Good Grief and Good-Bye’s by the Rev. Jenni Ovenstone Smith, Senior Associate at St. John’s Ellicott City, MD

As a sense of the new year and its new beginnings still rings, I am in the midst of an ending. I am saying “farewell” to a congregation and school community that I have loved serving as an associate rector and chaplain for more than 10 years, to begin a new call. While this ending inherently is tied to a new beginning, I know enough to let the ending stand alone. These last weeks have been, and continue to be, full and intentional: planning for how and when to announce my departure, phone calls to the short list of people I wanted to hear directly from me rather than through a parish communication blast, the timeline mapped out with my team of key events, paying attention to the concentric circles of good-bye’s ( the parish-wide gathering, the “last” time celebrating and preaching with each worshipping congregation, the opportunities for the liturgical and ritual traditions of community farewells, the staff gatherings, the ministry teams’ and commissions’ last meetings, the small group socials and the one-on-one coffees.) I have noted as pro-actively as possible my preferences to parish leaders and colleagues about how all these things might be accomplished and communicated. This planning is well worth it, for I know that leaving well can be one of the most important things we do as spiritual leaders. I know that healthy leave-taking in a community models and makes way for resilience, positive relationships, and emotional maturity. I know that healthy departures allow for healthier entries and more flexible ministries and relationships for all connected to the transition. I know it is important to stay present in my current community, even as I begin mental and practical preparations to relocate and enter the new. I know that the many practical and emotional facets of farewells cannot be skipped, skirted, or rushed. I know how important it is to say, and give intentional space for others to say, both “thank you” and “good-bye,” and mean it. But, as the reactions and the congratulations are now turning to questions: “Who will be working with us on this once you leave?” or “What will ____ look like going forward?” ; when it comes to all the matters of “what’s next?” … I don’t know. And therein is the grief. The grief is not as I had imagined in the “thank-you’s” and “good-byes.” Those are full of all that is and has been: the joys, the collaborative vision, the accomplishments, the celebrations, the shared journeys, the gratitude. The grief is in what is yet to be and what is not to be: all the next steps and new journeys we will not share together, the many “might have been’s” and “could have’s”, all the plans that will be theirs, and not mine. Even at the beginning of this farewell, I would have read these “what’s next?” questions as signals of anxiety or avoidance: distraction in the details, parishioners pushing aside or rushing past the emotional labor of the present leave-taking Now I know otherwise. This is a community — these are colleagues and friends — willing to look into the grief with me as we go through something together one last time. This is a good “good-bye.”


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