Churches have various ways of saying ‘hello’ to a new minister/pastor/priest. In some denominations this includes a formal licensing or induction at the beginning of a new period of ministry. The Methodist Church does things slightly differently; as we are already part of a Connexion, Methodist ministers are ‘welcomed’. My own welcoming service at Walworth Methodist Church takes place on Saturday 30th August, just before the commencement of the new Methodist Year. This service will inevitably be a time of looking to the future; prayers will be said, commitments and promises made. I’m sure it will be a splendid occasion.
We’re good at saying ‘hello’, but I’m not sure we are always so good at saying ‘goodbye’. For this there is in Methodism no set form of worship or any requirement to do anything in particular at all.
One of my predecessors in circuit indicated that he didn’t want any particular fuss made when he left. Despite being Circuit Superintendent (and therefore having a relationship with all the churches of the circuit) he asked that only the churches in his pastoral charge organise their own farewells; there was to be no circuit occasion. What was plain when I came into the circuit was that there were many who missed the opportunity to say goodbye properly; the lack of a formal farewell was a cause of regret and even hurt. Yes, this had been according to the wishes of the minister concerned, but I wonder whether this is something too important to be left to the whims of the person leaving – a good farewell is as important for those who stay as those who go, for it recognises the loss we feel at such times and acknowledges that this particular pastoral relationship has come to an end. This is especially important in the Methodist context, where one minister going is followed so rapidly by the new minister coming.
For this reason I have always requested, on leaving a circuit, a worship service that includes a ‘liturgy of leaving’. Originally this particular liturgy was recommended by a colleague, and I knew it only as a photocopy, but there are many variant versions about on the internet, and it appears to originate in Human Rites by Hannah Ward & Jennifer Wild (Mowbray, 1995). For me the most moving and significant part of the service is where the congregation says to the departing minister:
As you journey onward,
we ask forgiveness where we have failed you;
we give thanks for all you have given us;
we assure you of our love and prayers.
And the departing minister replies:
As I leave,
I ask forgiveness where I have failed you;
I give thanks for all that you have given to me;
I assure you of my love and prayers.
As I move on I am acutely aware of things left incomplete, problems unresolved, loose ends left untied. Many of the hopes and dreams I had coming to the circuit nine years ago were unfulfilled. Of course this is not my responsibility alone, though sometimes I have thought it was, and for this sin too I need to say sorry; ministry is shared by minister and people. To recognise this and offer mutual confession and forgiveness is part of the process of saying goodbye and moving on.
Leaving the Islington and Camden Circuit after nine years of ministry there has not been easy, but I found the last month very affirming. All four churches organised a meal or presentation or both on my last Sunday preaching there –and I was moved by people’s generosity. There was also a circuit event which included the aforementioned act of worship, some very kind speeches and refreshments afterwards. This was also an opportunity to invite ecumenical colleagues and some of the people from the community I’ve worked with over the years, not just to say goodbye but also to publicly recognise those relationships, which I hope will continue under my successor’s tenure. Perhaps it is not for me but others to say – but I think we did say goodbye properly.