Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review: The Graceful Exit

From time to time, I write book reviews for the journal "Sharing the Practice", published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  To learn more about APC, visit:

Lindberg, Mary C. The Graceful Exit: A Pastor’s Journey from Good-bye to Hello. (Rowman and Littlefield/Alban Books, 2012). ISBN 978-1-5669-9432-3. 142 pp.

The call to ministry brings several years if not decades of faith, doubt, success and challenge, joy and hardship. Also, ministry brings with it a great deal of transition. How one is a good steward of the transitional times a minister goes through will make a great difference (or detriment) to the experience of those years of ministry.

Despite another classic Alban title on interim ministry, pastors are always “temporary shepherds”, even if we are “settled pastors”. For a season, we serve. For a season, we move among a particular group of Christians and a mission context where ministry takes place. Then after a season, we move on.

Yet, is such transition neat and tidy? Any minister will feel the unresolved issues, mull over the things done and left undone and need a time to heal from the grief and sometimes even anger of a parting of a ways with a place and position. As Pope Francis wisely observed, “A shepherd should smell like the sheep”. So, how does a shepherd leave a place and a position and even a sense of particular purpose with a ministry without something lingering deep within us?

Mary Lindberg’s book is a treasure of practical wisdom, written in a devotional manner that welcomes pastors contemplating new calls or even retirement to understand one’s leave taking of a ministry is not easily a matter of turning in the keys and walking out the door one last time. We have to embrace our transition with all of its pain and possibilities. Lindberg’s book helps pastors enter into the hard questions and common realities of transition so that one’s inevitable exit will be more about the grace of finishing and moving on than it might tend to for many of us. She offers a variety of helpful questions and exercises for pastors to think through the anticipatory grief of congregations as well as within the departing parson.

In my judicatory work in support of fellow pastors, I am sometimes present at the beginning of a pastor’s decision to move on. Dealing with all of the baggage of unknown and known issues related to clergy transition is hard enough. In Baptist and other Free Church traditions where clergy are called by the local church rather than placed by outside ecclesial authority, the anxiety is understandably high when a pastor’s tenure ends, as there may or may not be a new congregational position awaiting a pastor. When we serve indefinite terms of congregational calls with no appointment safety net, Free Church clergy and their loved ones often live with chronic anxiety, above or below the surface. Lindberg’s book is helpful for a pastor to read and discuss the implications of what Lindberg encourages with members of a pastoral relations committee, collegiality groups, or a clergy spouse or household member. This book and the possible conversations (internal and interpersonal) should not stay in the pastor’s study!

Sometimes my work with other pastors involves talking about the need to refrain from any further pastoral/professional ties to a given congregation. Lindberg provides helpful stories of other clergy having to let go, sharing insightfully about the process and the grief that comes with the experience. Lindberg’s book is a devotional and professional ethics lesson wrapped into one helpful and earnest effort to encourage healthier departures and arrivals.

I have encouraged a number of colleagues preparing to say good bye to congregations. Some of these clergy have said good bye to active ministry, transitioning into retirement, especially after longer-term tenures. I am grateful for Lindberg’s book as a deeply needed resource for pastoral ministry and congregational health.

Transition is part of ministry. We serve only for a season. We cannot escape the conversations awaiting us in Lindberg’s book. May we read it carefully, thoughtfully and enter and depart fields of ministry with grace abundant made known to our congregations, our households and even ourselves.

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