When I became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, I agreed to the terms of my departure.
It’s surprising, but true.
When I leave, or announce my retirement, or otherwise decide to stop being pastor here (which is hard to imagine on a beautiful December day I spent sailing on Biscayne Bay), I made promises about my behavior after I leave.
For example, I won’t be coming back to officiate at weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Ever. It won’t happen. In fact, I promised to leave and not set foot on the campus for a minimum of two years. I signed my name.
This is hard for church members to understand, I know, but to keep coming back I make things harder for my successor. In other words, as long as I keep playing the role as pastor, even though I’m officially gone, I create confusion in the minds of the members. So, in those cases, it’s my responsibility to say, “I can no longer be your pastor; I can be your friend in the years to come, but I can’t be your pastor.”
I can’t tell you how hard this has been in the years following my departure from other congregations I have served.
When I left, I cried. I grieved terribly. Leaving churches I loved has been the hardest work I have ever done. I experienced loss in those situations as profound as any death. I loved the people I served, and when they called in the years that followed, I wanted to respond as I always had.
But if I did, I would have created problems for my successor. If I were to act as pastor, even in limited ways, after my departure, I would have created obstacles as my successor tried to initiate a new relationship.
Susan and I attended a retirement seminar last June for “mid- to late-career clergy,” and at one point in the seminar, after talking about the need to leave the community we once served, the leader asked us to stand, and with hands over our hearts he asked us to repeat, “I am not an exception.”
With sadness, I did.
Pastors have a very difficult time saying good-bye. Pastors, trust me on this, have a very difficult time saying good-bye. And the responsibility for healthy departures – I hate this! – must always fall on the departing pastor.
So, the next time a pastor says, “I would love to come back, but can’t,” that pastor is exercising the very highest standards of professional ethics.