Reflections On Leaving A Congregation



This is my last reflection from Montreux. It is one of the hardest ones to write because there are so many options. I remember the time when the question of my being ordained was to be decided. I was naturally anxious and said to my mentor “Well if they say ‘No’, then I’m going in there and will kick a few doors down as I go. This is the ‘after me, the deluge’ mentality. It says “I may be going, but because there is now nothing to lose, I am going to create mayhem as I go. Then you will miss me!”


This is the suicide bomber mentality. It reasons ‘I will be gone, but there will be havoc after I’m gone, and then you will know that I was here.’


Or maybe Simon and Garfunkel have it


In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains


As presidents of the United States leave office, the newspapers are full of the question ‘What will be his legacy?” They point to the final deeds of the president, which they make in an effort to ‘shore up’ their legacy. This is a question for everyone who has tried to do something, rather than nothing. How will I be remembered? Tony Blair is still battling over his legacy in taking the UK into the Gulf War.


When a priest goes, does he or she have to worry about their legacy? I have been thinking about this a bit. When I first came I had a conversation with the Archdeacon who mentined the long interregnum,. And the difficulties that the congregation had, for many reasons, in attracting a priest. I said “I hope I can do something from the congregation’s side to make this period shorter next time.” If that happens, then I would be happy for that to be my legacy. As well, the one question that made me say ‘Yes’ to coming was ‘How can we become a missionary congregation.’ I n working hard to finish the ‘Mission Action Plan’ there is something that can guide the congregation in the future. It will either sit there gathering dust, or it will become grimy with use in Chaplaincy council meetings. Having produced this document, I think I can say that at least some of the ‘missionary congregation’ work has been done.


In both the book of Deuteronomy, and in John’s Gospel Chapter 14, both Moses and Jesus give big speeches on their departure. St Paul does it too in the epistles where he warns his congregations about the ‘wolves’ that will come to try to take advantage of them after he has gone. This is to prepare the people whom they lead for life after their departure.


I am ambivalent about this. First, although it is tempting, I do not want to say ‘My influence should live on after I am gone. I am immortal, and you should keep doing what I would have wanted after I am gone.’ Having gone, I am gone. It is a mistake to try to ensure my immortality by trying to govern the conditions of a congregation after I have gone. But at the same time, I think it is ok to summarise what I think I is important about the work that we have done together so that if it counts for anything, this summary can form the basis of the kind of life that the congregation wants to follow for the future.


Another image that comes to me is that of living the Baptismal life. You have heard me speak about this many times. Now it is time for us to experience it one with another. We are in the process of dying, one to another. There will be a period of loss and grief for everyone for a time. But because Jesus has been raised, then we know that new life is assured for us all. As both I and you begin to engage with new realities, then new ‘selves’ will emerge from this engagement. What these new selves look like will be partly because of my ministry, but mostly because of how you engage with the new priest and the new set of circumstances in which you find yourselves.


What influences the future will be as a result of, ‘the power that is at work in you,’ as St. Paul says. This ‘power’ will always be a mixture of the power of God’s Spirit, and the ‘powers’ of this world. My prayer is for me and you that the power of God’s Spirit will grow. As the baptism service from the Methodist Hymn book says ‘Grant that things belonging to the flesh [everything opposed to God’s Spirit*] may die in him/her and things belonging to the Spirit may live and grow in him/her.”


Which brings me to an awareness of the places where I have acted according to ‘the flesh’ here, and not according to the Spirit. Clearly I go with some regrets about what I was not able to do and about the people I was not able to get on with.


I love the quote from Henry V where after trying hard to cross the Somme, Henry’s army is small, sick and bedraggled. The duke of Gloucester says about the French army “I hope they will not come upon us now.’ Henry replies “We are in God’s hands brother, not theirs.”

That is the reality. The reality within which we have worked together, and now take our leave from each other id not of our making so much as of God’s. It is God who is the ‘lord of years.’ This means that whatever we do is provisional and subject to God’s ultimate destiny for us all: both for blessing what we do and for painful education to ‘fit us for heaven.’ This helps me to leave, having put in place all that I can for a good future for you all, yet knowing that I cannot do everything.


As St. John writes in his epistle “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see him as he is.’ God bless you all.


* My interpolation.




About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Duty, Living Before the Face of God, Religion and Society, Uncategorized, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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