Are You Still Here? Thoughts on Leave-Taking

After telling a friend of mine that my family and I would be leaving the NW in a few months for a job change, she offered solid wisdom I have hung onto:

“Do your best to pay attention to everything that is happening around, the emotions, the reactions, the people who reach out, those who back away, etc. You will learn more about yourself, and your ministry, and those you’ve been working with now more than ever.”

So I took this advice and put on my learning cap once again and have been paying attention as much as I can. I want to share three observations I am learning from during this practice of leaving-taking:

First, announcing a departure often comes as a shock. The decision for me to accept the job at Guilford came as a shock because many people didn’t know I was interviewing there. Not knowing this makes the decision appear somewhat rash or quickly made. It wasn’t but I can see why it appeared that way at first.

Looking back, I am not really sure how I could have made this different: do you have a clearness committee for something before you even interview at a place and how does one navigate that when he or she is the pastor of that community? One thing is clear, leave-taking requires making public the announcement and it matters how that information gets rolled out. Those who need to know find out directly from you and, secondly, the more who can hear directly from you the better. Facebook is nice for sharing the news broadly, but don’t rely on that to let those most impacted by the decision know what is going on.

When relationships and connections are good, as they are for us in Camas, any announcement of this nature is going to feel too quick and come as a shock. Loss is loss. And let’s face it, leaving is a loss. One thing I think that has helped is the lag-time afterward the announcement and before the actual leaving, which is about 3 months for us. This allows for enough tie to process, grieve, celebrate and say goodbyes. If I had made the announcement of our leaving one week and left the next or shortly after that the pain would run much deeper. This kind of “cut-off” leaves, as Edwin Friedman calls it, “emotional residue” for the next pastor to have to work through. Part of my goal in leaving is to leave in such a way that there is as little emotional residue left behind as possible. I believe that this will not only help the church maintain its own vitality and momentum, but it will help me have a fresher start also. Therefore, I think the initial shock is probably unavoidable for the most part, but what is important is when and wherever possible, give enough space to grieve and get the transition process moving in a healthy direction.

New House!

A second observation, and one that was more surprising, was the reaction that buying a house in our new location (Greensboro, NC) caused. The time between when I announced our leaving and begin my new job at Guilford College (July 27) is about 3 months, which is why Emily and I decided that sooner was better in case of house-shopping just in case we hit snags along the way. So we went for it and were fortunate enough to find something we are very happy with that worked with our finances, needs, etc.

But I underestimated how this quick decision-making would translate for our community back home. There have been, justifiable, reactions to this point. Many people have commented about how quickly we found a house. I think most of it was meant positively, but I still see how the new house created a new level of anxiety. It was a sign that this was really happening. It wasn’t until after we got home from our house-hunting trip and posted pictures of the new home on social media that people began expressing anger at our leaving.

It wasn’t until after we got home from our house-hunting trip and posted pictures of the new home on social media that some people began expressing more anger at our leaving. Again, I think all of this was normal and justifiable expression of emotions and I haven’t taken it personally, but I have observed a connection between the two. I think the work for the leaver, me in this instance, is to name these things, create space for people to talk to you about it (I’ve noticed you’re feeling more angry about this now?), and help process it without reacting to it.

One lesson for me is that in a transition, such as leaving a congregation, you really have to be aware that every concrete decision that takes place in the new location can act as a potential “nail in the coffin” back home. So the more you can be sensitive to both “home” and the new location, being as transparent as possible, and working to communicate on social media in ways that are sensitive to emotional responses on both sides, the better off your relationships will be in the long run.

Finally, there has been a recurring question, “Are you still here?” Other variations all circle an important question: “Have you already left even though you’re still here?” Again, I feel incredibly nieve in all of this. I actually feel very much here. Yes, I am excited about our new move and I’m looking forward to working at Guilford very much, but I am very sad to be leaving our friendships and my ministry here. And while it can be painful to sit in these moments of transition, I am in no hurry to escape the discomfort. So am I unwittingly projecting a sense of “I’m out of here?” One person asked if I had senioritis. Having the question asked reminds me that this is something that I must continue to watch in myself.

But the question continues to be asked. So am I unwittingly projecting a sense of “I’m out of here?” One person asked if I had senioritis. Having the question asked reminds me that this is something that I must continue to watch in myself.

The funny thing is that having taken care of the house-hunt so early on, Emily and I realized the other day that we haven’t really been that focused on talking about Greensboro in the way we were leading up to the house-hunt. Now that that part is more or less taken care of we’ve found ourselves able to be really here in Camas. Our focus has been primarily on spending time with friends, talking with our kids about the transition and making sure they have ample time with their friends, and working on getting ready to move away from our first real “home” in many years. Somewhat ironically, during this time, I have noted the deepening of many of our relationships during this transitory time.

There has been a lot that has come up since the big move was announced and I feel deeply grateful for my friend’s initial wisdom to pay attention, and the many others who have been helping to teach me about what it means to leave. I’m grateful for all the people who have stuck around and remained connected even as it’s been painful for them too. I am beginning to see that the leavers and the stayers can grow and become stronger through learning to leave well.