As a Quaker minister for nearly 11 years of my 26 years in ministry, I have encountered a variety of issues among Friends. One of those is Friends’ lack of procedures to help ministers discern when it is time to move on, retire, or hand over the “baton” of ministry to new ministers.
When I became a minister for the first time in a Quaker meeting, I found myself dealing with this very issue head on: my predecessor stayed a little too long. Some in the meeting decided it was time for him to retire so they could progress into a new era and explore new possibilities for ministry. Even after he retired, he and his wife chose to stay in the area and continue attending the meeting. At first, people in the meeting did not see any harm in allowing this. Many encouraged him to give me some space as I began my ministry, but within days of my arrival he was attending gatherings and even trying to advocate for how I should proceed with the meeting. Within months, the meeting began to see signs of division and blurred lines of pastoral guidance.
Prior to becoming a Quaker minister, I served both Lutheran and Anglican churches. Both denominations offered transitional guides for ministers and had a set of procedures in place to help protect new ministers while also supporting and encouraging outgoing ministers. Obviously, they both recognized the issues that may arise in these transitional times. One such document in the Lutheran church titled, Leaving Well, states:
It is vitally important, when retiring and leaving, to lovingly cease all activities of the ministerial office for the sake of those served and to open the way for the new pastor…to best serve the community.
It goes on to list the specific activities that a minister should cease, like performing weddings and funerals, providing pastoral care, advising members on congregational life and governance, offering advice or criticism to the new minister, and even continuing to teach or lead groups within the congregation. They make it clear that a former minister should no longer be part of the congregation for the sake of it and them moving forward. Some even go as far as to say the minister must take a five-year hiatus from the church and only return after getting permission from the new minister and the congregation.
I believe this advice would have benefitted me in my first Friends meeting and would have afforded me the opportunity to create a better foundation. The failure of not having these procedures in place created an unsafe environment for me and my family and ultimately ended in a great deal of hardship and, sadly, a split within our meeting.
The failure of the former minister not lovingly ceasing his connection with our meeting led to many unnecessary challenges, hardships, and ugly battles. At times it denied the meeting the necessary grief work needed in these types of transitions, leaving the people emotionally drained and frustrated. Some people in the meeting even turned to the former minister for comfort or care, not allowing the community and me the opportunity to build the foundation that comes from shared struggles and learning together. It also caused people within the meeting to become confused about where and how to focus their commitments, creating unnecessary conflicts, comparisons, and critiques.
The failure of the former minister not lovingly ceasing his connection with our meeting led to many unnecessary challenges, hardships, and ugly battles. At times it denied the meeting the necessary grief work needed in these types of transitions, leaving the people emotionally drained and frustrated.
In the end, the presence of the former minister greatly hindered the meeting’s ability to have the genuine dialogue necessary to work through our challenges and move forward in new directions and it ultimately undermined the ministry, and also subverted my credibility and effectiveness. I am sure these were not the outcomes either of us ministers were hoping for.
When I look back on this difficult time, I think of how this all could have been avoided if Friends would have had a procedure that supported, protected, and empowered incoming ministers and also one to help outgoing ministers discern and prepare for their retirement.
After spending six years there, I received a call to serve another Quaker meeting. I would once more be following a minister who had chosen to retire. Yet this time, things were much different. This minister was paying forward something she believed the minister before her gifted her in his retirement: like him, she was going to leave the meeting and stay away so I would have the ability to get to know the people, learn to love and serve alongside them, and become their new minister. And thankfully she has done just that. Over the last four years, I have found the ministry flourishing in this meeting. Sure, we have had our struggles, but because my predecessor was willing to retire and step away from our meeting, I have also been able to build a good relationship with her and invite her back to join us for worship without feeling she has some plan to subvert the ministry.
Each week, I participate in a Zoom call with Quaker ministers from around the United States. We often discuss the numbers of fellow Quaker ministers we know who are retiring or leaving the ministry. It is often a sad state of affairs and a reality check for those of us still considered “younger” by Friends’ standards. With so many ministers retiring or leaving, the lack of procedures for transition are ever present and so needed.
On occasion, I have been asked by older ministers who are considering retirement or leaving their meetings to help them prepare and think about what to consider. Ironically, many of the things I have discussed in this article are often not even on their transition “radars.”
Recently our ministerial association met for the first time since the pandemic began. I found I was the only minister of the five churches in our association who had stayed at my meeting; all the others had retired or moved on to new positions. At one point over lunch, we went around and shared the difficulties we have experienced during ministerial transitions. I heard several stories very similar to the one I shared above, along with a few good experiences. Each of the good ones involved transitions supported by the denominations. They were given some type of transitional guide and procedure to help them. One of our fellow ministers was preparing for retirement in the coming months and said she knew the importance of leaving well and lovingly ceasing her ministry in a healthy and proper way because of the guidance her denomination and church gave. As I left that lunch, I could not help but think how Friends were the only ones around the table without some type of procedure or guideline in place to help support their ministers.
Because of the difficulties our meeting, my family, and I went through, my hope is that by sharing my experiences I may encourage yearly meetings and local meetings to work on creating helpful and supportive procedures and guides for ministers so they can process and discern these challenging life transitions in a manner that is beneficial to them, their meetings, and future ministers. I believe we have the ability and the responsibility to do better especially with so many good procedural examples out there for us to utilize.