Insufficient attention has been given to the spiritual practice of leave-taking. For example, most churches have some form of new member class, and a service of welcome and blessing for new members. But how many offer a departing member class, and as formal a process for farewell and godspeed as for the newly minted members?
This past fall I took leave of one call in Wisconsin in order to accept a new call in Arkansas. Although many members were present for our farewell Sunday and potluck, and the congregation as a whole coordinated a wonderful worship service and liturgy of blessing, I also received many notes--on Facebook, hand-written, by e-mail--that began with the phrase, "I'm really bad at goodbyes. I don't know what to say..." and then continued with words of thanksgiving, blessing, and good luck. Clearly, many felt ill-equipped in saying goodbye, but were in actuality good at it.
So how can our leave-taking be a more intentional spiritual practice, and how can we as pastors be mentors in it? First of all, during times of farewell, be sure to thank people and compliment them for saying goodbye. For many, it is difficult simply to show up for the farewell service, or take time to write a letter or make the call. They have honored you by overcoming their emotions and lack of confidence. Thank them.
Second, we might take our cue from quality worship resources. One classic hymn, "God be with you till we meet again," (http://t.co/pzCtVJC), makes use of the etymology of the word "goodbye," which is "God be with you," to express hope-filled words of departure, centered in Christ and in anticipation of Christ's return. Sing songs like this.
Paul the Apostle, who took leave of many churches and individuals over the course of his missionary journeys, was especially practiced at saying goodbye. Consider his instructions in Philippians: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you" (4:8-9). Be courageous in encouraging the congregation or community you are leaving to continue the race, to keep the faith. You have been their mentor and example. It is wise for them to consider to look to your example for guidance and direction.
Finally, perhaps the most famous song of leave-taking in Scripture is Simeon's song (often called the Nunc Dimittis in classical music, and sung traditionally at Compline). Simeon, a daily worshipper in the temple in Jerusalem, upon meeting and taking into his arms the child Jesus, sings:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
It is impossible to overstate how important this song is as a guiding text for all of our goodbyes. It replaces the grief and despair of some departures with words of hope and confidence in the gospel. It is a goodbye that tells a story, and sings Simeon into a larger narrative than the specific narrative of his own individual life.
Many churches have begun making use of this hymn as the concluding hymn of their worship service. See, for example, Christian rock musician Jonathan Rundman's setting of the song in his Heartland Liturgy (http://www.jonathanrundman.com/esongbook.html). He calls it the Canticle for Departure. My former congregation has been using this liturgy during worship for the past three years, and our teenagers know the song so well that they clamor for it if we try and replace it with something else. For our departure from our congregation, they were able to stand up and sing it for us as a song of blessing and farewell.
Through repeated rehearsal of a song like Canticle for Departure during weekly Christian worship, our youth were given the words they needed to say goodbye, and we were blessed in the process.
Perhaps this is the most important lesson--an aspect of making farewells and godspeed a spiritual practice is to train ourselves in saying little goodbyes every week, week in and week out, making use of the great hymns and texts of the church. Then, at larger leave-takings (such as a move or a death), what we need to say goodbye is already there and available.