Letter to a Colleague (On Leaving the Parish)

So it seems I’m not alone among our colleagues. This year, there are fewer available ministers than there are Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking interim ministers. The reasons cited for this situation include a bumper crop of retirees and a fair number of ministers who are leaving the parish.

And I am one of them.

There was a time when celebrity clergy were publishing memoirs about “leaving church” and we both rolled our eyes at that. Thanks for the vote of confidence, friend, and for dissing the institution we are pouring our lives out for.

And yet here I am reflecting publicly on my reasons for leaving my current parish ministry as I move on into something else. Not leaving ministry, and certainly not “leaving church,” just going back to school to get what I need to do ministry in a different setting.

Part of it, for me, is being spooked by all of the doomsday predictions and catastrophic forecasts about declining religious affiliation and its ramification for local faith communities. I experience, like many ordained ministers, equal parts excitement and terror at the reality that congregational life as we know it is going to be very different in the decades ahead.

We’re not going to be able to count on a regular paycheque from a local church–indeed, many of us currently do not. Seminarians are now being prepared for a “bi-vocational” career in ministry, which in a way is what I am doing. I may or may not take up part time parish ministry in the future. I do love it very much.

I love congregational life, and I love the work I get to do in the parish. Reinventing the local church to thrive in organized religion’s reduced circumstances is the kind of creative opportunity I might be invigorated by.

What can I tell you? I’m tired.

I became an aspirant and candidate for ministry in my twenties. Remember what that was like—ready to conquer the evils of the world, transform our religious movement while proclaiming its gospel to churches we were growing to twice their size by our astounding feats of preaching and public witness!

When I was in my twenties and thirties, this was fine. I had the energy and ego strength to do all this and go out dancing afterwards. In my late forties, it takes greater effort.

In entering the second half of life, I’m more sensible about my abilities and interests, more realistic about my limitations. I’m more clear on which values and needs and desires I want to shape my life around, the settings in which I feel most at home.

I find that I’m becoming more and more introverted the older I get. This hasn’t meant withdrawing, only that it costs my spirit more, especially without adequate time replenished by solitude.

Obviously, I still engage in all the public aspects of ministry—the social hours and potlucks, the Memorial Day ceremonies and clergy meetings—it takes more out of me. As do the usual visits and calls, staff meetings and board meetings, and all the other assemblies in which I find myself.

There is never enough time. It seems like just as I am catching my breath it is time to start running again. The moment I feel rested is followed by the moment of heading back to work. Not much time for relationships, for family, for exercise, for cooking myself nutritious meals. Everything is on the go. I thank God for my ministerial colleagues, with whom I spend more time than any other kind of friend.

Am I burned out? I don’t think so. I have long maintained good boundaries, taken Sabbath time consistently, and on some days chose self-care over an unfinished to-do list.

It’s not enough for me.

What I need is a slower pace, a more spacious schedule (as I told my congregation, pronouncing it the American way), a better balance between work, rest, and play, a ministry in which I am not the constant moving target. The twelve hour days are not sustainable to my spirit, especially as they come back to back.

My congregation has been superb at encouraging me to rest and study, to take the time off allotted to me. Lay leaders have reminded me to say No when I might have said Yes, to let a congregant’s unmet responsibility drop rather than catch it.

No, the fatigue I experience is harder to pin down, its remedy more than time off.

We hold the presence of the church on our person, the mantle of spirit around our shoulders. When we show up in the operating recovery room at the hospital, it is the church that shows up. When we drive over to the bereaved family’s home after the death of loved one, it is the church that is showing up for them. That is a huge responsibility that we would always remember when we don our stoles before leading worship. L’église c’est moi, as Louis XIV might have said.

That stole, that weighty mantle, is often very, very heavy to carry day in and day out.

What is exhausting, and perhaps something lay people aren’t aware of, is the psychic energy that goes in to being the screen for their projections and desires. A good minister is constantly discerning: Is this really about me? Or is this member of my congregation actually interacting with their parent or spouse or boss? What is really happening here?

Graciously being that screen for their fantasies and expectations and aggression without getting hooked and reeled in to the drama they want to act out with you takes a lot of soul power.

To say nothing about when it actually is about us, and having to remain open and non-defensive.

Skillful ministers do this well, but even the most self-differentiated clergy person, once exhausted by the effort, will have “one of those days.” And then one finds oneself apologizing and making amends for actions (or inaction) that most people take for granted and let slip by. It is the cost of the pastoral relationship, of right-relation, and our calling is to model it.

