Churches, perhaps more than any other institution or group, say “goodbye” poorly. It’s difficult to leave a church if you’re not also leaving town, because there’s inevitably feelings of betrayal* and rejection. It’s difficult to make transitions in personnel. It’s difficult to take a hiatus. Churches just don’t do “goodbye” well.
It is my sincerely held belief that the church needs to be as gracious in its partings as it is in its greetings.
I have, as friends do, been following the saga of my friend’s possible out-of-state employment, simultaneously hoping for the best for their family, and selfishly hoping they’d stay in town, because I enjoy the company of his family and will miss them. A few weeks ago, he was offered the job, then accepted it, then started working down south in Arizona part time. Because I’ve been watching this, and because his wife, also my friend, is the music director at ECOR, I’ve been pestering the priest there about when we’d do a celebration of her music ministry there, and asking who I might call to help out with said celebration. When I was in for the Fiber Arts group last Tuesday, he told me that both the choir director and the organist were leaving, and that we’d have a joint celebration of their service to the congregation on Sunday the 1st.
It was announced as a potluck, and there was a great outpouring of love and participation. ECOR is not a particularly supping church — there are a few special dinners through the calendar year, but it does not, for example, have a consistent Oneg Shabbat (which is, among others, one of the things that attracts me to Judaism). But there was a great bounty, which reflected, in part, the long, hard, winter** we’re slowly emerging from, and a great deal of time and love on the part of those who prepared it.
So many churches struggle with farewells, and simply leave partings to fade on their own. It was heartening to see so many come to show their appreciation for these women and their ministry in music, and to give thanks for that.
Sounds so nice and tidy, doesn’t it? The perfect parting . . . the right side bookend to a good greeting. Church life isn’t any less messy than the rest of life, however perfect we might wrongly think it ought to be. The organist didn’t show, which cast a bit of a pall on the celebration, as those gathered wished to give thanks and show their appreciation for her years of faithful service to the church.
There were many who did not attend, among them, many who’d worshiped alongside the organist as she served the church that was to combine and become ECOR. It is my dearest wish that their absence, with hers, points to a second, more intimate, celebration — I hope they went out for a spectacular luncheon, and that she felt appreciated by the congregation, knowing there were two celebrations of her music ministry that day.
That sounds so neat and tidy, too, doesn’t it?
But it’s not the movies, with a resolution and a perfect ending . . . it’s the stretching and growing and politics of a church, which are never neat and tidy and happily resolved for everyone. Most days, I think the best we can hope for from church is something like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine: a cast of screwball characters — flawed, broken people — each doing his or her best to make it through a difficult time.
But I often wonder if even that’s too much to hope for.
It doesn’t seem that it should be . . . it seems that it should be the essence of church life, not the cherry on top.
* Some years ago, we were part of a small church plant who’d recently attracted one young couple with children, who brought several of their friends and neighbors (other couples with young children) to the church. That summer, we (Michael, Farmergirl, and I) spent the summer in Spokane on a managerial-trading program, to see if we’d like to move out here. While we were gone, the four families moved on to other churches. The congregation and the leadership took it hard. So hard that at least one of them looked at me and said, “You know what that’s called, don’t you? A cult!” So hard that, when I ran into the mom from the original couple a year later at gymnastics, she said, hurt, “You know, Jen, when I ran into the priest at the store, he gave me the cold shoulder.”
Goodbyes shouldn’t be this hard at a church. In this particular situation, the families lived in the same neighborhood, the dads worked together, the kids were on the same ball teams, the moms had coffee together. When they outgrew the church plant, it made sense they did it together, and they left as they’d come: the one couple found something they liked, and shared it with the others.
**The dominate theme of the potluck turned out to be salad. California is blooming again with greens, and we’ve been starved of them through the long winter. There were crisp lettuce salads and creamy pasta salads, and even the hot dishes were full of vegetable-ly goodness. Following the same un-orchestrated theme, one of the cakes was a carrot cake, and the other was lemon with lemon curd.