation - as I have found at my current call. Three retired clergy remain members, available for support and consultation but clear about telling people to talk to me about church issues.

What do you think? What is your experience?

Comments (11)

The recommendations in the brochure probably make for a smooth transition between departing and arriving clergy.

Is the smoothness of that transition worth the burden of loneliness and stress for the congregation and even for the departing priest? It has always seemed pretty rough to me.

Of course, in some cases, both priest and certain congregants are glad to see the last of each other. But in most cases, I think occasionally having coffee together, or comparing grandkids on Facebook, is fine.

It doesn't say much for the idea of a Christian community, when all ties with people, whose lives you shared at their most sacred moments, can be surgically and irrevocably severed for administrative reasons.

And, "un-friending" all your parishioners on Facebook? That's cold, dude.

I am just a week out from having left the congregation I served for the past three years and am navigating these waters...trying to model a healthy goodbye because the congregation has not had as such in the past.

I am preparing to leave a parish that I have served for six plus years and it has been wonderful. Leaving is difficult but I am going to a new place in response to what I believe is a call from God (that's what they all say). This leav-taking stuff is difficult and emotionally draining. I know there will be lonliness and homesickness ahead for me. Frankly I do not look forward to that. I'm trying to do this well but who knows. Thanks for this material.

I am not a disinterested party, since my spouse is a priest in his early 60s. Retirement is not imminent, but it is on the horizon.

We all know of the Rector-Who-Wouldn't-Leave, or the one who kept meddling long after zie retired. But I have seen more positive relationships than negative ones. We have been blessed to have our "Rector Emeritus" to worship with us and to take the occasional service. It has been a win-win for all of us.

Why must we always "manage by exception"--setting down hard-and-fast rules about things, when some sensitivity, and a recognition that every situation is different, would be welcome?

A priest who retires loses not only hir vocation, but hir community as well--and so does hir family. I am looking ahead to that day, and I dread it already.

On the one hand, I understand it from a "management" point of view--but it seems cruel and cold to me on a heart level. Surely there must be a better way of leave-taking than the proverbial "shaking the dust from your shoes"?

And dare I suggest that we ought to consider the human side of all of this? That a priest and hir family are human, with a need for connection and friendship? I married a man who happened to be a priest--I didn't know when I did it that, one day, I would be required to turn my back on people I've come to love, even though I am NOT a priest.

I have no interest in hanging around to get in the way of any future rector--and neither does my spouse. We will find another parish in which to worship when he retires, and that will be fine. But to expect us to "unfriend" people on Facebook---or to avoid attending weddings, funerals, and baptisms of parishioners and their families--is just a bridge too far for me.

The info in the brochure from the Diocese of N.Y is generally useful. It outlines the kinds of boundaries that must be set when there is a very substantial change in the pastoral relationship. However, it tends to be rather micro and forensic at some levels, very much an "Albanized" world. It assumes the sad history of both parishes and departing incumbents not being able to go and let go. Sometimes a grateful parish and a strong and wise pastor can negotiate these transitions with grace. Ministry is not just technocratic but relational.

On three occasions I have followed a priest who served a parish for almost two decades.The saddest thing I encountered was a situation in which parishes wanted move on, to to say "thank you so much and good-bye", but the departing priest couldn't here that.

Funny, we council and preach and teach resurrection, but the death of our own investment in a community seems to be such a challenge for so many of us!

Whether it's "unfriending" people or setting clear boundaries, it seems to me that leave-taking ought to be sacramental. That is to say, it ought to be a visible sign and representation of what is real and holy. If a facebook relationship has only been the relationship between rector and parishioner, then closing it seems to be a reasonable sign that the parishioner has a new rector, and the rector a new ministry elsewhere.

If the facebook relationship is also a friendship, then it might take on different signs: the now-friend-only might be put on different lists or privacy settings -- for example, they might no longer receive all the photo updates of the former rector's new parish life. The old rector might certainly absent him/herself from the parish facebook page.

Like others, I've seen dangerous co-dependencies set up when a rector (or youth minister) leaves, often to the diminishment of their relationship with the new minister. To hold to the old relationship and deny the person currently called to the parish seems to be -- to stick with sacramental imagery -- a denial of the reality of things.

Grief, death, and resurrection don't strike me as inappropriate images for relationships . . . but when we make so much of the grief of losing our "favorite pastor" that we believe God can't bring about good things in the life of a current community, we've lost sight of something. Or when an old pastor feels like things won't be done as well unless they "just this once" reach back and tweak them, that's a problem. If facebook is the right hand tempting us into that sin, then setting an artificial boundary with our privacy settings may not be the most dramatic thing we're ever called to do.

I like the comments here a lot. I also thought that the NY guide was helpful.

I think that honoring the change is really important, and that the end of the "pastoral" relationship is critical.

I enjoyed this blog post which was a response to Dan.

http://blog.ourchurch.com/2011/11/30/when-a-pastor-leaves-a-church-should-he-unfriend-all-parishioners/

Kurt Wiesner

It turned out that I was motivated enough to write on this at my own blog:

http://osc-religionandpopculture.blogspot.com/2011/12/does-leaving-as-priest-require.html

As part of my leave-taking, I handed back to the respective leaders in the congregation all the symbols of ministry: water to the most recently baptised, bread and wine to the altar guild, oil to the pastoral care team, music to the music director, processional cross to head acolyte, lectionary book to a lector, keys to the wardens and so forth. That sacramental action also helps establish that the congregation really has what it needs to move forward in the interim time. My situation is a bit odd because I am in between cures not knowing what God has next in store, but still living in the rectory so I wouldn't end out on the street. Nonetheless, I am maintaining boundaries as best I can so the congregation and I both can move forward... especially since in the past (and up to today) some in the congregation have not been able to let go of previous rectors.

As ordained clergy, we ask people to trust us as we attempt to lead, yet the example we set upon departure is to sever all human ties? That model simply does not make sense today, if ever it did. I say, "today" because we now live in a more connected world complete with instantaneous communication across the globe and social media.

As one who retired nearly four years ago now after a fifteen year tenure in a pastoral sized congregation, I understand that the dynamics likely differ from place to place and from cleric to cleric. When I was asked by the new rector to return as a 'Priest Associate' on a part-time basis at the end of my first year of retirement, I accepted only after the vestry and bishop agreed to the idea. With the benefit of hindsight, I think returning in any formal capacity was a mistake in my particular case.

I do not think, however, that we can invite folk into close, trusting pastoral relationships and then turn around and upon departure sever all ties. With the benefit of even more time in 'retirement', I think good leave-taking is very hard work even under the best of circumstances.

No one intends to leave poorly, and no priest wishes to create difficulties for one's successor. However, as in day-to-day parish life, I do think there is wisdom in the notion of keeping very good boundaries, and to the extent possible, to keep one's distance after retirement in a manner consonant with maintaining the safety and trust we ask congregants to give us as clergy.

This has been an excellent discussion, revealing that "one size does not fit all" - especially in congregations. Each parochial situation needs to be handled individually but the consensus seems to be that good boundaries need to be maintained. John Snow once called the priesthood an "impossible vocation". Indeed.

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