That can feel deceitful when on the inside we are heaping curses on the person we are asking to forgive us. It’s really more artful than artifice, but that divide feels more and more dishonest to me. Skillful self-differentiation is an art, but I don’t believe true authenticity is ever available to us as parish ministers. (Nor should it be. We both know emotionally unintelligent colleagues who wish to share everything with their congregation. And how that turns out).

The lesser burden is to listen with forbearance to a tiresome and uninformed parishioner drone on and on about some religious topic, or some church matter, some thing that you and I studied in depth at graduate school, in seminary. Our expertise takes second place to making this person feel heard.

It is our burden to carry all of the truths that are unable to be enunciated publicly, all of what is confessed to us in the minister’s study, often without any hope of absolution.

But we also hold the organization’s truths, truths that, for the sake of the congregation, are never told by us—even when it would vindicate or excuse or explain some action taken.

You and I know that the church is an employer as well as a faith community, but that is not so obvious to our people. As chief of staff, it is up to us to hire, evaluate, manage and sometime dismiss church employees. The process, by necessity private and confidential, is lost on most parishioners. To such folks, church staff are members of the family, treated like a fellow member, and are to be treated the way parishioners are.

Although lay leaders certainly provide detailed feedback for evaluations, even the evaluation process is lost on the average parishioner. So when the time comes to dismiss an employee—for not performing their duties, for not following an improvement plan, for being unwilling to learn needed skills, or, as you certainly know, for some other egregious misconduct—all the congregation sees is a beloved “friend” being “forced” to leave the church.

And we have to sit there, with our lay leaders, silently, while aggrieved members of our congregations make a big noise. Knowing we will never break confidentiality, knowing we can never share the true story of why that staff person was dismissed. We have to grin and bear it, no doubt making our Puritan ancestors proud.

We have to die to ourselves, so that the congregation might live.

It is the art of skillful self-differentiation, a burden I gladly took on at ordination, that now costs me more than I have left to spend. I’m spent.

I love congregational life, and I love my congregation. Good ministers are always “in” the congregation, but never really “of” it. It is the tragic irony of our role. We love religious community so much we dedicate our lives to its health and prosperity, only to find we no longer can belong fully to a church the way we did before becoming ministers.

I miss that.

I miss being at worship regularly and not being at work. I miss singing in the choir and teaching in the religious education program for children. I miss having my soul tended to by a gathering of imperfect, loving, genuine people—among whom I am most authentically myself, my undivided, wholehearted self.

This nostalgia is a kind of homesickness for church life at its best.

What can I say? I want to go home.


23 thoughts on “Letter to a Colleague (On Leaving the Parish)

  1. Wow, Peter – so true, so poignant and so much my story as well. I find I look and feel about 20 years younger since setting down that burden, even though I loved them to bits, even though I was very good at it. I live now the kind of joy and gratitude I could only preach about before. And I am VERY excited about having you back in the area, old friend! Love from Allison

  2. Oh. My. Goodness. Would that even most of my colleagues were this wise. What a beautiful and blessed offering. I want to go home too. God bless you and may this wisdom be shared widely with long time and new clergy alike.

  3. I’m finding more and more ministers who’ve retired or left ministry (or moved up in the denomination) who no longer can go to ANY church regularly, least of all one of their former parishes no matter how long ago they left it. I’m finding the loss of church for myself very unsettling. The loss is great.

  4. Peter, That was such a well thought out and compassionately expressed statement. By compassionate I mean in your respectful and tender way of lifting up both the church and your own self for consideration as you explain the changes you are pursuing. Self differentiation as a paradigm for describing a fundamental work and way of being for those in ministry and one might infer from what you say that it is a key practice for you as a minister all resonated with me. In the spirit of this model with which to consider the work and way of a minister I imagine the reflection born out in this letter represents one of many editions of a letter to colleagues and congregants , friends, family, and perhaps most critically to your own self self. Weather subsequent drafts are as this composed as a letter, or get presented as part of a talk you are invited to deliver, or come to voice more privately in a journal entry or maybe just in silent conversations you have alone with no one else at all I hope you will always remember to deal with your earlier work and struggles and achievements with equal regard and gentle dignity.

  5. Peter–Thank you for sharing your beautifully expressed story, wishing you all the best in your journey and continued Quest for Truth in your new home! I will miss your presence at church, but with the new technology, I hope to follow your spiritual teaching and wisdom. With Gratitude, Sirarpi

  6. Thank you Peter, for your words of wisdom. From one struggling to live an authentic life while also feeling spent I very much appreciate your letter. Peace be with you as you continue to journey with God.

