I’m rubbish at leaving and at goodbyes. Expected farewells leave me a blubbering wreck, unexpected partings leave me shocked and bereft. As a curate it’s not exactly surprising that I’m leaving the Benefice, after all my contract expires on 31st July 2014 (not that I’d ever noticed. Me? Worry about that……? Maybe just a bit.) And given that I am the one who has been through the rounds of job applications and interviews (yes, multiple, but we don’t talk about that in the Church of England) it certainly should be no surprise to me that, having got a post to go to (about which I couldn’t be more happy and excited if I tried), I had to leave this Benefice. No surprise.
With four churches and multiple congregations, and people going away, I’ve had one or two goodbyes at every service since before Christmas. But the last two Sundays have been the tough ones, the ones where reality bites, the ones where, however gently I try to disentangle my thread from the tapestry, there is a sharp, painful cut. My Training Incumbent has a phrase he uses at funerals, that people “move beyond our sight, but not beyond our love”. This has resonance for me, it applies to bereavements and goodbyes I have survived, where some of the people I love are no longer within casual reach, even in this digital age.
But it has made me think ever more about the space that clergy occupy in communities. On my last Sunday, I was part of three services in the morning, with an unspecified number of tissues being used during them, although the more I had to do and say the less I needed tissues. (And if I’d been in any doubt about the way I am cared for in this community, it would have been dispelled by a simply glorious farewell hymn sandwich in the evening.) All of it reminded me of how much I am loved, and of how unexpected I find this.
The relationship between clergy and parishioner is complicated, and that’s before we consider our own families. Some would see me as a friend, others see me as a “safe space”, some see me as a good target for a wind up, to some I am a colleague, and to many I am a clerical collar with someone they don’t really know standing behind it. And my own perspective of most of those relationships will be different – who is a friend, who is my safe space, who can I spot at forty paces, and who do I simply never recognise? Who is the person I have watched in the village for nearly four years, but only ever smiled and nodded at? (That sounds slightly like a stalker, sorry, I just mean we acquire people we recognise by routine, but with whom we have very little relationship.) Like it or not (and I do like it) my own threads have woven into this community, and even though I know the time has come, the cutting of the threads is painful for me. But it will also be painful for some others.
I was taken by surprise at the number of times people have said “But you’ll be coming to…” …church until you move; cafe; the craft day; the Benefice trip to London; the ….and so on. To which my answer has been “no”. I hold my place in the community by virtue of the service I help lead on Sundays, and by the work I then do with people to weave that worship and and service into their days each week. It wouldn’t feel right to attempt to continue a relationship with the community, however well intentioned. Not to mention the reasonable convention that once you leave a clergy post, you back off and let everyone else do the ministry – no-one is indispensable.
Other goodbyes are different. There are the goodbyes to loved ones, where I hope they are not permanent, where I trust that we pick up comfortable relationships where we left off, where (normal growth and change of understanding aside) we are known, accepted and accepting. Those are the relationships where the boundaries are not a matter of professionalism, where it’s OK to have favourites, where I can be me, where it’s always personal. The thing is though, ministry is always personal too. That’ll be why leaving hurts.