We Can Still Be Friends, Right?

After I had offered the benediction to the Presbytery of New Brunswick Tuesday night, as I was leaving my last official stated presbytery meeting as Regional Presbyter, one pastor gave me a big hug and said, “We can still be friends, right?”  In the church we tell pastors and congregations that there needs to be a time of separation when a pastor leaves a call.  I equate it to the old “sending your kid to camp” psychology.  When kids went to camp, in the old days, anyway, there were no phone calls allowed.  Letters, care packages, from parents and relatives were welcomed, but no phone calls, no visits mid-session, no contact.  There’s a good reason for this.  It is easier for children to make the break from home and have a better experience at camp when there isn’t the regular engagement with parents. In the church we refer to “separation ethics”.  The idea is that there should be little or no contact between the congregants and the former pastor for a specified period (typically one year or more).  The pastor may not accept pulpit supply or lead funerals or weddings at the former church without the invitation of the new pastor.  And, when there is contact between a pastor and members of their former church, they ought not discuss the church or church business.  This is especially true for pastors who retire from a congregation.  Very few of us “like” this seemingly harsh rule, me included, though I have been convinced time and time again of its value and necessity. When I left my church in 2005 to be Associate General Presbyter in New Covenant Presbytery, we had to vacate the manse in which we were living.  Because my new presbytery call was local and in a large metropolitan area, we had many options of where to live, including the city of Baytown where I had been serving as pastor.  Our daughter was a junior in High School, so while a change in schools was acceptable, a change in districts was more problematic.  All of us had leadership roles in the Baytown Little Theater, and the members of the BLT were family to all of us.  We bought our house just off the I-10 corridor just north of the Baytown city limits, within the same school district, and 29 minutes door to door from the presbytery office.  I honored the code of separation and totally left the church I had been serving; my husband, daughter and the exchange student from Thailand we were hosting that year, also left the church.  Dwayne started attending the other Presbyterian Church in town on Sundays, and all of us settled in with a non-presbyterian church plant that was meeting on Sunday evenings.  It went well. What I hadn’t anticipated, though, was the emotional toll leaving a church I loved would have on me.  Occasionally I would run into a church member at the grocery store, a theater production, or at the local Tex Mex restaurant.  We would greet each other with warm hugs, and then there would be the awkward “what do we talk about” moment.  I missed them.  My heart ached for them.  I could see, for many of them, it was the same.  The pent up tears behind the smile, the nods and curt replies as we shared the socially acceptable yet non-authentic “how are you?” “good” exchange.  And, invariably, when I got to the privacy of my own car the tears would flood down my cheeks.  I missed them.  I missed my role as their pastor.  I was grieving. It will, undoubtedly, be the same when I officially leave the office of Regional Presbyter of New Brunswick Presbytery in a few weeks.  I am not moving. My home is still in that “who knows exactly” overlap between Monmouth and New Brunswick territory in Hamilton Township.  My leadership role with Monmouth presbytery is continuing half-time.  I’ll be looking for short-term teaching and consulting-type of work.  And it will be hard to know where the line … the separation … needs to be drawn.  The circumstances are different, the memories are different, the work I’ve done is different … but, New Brunswick, I love you just the same.  And I will miss you; I will grieve your loss.  If you find I am short with you at a conference next spring, if our conversation seems awkward, if you see my tearful blink … if I can’t quite schedule that “let’s just be friends now” coffee or lunch … if I turn away quickly when we brush glances at Panera or Starbucks, please know, it’s because I’m grieving.  When I turn down a request to teach or preach or consult with your congregation during the next year or so, please know that it’s not because I don’t want to do it; it’s because I’m honoring the boundaries of the separation ethics. These boundaries are important for churches and for presbyteries … sure, we can just be friends now … but it will need to wait for awhile .. for my sake and for yours.  In the meantime … I’ll keep up on Facebook … and you can keep reading and commenting on my blog posts.  Hmmm … looks like my next post will have to be about the role of social media in separation ethics.

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