On the day of my ordination, I made a bunch of promises. I promised to listen faithfully for the word of God in the scriptures, to pray, to speak the truth in love, to preach as best as I know how, to keep confidences, to not play favorites among the various members of my church and to love those with faith and no faith — all with the help of God. On that day, I did not promise to have any sort of pastoral ethics.
I really wish I had because it would be really helpful right now. This isn’t the only moment in time that it would be helpful — but it’d be kinda awesome right now. But I can’t change the liturgy of the Order for Ordination to Ministry. I have to grapple with the Ordained Minister’s Code which makes lovely statements about the work that I do but falls a little short of a promise. It’s a document in the background of the work that I do in the United Church of Christ. As ordained clergy, we never publicly declare that we will live by this code even though it’s the yard stick that we are measured by. Ours is a tradition open to interpretation. We make promises on the day of our ordination but ordained clergy in the United Church of Christ have varying understandings of pastoral ethics. For many of us, it was a class in seminary rather than something that our denomination advises. The problem with that is that most of seminary was focused on what to do when you are hired to serve a church — not what happens when you are called to another church.
So, I feel a little lost as I’ve stood in the narthex for six weeks greeting the same people over and over again with another version of farewell. It happened again this morning. Next Sunday is my last Sunday at the church I currently serve — but I said goodbye to many of the people who will be there next week, the same people that have said goodbye to me for the past six weeks. It’s this fact that makes me feel like I’m not leaving well. Because I’m spiritually and mentally exhausted by this repeated exercise. I’m not sure how to say goodbye once — never mind seven, eight or fifteen times. And then, there’s that whole question of ethics because nearly everyone of these church members says to me, “But we’ll keep in touch, right?”
It’s too much to explain when asked this question in the narthex or in the reception next week, but my answer is, “No, we won’t keep in touch.” We won’t keep in touch because I don’t know how to just be your friend. I’ve been your pastor for almost six years. I have been caught up in the ups and downs of your life in a manner that is too difficult to separate into neat little boxes. I can’t just check the friend box now after being your minister, your advocate, your shepherd and sometimes your swift kick in the ass. I have been all of those things to you.
Our relationship has been complicated by the fact that I have shared in this very particular relationship of loving you even when I didn’t want to love you and reminding you about God when I wasn’t sure how to believe myself. I know that seems complicated because you’ve seen me make mistakes and do other really silly things for the love of God. (See Exhibit A.) But, I have always been your pastor. I entered into this relationship where I have shared some insanely personal things with you. I promised to keep your confidence and always will, but I don’t know how to go backward to see you as a mere friend. You were never just a friend to me. You were a child of God to whom I was called to support, nurture and inspire so that you could see how beloved by God you are. I pray that I have done that well. I hope that I leave you with greater understanding of this awesome fact, but this has been such holy work that I would never belittle with the word friend.
Maybe that will change over time. Maybe not. For now, it’s the only way that I know how to keep sane. Because I’ll go on to love another community of saints. I’ll become their pastor. And, God willing, you will find someone to love as your pastor. And I don’t want to screw either of those blessed relationships up.
That’s what I want to say every time the question is asked.