A Ministry of Absence

So What are the Boundaries Once Drew Retires?  

From Ingathering Sunday, 2013:
“Singing to the Whole, Sad, Damn, Wonderful Business”
The Reverend Drew Kennedy

First, since many of you have kindly asked, let me share with you that Lois and I have every intention of staying here in Milwaukee, especially since Lois has lots of family both here in Milwaukee and in Sheboygan and Sheboygan Falls.  (My family, on the other hand, is spread out all over the country.)

I’ve been a part of your lives, in some cases, for a generation, and you have been a huge part of mine.[1]  You know most of my favorite stories and probably all of my jokes.  Over these past twenty-seven years, I have grown to love this congregation immensely, so I cannot begin to tell you how much I shall miss you.  I’m not even sure I know, although I have wept often at the thought.

It is a given that congregations tend to be somewhat vulnerable during times of ministerial transition.  Therefore, best practices and ministerial guidelines for departing ministers suggest that I should minimize my influence and presence within the congregation and staff at least during the transition period – probably for three years – two years for the Interim Minister and another year for the new Senior Minister to get settled.[2]

Please know that during this time I shall rejoice when I read in the newsletter, or otherwise hear, about your milestones, about the achievements of your children, about your recovery from illness, about your contributions to the church or community.  You will always be in my heart, yet it is important that both you and I know that when I retire I can no longer be your minister.  It is essential that you form a nurturing, mutual relationship first with your Interim Senior Minister and then with your new settled Senior Minister.

This can happen when we acknowledge that I will no longer perform any ministerial duties at, or on behalf, of this church.  I will be saddened by any news of a death in your family, but I will not be able to officiate at the funeral or memorial service – even for those of you whom I have known and loved for many years.   I will be delighted to hear of your daughter’s or son’s forthcoming wedding, but, again, I will not be able to participate in the ceremony, on-site or off.  I will continue to care about the personal issues we may have discussed in a pastoral relationship, but I will no longer be able to offer such counsel.  Moreover, I will continue to be keenly interested in the welfare of this congregation to which I have been devoted for so long, but I will no longer be able to discuss with you the business of the congregation, nor offer any observations or advice about the church or its leaders.

Now, does all this mean that if you see me (or Lois) at the grocery store or on the street that you need to put a bag over your head or jump behind the nearest bush?  No.  We can talk.  I can say hello and ask about you and your kids, and you can ask me about me and mine, but I won’t be discussing church.

Such a “ministry of absence,” as it is coming to be called, may sound harsh, but it is built on sound principles.  Towards the beginning of one of my ministries before I came to Milwaukee, there was a period when I did twenty-two memorial services in fourteen months.  They just kept coming, about one every two weeks, including memorial services for four separate children.  Believe me, this shared experience solidified my relationship with that congregation as nothing else could have done.  We had walked through the valley together.  Thus, there is wisdom in these “best practices,” though they may seem a bit harsh.

[1]I am grateful to The Rev. Gary Smith, who recently retired from First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) in Concord, MA, for some of the language which follows, which I have paraphrased from a departing letter Smith sent to his congregation in June 2011.  Smith, in turn, acknowledges assistance from our colleague The Rev. David Keyes.

[2]Interested readers may wish to read the UU Minister Association Guidelines on the UUMA’s website at www.uuma.org.