  7. Thank you for sharing this. So poignant and true. Especially (for me) around the toll of holding confidentiality amidst criticism and the struggle of having to do HR work, and also the part about missing church. Blessings on you … May you find the water you are so thirsty for.

  8. A comment I made on my Facebook post that I offer here as well with prayers and blessings for Peter in his new journeys: I often say that clergy have it significantly worse than therapists because not only are all the feelings of a family system projected onto the clergy, all the “God” projections are as well – in other words, all the hopes, dreams, and desires that the clergy are going to be all powerful and all loving and all knowing about how to help each person fulfill their ultimate sense of meaning-making – and always there and readily available, a saint if not God at least. Now that’s a very TALL order, impossible to achieve. The healthy church knows that ministry needs to be shared and that a particular clergy person is very human and has their own frailties and hopefully the clergy person knows that as well and can project that back into the system – or the healthy church system can help the clergy to be healthier as well. It’s a lesson I constantly try to work with in many parts of my own life, including the ministry. So the clergy can be about supporting humility, honesty, shared ministry, and a sense of abundant forgiveness in the church setting and with each other as colleagues – or not. The same is true of work situations. Our workplaces and churches both can reflect the broader capitalistic culture with status, money, power, and numbers being viewed as the mark of what is “good” – or they can strive to be countercultural and support that countercultural atmosphere among their employees, workplace environment, and products. In any organization, we either find what we’re seeking or strive to create it.

  9. Thank you. Beautifully written and profound, and I wish you all the best. Whatever you do, it will be a ministry to the world. May it be as nourishing to you as to those you serve.

    Two of the things that bother you most are heavy burdens for me as well: “being the screen for their projections and desires” and getting flak about personnel matters, especially from people who have been managers themselves and know the dilemma of confidentiality so well that they really ought to know better. For the former, I’ve wondered if psychotherapists and clinical social workers get training from which parish ministers might benefit. For the latter, all we can do is be worthy of trust and weather the outrage, but it’s a tough one.

  10. Pingback: Clergy stress from isolation | Episcopal Cafe

  11. Peter, I cannot begin to express my thanks for what you have written. I wish we could visit in person. Only now am I reconnecting with parts of my spirit that I lost in decades of devoted work. I am coming home bit by bit, but being active in a church is not part of it. The church I belong to and support and truly admire for its mission and care is geographically awkward for me to attend, but I think I could be part of it almost in that early “home” spirit. So many parts of your writing touched me deeply. You have a gift to share with colleagues both still active and no longer in the 24/7 call.

  12. Peter. Thanks for sharing your heart with us. As one who never made it into ordained ministry (was not willing to lie about being Gay to get in) I ended up in non-profits, mostly doing offender rehabilitation. Now I have a private psychotherapy practice. Offhand, I think you ARE burned out, it happens, and is certainly noting to be ashamed of.

    But I also think that most institutional churches are caught in the epidemic of fear that has enveloped the country. The worst part of that fear is that we have little to nothing to offer that is a genuine counter to that fear.

    You might enjoy this story about a priest who changed my life. http://edwardgarrenmft.blogspot.com/2012/12/third-day-of-christmas-very-reverend.html

    Also, I will pray for you because you will be back, probably not in the same role, but in something that suits you, and ministers to those around you.

    Best to you, Ed Garren

  13. WOW!!! It takes a BIG MAN Spiritually to not only admit all of this, but also to acknowledge that he is not letting down GOD or His Church. BUT in reality following GOD’s Leading in order to grow and minister BOTH from Strength to Strength to become more of whom he is supposed to BECOME for GOD’s Purpose.

    To do less is not being Accountable to GOD, nor the Church. Thank you for being the Servant that you were called to be.

    With Much Loving Prayers while wishing you GOD’s Grace, Love and Peace, your fellow Brother Servant,
    (The Rev.) Chet Thompson

  14. I know the feeling of wanting to go home- to not be at work at church-just sit in the pew. Pastors have a burden all the time- I wish you the best.

  15. Thank you for being my pastor oh so long ago. May you be blessed on the next stage of your vocation. You certainly were a blessing for me, even if it was only for a short number of years in the Mid-West.

  16. This is a wonderful way of seeing the situation I also embraced a year ago, and helps me tremendously. I have carried a sense of guilt and inadequacy since I retired from full time parish ministry after only 14 years. Before my ordination I did some of the same personal work as a psychotherapist for 18 years. I felt as though I let down both God and the Church, and was inadequate as a priest and a human being because I just couldn’t keep doing it full time. Thank you for this “kinder, gentler” explanation, which I can fully embrace as a good fit for me.

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