Three years ago, our associate pastor left to take another call. Our church immediately scheduled a farewell dinner. I assumed the students who she’d worked closely with during her tenure at our congregation would attend. While some did, most didn’t. But by then it was too late to help them say good-bye, something that was difficult for them.
As soon as our senior pastor announced he, too, had taken another call I flashed back to that experience. This time, I realized that part of my role as a staff member was to help our pastor and students say good-bye to one another.
Our senior pastor has served our congregation for 15 years. For all but our oldest high school students, he’s been their pastor their entire lives. He baptized most of them. He confirmed many of them. He’s walked with their families through difficult times. As a result, I knew teens needed to say good-bye to him, outside our congregation’s formal farewell, in a way that was developmentally appropriate.
So we scheduled a farewell party for our senior pastor, confirmands (our junior high youth ministry), and our high school ministry. Our student leaders planned it, ensuring it was age-appropriate – not too sad, but not too silly either.
We played games – a classic, semi-messy youth group game but also some games specific to our senior pastor. We blew up pictures of him wearing his clerical collar and played “Pin the clerical collar on the Pastor”. Both our junior high and high school students played a version of the Newlywed game designed to help them reflect on their time together, while staying light-hearted and fun. Indeed, throughout the first part of the night, there was much laughter.
Then our student leaders each spoke. They shared a memory of our pastor along with something they’d learned from him. Then they presented him with gifts they’d chosen based on things they knew about him: Custom guitar picks featuring a picture of him playing the guitar on one of our winter retreats; A wooden fountain pen (He’s a little nuts about them); and a handmade leather journal (He’s a writer).
One of the things our teens associate most with our senior pastor is his love of music. So our student leaders also requested our pastor lead us in song during our celebration. That is, after all, what we do in the Christian faith: We sing to worship God in times of celebration and in times of sorrow.
We finished the night by laying hands on our pastor and praying for him. Immediately, some of our junior high kids burst into laughter. Being in such close proximity to one another was just too much for them.
And yet, we prayed anyway – grateful for laughter in the midst of tears. We prayed prayers of thanksgiving for what our pastor has brought to our congregation and prayers of blessing for his ministry at his new church.
Then we hugged it out.
The night was simple, fun, and meaningful for our pastor and teens. It gave everyone the chance to actually say good-bye.
A few weeks ago, our senior pastor remarked at a staff meeting that the best gift a departing pastor can give his congregation is to say good-bye well.
I couldn’t agree more.
Saying good-bye well gives people the space to grieve and lament. It gives them finality and allows them to have closure, which, in turn, makes it possible for them to embrace whoever comes next without feeling like they’re betraying the person who’s left.
That’s what we did at our party.
We celebrated, yes. We laughed. We played. We remembered.
And in the process, we said good-bye well.