awkward conversations

“What do you want?” asked a friend.  In that moment I realized the dilemma that what I want is not possible.  No matter how much I want it, no matter how much others may want it.  Sometimes we are reaching for option A when the choices are C or D.

When I tentatively approached the church leadership with my intent to retire, I had run a few scenarios in my mind and read a plethora of articles on the subject. I had also taken into account the financial needs of my family and had been transparent in the process. In the articles about clergy retirements, particularly after long ministries, there was a consensus that a significant transition time was in order, anywhere from six months to a year (one outlier article suggested five years!).  With all of this in mind, I began to envision what these seven months might look like.

What I envisioned was a lovefest in which we together lifted up the best of what we had accomplished in the past sixteen years and thereby inspired one another.  I envisioned a series of conversations, an attitude of grace, and air of celebration that cherished and affirmed and left us all with a sense of possibility.

What has unfolded has been so starkly not this image that I can’t quite begin to understand it.  I can only say with certainty that what is unfolding is neither warm fuzzy nor empowering for me and likely equally unhelpful for the church.

Immediately upon my announcement, church leaders began to struggle with overwhelming anxiety about the future.  Sixteen years with a pastor that folk adore and disdain in perhaps equal measure is a hard act to follow.  While I am waiting for the celebration to begin, wheels are in motion and meetings are taking place but all for the purpose of what comes after I am gone.  My presence is awkward rather than revered.   Not only am I not consulted, I am asked to not attend.  Decisions are being made that as a professional I recognize as problematic, tasks are undone that are alarming to me.  But my voice has been displaced from the circle and my concerns untended.

There will be no graceful swan song with melodic and familiar refrains, there will be fingers on the chalkboard.

When the first parts of the interim plan are announced (with no clearance from me), I name a concern with the announced plan.  The response is to reassure me, but it is not reassurance that I seek.  These moves emasculate my leadership role.  Perhaps indelicately, I suggest that a new timeline be established and that my exit date be sooner than anticipated.  My colleagues (now elevated to active leadership) suggest that would be a good idea but imply that I would simultaneously forfeit my contractual rights.  Unwilling to make that choice, I offer a counter proposal to the elected leaders in which the church honors the terms of my contract while relieving me of active duty at an earlier date.  I don’t give it a name – paid leave, vacation, severance, sabbatical.  I simply call it honoring our agreement.

Basically, the church is in high gear evaluating the process for finding a new beau when the old one is still hanging around.  And this old one is not feeling good about the process. To be sure, it was a generous slice of hubris that would lead one to assume that a community would want to dance a final song together.  Once the announcement was made, the stages of grief commence.  Anger is one, denial another.  Desire to create a photo album together isn’t high on the list.