On the Nature of a Minister's Relationship with the Congregation

Well, dear friends, as a UU minister (retired), I’ll let you in on a truth of ministry and congregations. When we ministers leave a ministry, we must leave it. Leave it. Be absent. Stop contact. Why? Because someone else is or will be your minister, and we must get out of the way. And, when we serve a congregation, we are not your friend, no matter how much we love each other.  We have responsibility for enhancing your well-being. You do not have responsibility for enhancing our well being, even if we are unwell.

Who says we must leave our beloved congregations?  We do. We ministers say so. Not a congregation’s Board of Directors. Not the Unitarian Universalist Association.  It is the covenant we ministers make with one another in the UU Minister’s Association that says so. 

And so, when Rev. Ilene’s sick leave ends on August 15, she will be absent from UUTC.  Gone. We have already said our formal goodbyes. But we’ve continued a relationship with her while she’s on sick leave, visiting, taking food.  That ends August 15.

Why will she be gone, separate and apart from us? 
To make space for our new minister to build relationships with us.

You can read more about this here:  https://www.uuma.org/mpage/BSE2000, which was a major address by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed on the topic of leaving a ministry.  Here’s a highlight:

My years as a congregant did not prepare me, however, for a cruel irony. Ministry, as most of you have discovered I am sure, is a source of unrequited grief. I regret having not read the fine print. If I had, perhaps I would have made another choice. But the print was very small, the phrasing paradoxical, while I was young and eager. This is what it said:

You will love your parishioners with all your heart but never befriend them.  You will pour out your lifeblood for the community but never settle there. You shall die to the congregation so that the ministry might live.

The relationship of minister and parishioner has the qualities of a friendship, but no matter how warm and deep, authentic and reciprocal the relationship is it is not a sustainable friendship. Why? Because it is built upon an unavoidable imbalance - the minister is always more responsible for the relationship. When necessary we must be prepared to forsake the role of friend for that of minister, and ready to choose the well being of the community over the needs of the friend. We are not as free to share all aspects of our lives and ourselves. Nor can we make friends with whom we please, for that would create two classes of parishioners — the chosen and the not. Finally, when our ministries come to an end so must the relationships, lest we take up space the next ministry needs if it is to take root.

It hurts, it is sad, but it is the truth.

Rev. Jean M. Rowe (retired Minister, Member of UUTC)