Ministry leaders end up having to say a lot of goodbyes.
In my life, I can remember blowing off a lot of goodbyes or failing at keeping up with folks in my many transitions and moves over the years. Only recently, have I realized that saying a good goodbye takes some intentional practice and is something that I actually want to get better at.
This is especially true when I consider that God is well aware of the church communities I have been a part of and the people He has brought across my path. And He has used those friendships and places I have lived to bless me and transform my life over the years.
With this in mind, I’d like to share these 10 tips that I learned from my time as a Serge Apprentice about saying good goodbyes:
1. Acknowledge transition. A good goodbye helps you to transition into the next situation. Transition is real. And it can hurt. Goodbyes help you—and the people in your life—make that transition well. Saying goodbye can seem like you are cutting off the relationship, but experientially, I have found that friendships in which I have said a good goodbye have stayed closer over time. It’s easier to pick things back up where they left off or begin a fresh phase of the relationship. Moving is not easy and if you have done it enough you develop an urgent need for consistency.
2. Allow enough time for goodbyes. Your goodbye does not have to be the last time you see that person! Sometimes it helps the transition to say goodbye sooner, especially if you know you will have a hectic move.
3. Choose a proper setting for the goodbye. Usually not the airport or when your moving truck is loaded—don’t leave your goodbye until you are stressed out and trying to get out of town. You can say bye then of course too, but as best you can, don’t let that be your “good” bye.
4. See goodbyes as both an event and a process. As an event, goodbyes are a celebration. I recently celebrated with my bandmate by getting together to play some of our songs, maybe for the last time. Take some time to remember. Jot down what you want to celebrate about someone and the memories you have together as you plan an appropriate event. But as you allow joy to come to mind, sorrow will be there too. In that case, it is good to remember that goodbyes are a process and your memories will bring up both sorrow and joy as you work through them. Closure and the potential for mending relationships is possible when these realities are faced.
5. Remember, goodbyes are generally harder for those left behind. Think about being the person especially in a city or church with a lot of turnover. How can you honor what the person has risked by investing in a relationship with you? If you’re reading this and you are the person staying, now may be time to be proactive to help your friend create goodbyes. You may need to lead the way.
6. As much as possible, don’t leave broken relationships when you leave. Resolve conflict as needed. This obviously may take another meeting than just your goodbye (Why #2 is so important—allow enough time for a good goodbye).
7. Understand what is a culturally appropriate goodbye. My wife taught English in Mexico for a summer and got to know and love a particularly low-income community there. When she was leaving, the community pooled their resources to offer her gifts. She was mortified to be taking the hard-earned, scarce resources of this community with her, but to say goodbye and reject their gifts would have been even worse. She accepted their gifts as a part of their cultural way of saying goodbye. How could you “translate” your goodbye in a way that connects?
8. Use objects as memory bonds. Maybe leave that recipe that you cooked for your friends or—give a friend that record from your collection that you know he loves. Leaving a meaningful or funny object is especially helpful if you are saying goodbye to kids.
9. Affirm what the relationship has meant to you. The lost art of letter writing is relevant here. As you go through the process of goodbye keep a running list of things to write about so you don’t forget.
10. Talk about the expectations each person has and allow for differences and realities, especially when it comes to keeping up with close friends. Don’t fall for the social media deception! Just because you are “connected” on Facebook does not mean you will really connect. Be realistic about how much you can (or will) keep in touch, many of us struggle at this and it is much more easily dealt with when we admit it. You can’t be two places at once, and you need to be most present wherever you physically are.
What Goodbyes Are All About
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, Marilyn Robinson’s lead character is a pastor named John Ames who lives in a small town called Gilead in Iowa, where John and his close friend Boughton have pastored churches for decades. Boughton even names his son after John, but his son turns out to be a heartbreaker, a derelict father, and a scoundrel.
At the end of the novel, John is saying goodbye to his scoundrel namesake, who decides he needs to leave town on account of the pain he has caused. After giving him some money for his journey, the pastor John Ames turns to his namesake and says something unremarkably pastoral (in the right kind of way) and certainly difficult in an intimate relationship storied with joys and sorrows:
“The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.”
He shrugged. “What would that involve?”
“Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—”
There were a few people on the street.
“No, no,” he said. “That doesn’t matter.” And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—”The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.
This is not the 11th tip to good goodbyes (“Place your hand on your friend’s head and…”) but rather I offer John Ames example to help us imagine what goodbye’s are all about: Offering God’s blessing. We have the incredible privilege as those who have been brought near to God through the precious sacrifice of Jesus Christ, so close that we have His ear when we ask for blessing.
A good goodbye celebrates the blessing that a friend or place or season has been to us, and in turn, we offer ourselves—our memories, words, time, presence, gifts—as a blessing.
This is an old pattern in the Christian faith that goes back to Abraham: we are blessed to be a blessing. This is the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12 that believers in God’s grace inherit today.
In every good goodbye, you celebrate and live into this reality. That’s what makes them good.