An old word for a new day

Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

Saying "goodbye" is a difficult task, especially for a congregation. It runs counter to our desire for church growth. To wave farewell seems a step backward. Even so, if we do not say "goodbye," we cannot say "hello." These two major tasks, first learned in Kindergarten (according to Robert Fulghum), are two sides of the same coin.

As followers of Jesus Christ we know this, don't we? The baptismal formulas of our various traditions connect endings with beginnings. We die and rise with Christ. When someone moves from one community to another, there is an ending, if not a death of the way relationships currently operate. We, who believe in resurrection, need to spend more energy on this ending. It is not a self-defeating exercise, but a statement of faith that can proclaim the good news as clearly as a Christian funeral.

This lesson came home to me several years ago. I pastor a suburban Baltimore congregation. In 1991 our average attendance was 120, with a membership of 170. By the end of 1993, it was down to 95 on a given Sunday. The change was not due to disgruntled folks exiting out the back door. We went through one of those not uncommon periods when the mobile nature of our society affected our congregation.

Over a three year period 10 active families moved away. In a church this size, that's a big chunk. Most were somehow involved in leadership. Add to that a youth group which graduated and moved on to college or career, with no younger people in the middle school age to fill the gap, and here was a recipe for low congregational self-esteem.

Personally speaking, I struggled with both the grief of departing co-workers, and an unrealistic sense of failure. In retrospect, I recognize some of the successes of this period, among them being our intentional saying of "goodbye" to these loved ones and friends. Dealing with a given reality paves the way for new possibilities. Sending persons forward with a blessing directly addresses some of the questions involved in them leaving. "Did we do something that caused them to go?," is an irrational response that needs an answer. Furthermore, those who move on need that blessing as they enter the unfamiliar. They need a sense of mission, an encouragement to work with/for Christ in a new place.

Worship is an appropriate setting for "goodbyes." Many in our churches are not aware of the religious roots of the word itself. "God be with you," we are saying linguistically, if not intentionally. "Goodbye" is a blessing, as surely as "farewell." In days gone by, we may have referred to "Godspeed" when liturgically saying "goodbye." Amid the hectic ending of one century and the beginning of the next, it's a reminder of another "speed" by which to travel. Persons don't exit at a rapid pace, escaping the pain and the joy. We walk our way through the process - planes, trains and automobiles notwithstanding.

At our church, since "Green" is part of our name, we have given green T-shirts to those leaving. When one family returned to mission work in Botswana, Africa we shared sandals with them. To another young couple who left for three years of service in Jamaica, we gave mugs. We also gave a small evergreen tree to a family as they moved to Maine, for them to plant in their new yard. Tangible items such as these help to express the intangible and inexpressible. Handshakes and/or hugs are always appropriate, also.

Another way in which we have adapted the service has been to include other lay persons, so that this "pastoral" act is owned by the people. Sometimes these others can speak for those leaving if they feel unable. Other times such friends can add their own words or actions to the liturgy they are helping to enact.

Many of us have a hard time with "goodbyes," preferring to slip quietly into the night. We could not allow one family to do so, as they had contributed so much to our fellowship, involving us in a soup kitchen, group homes, and other service areas. We needed to celebrate our relationship, even though it soon would be altered. Embarrassment is not an excuse for failing to do what needs to be done. Green T-shirts now, on occasion, adorn a new community.

"To everything there is a season," Ecclesiastes wrote. It seems that our congregation's season of so many "goodbyes" is at an end, for the time being. We're working more, now, on our "hellos." To quote the old Preacher further, however, there is still in our society much "chasing after the wind." Paying attention to the "goodbyes" is a positive way of encouraging God's people to be propelled by a greater Wind.

2000, Peter L. Haynes

Go to a selection of Farewell services

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