Sunday morning blues

August 9, 2013

An elderly church member became a dear friend to my wife and me over the years. One of the last things I did before retiring was bring the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to this woman. Sue came along. When that church member died at age 102, I wanted with everything in me to be part of the church’s celebration of her life and joyful affirmation of the resurrection. But as a newly retired pastor, I honored our denomination’s policy and stayed home.

My denomination requires retiring clergy to promise not to interfere in any way in the life of the congregation they left. They don’t preside at weddings, funerals or baptisms and under no condition do they offer advice or become involved in decisions and conflicts. The assumption is that the retiring minister will not be present in the life of the congregation in any activity until the successor is established and invites the former pastor to return.

I understand the policy and support it wholeheartedly; I’ve seen the unhappy results when it’s not honored. But staying away has been more difficult than I anticipated. A year after I retired I was leading a workshop when a participant asked me what I missed most about ministry. I remembered Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Leaving Church in which she said that she missed baptisms, beautiful infants, hopefully earnest young parents, and little children hugging her knees after worship. I began my own list right there, and in front of 30 professionals I was so overcome with emotion that I couldn’t continue.

Nobody warned me how much I would miss all this, or if they did, I wasn’t listening. On most Sunday mornings during the last 50 years I was awake before dawn, suiting up in my uniform—a dark suit, black polished shoes, and clergy shirt with collar, brewing coffee, glancing at the headlines of the Times and then heading off to work. I loved it. Now what am I supposed to do on Sunday mornings? It’s a tired adage, but I feel like the racehorse on race day, stomping around in its stall when the bell rings and the gate flies open.

My wife and I decided to keep our Chicago residence. There are compelling personal reasons for doing so. This means that I walk by the church on Michigan Avenue every day. Every time I do, something tugs at my heart.

To make matters more painful, my wife and I experienced a serious health setback around the time I retired, and we needed the support of the community as never before. Yes, there were phone calls and helpful, caring visits, but we missed the constant, familiar strength of the congregation we love.

One thing I have learned from this experience is something I should have learned long ago: ministry is not my personal possession. Ministry belongs to the church, the congregation I served for a while, the denomination of which it is a part—and to the whole church, holy, catholic, apostolic. In the painful process of letting go I am learning to let the church continue to be the church, performing a ministry that began before it allowed me to serve and continuing after I left.

So every Sunday morning I join my voice with the people of God today and throughout the ages who say together: “I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints . . .”


Transition to retirement

Thanks, John, for your faithfully enacted and well-stated report of your transition from active ministry in the parish to honorable retirement.  As a fellow Presbyterian who has been traveling this same road for a couple of years, I appreciate both your longing for continuing relationships, as well as your firm belief in the greater sense of ministry that exists beyond any one of us clergy.  Truly, one final responsibility of a retiring parish minister is to get out of the way so the next phase of congregational life might spring forth... and the new minister be given the opportunity to minister for and with the congregation.  So may God bless one and all.

Tim Roach, Corvallis, OR

Letter from Clayton Burgess

I  must disagree in part with John Bu­chanan when he joins the chorus of those who feel clergy have territorial rights that exclude former pastors (“Sun­day morning blues,” Aug. 21). I have always welcomed back previous pastors for special occasions when parishioners request it. Why not? They are no threat to me or my ministry and in particular situations may be able to minister more meaningfully than I.

In my last appointment a previous senior pastor was a part of the congregation. He was nearly 80 years old and was deeply loved and respected by the congregation. Many seniors wanted him to officiate at their funerals, and why not? 

I think clergy overlook the rights of their parishioners. Why should they not have the right to have the pastor of their choice on special occasions? Why can’t a pastor in God’s service be welcomed with open arms? Why are clergy often the worst example of the relationship of love so often spoken of in the pulpit? 

Clayton Burgess

South Glens Falls, N.Y.

Letter from Michael Anton

I  commend John Buchanan’s “Sun­day morning blues” (Aug. 21). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America doesn’t have same rules as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but re­tired pastors are strongly encouraged to be absent from the congregation. I didn’t need a lot of urging, because I had seen more than one example of the horror scenes created by former pastors who remained in the parish or responded affirmatively to requests for pastoral functions, regardless of the thoughts and wishes of the new pastor.

Even as I affirmed the concept intellectually, however, the emotional self has felt the pangs of grief and loss—particularly at people’s times of sickness and death. “Ministry is not my personal possession.” That’s the truth every pastor needs to learn sooner rather than later; it makes separation and grieving more doable.

Michael Anton

Hastings, Mich.

Letter from William Self

This call to pastoral ministry is a virus with no known cure. I still wake up at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning anticipating the events of the day, especially preaching. I miss the people. I miss deacons’ meetings, finance committee meetings, as well as pastoral duties. The relationships developed through this shared work were more important than the issues we debated. Most of all, I miss wrestling with a text and preaching. 

William Self

Alpharetta, Ga.

Letter from Jack DePond

I  join John Buchanan in understanding rules on retired pastors but do not support a full application of the policy, especially for small churches or in the instance of memorial services for older members. Most churches in our denomination are small; many pastors become indebted to elders through years of joint ministry. The policy assumes a serious lack of professionalism in the departing pastor and a denial of legitimate affection between clergy and parishioners. To presume that one’s presence at a memorial service would cause harm to the church or presbytery is bizarre. Buchanan had an absolute right to share some memories and to speak words of comfort to friends and family.

Jack DePond

Leon, Iowa

Letter from Ron Spears

When a congregation loses a pastor it still has itself. Pastors are left without friends or support. It is a lonely existence. There is good reason to have “Sunday morning blues.”

Ron Spears

Waterloo, Iowa