Self Care in the Face of Goodbye

Pope Benedict XVI announced yesterday he’s retiring at the end of the month, citing fatigue and a lack of energy needed to continue leading the Roman Catholic Church in these tumultuous times.

Part of me wanted to dance. After all, I know many, many women — nuns, sisters, monjas and soeurs — who have felt persecuted by the leader of their faith since almost the day he took the throne. I mean seat of the papacy.

I have two great aunts who are nuns. They are the two remaining of five sisters who entered the convent in their teens. They’ve lived lives of humble service to the divine, to humanity, and to their communities of Sisters who’ve paid their own way in world collectively, with no help from the Vatican. Over the last few years though, a kind of war has been launched by the Pope to “reform” the most liberal of the Sisters, the ones who dabble in heresies like Buddhist meditation and Reiki healing as they support single moms and fight for marriage equality. The general consensus among these Sisters, even among my great aunts who were professed more than 75 years ago, is that it’s a grab for the property they own, in an attempt to get the resources to pay for the mistakes of the “boys,” the priests who’ve molested children and the bishops who’ve covered up their crimes.

My hope, my prayer for the Catholic Church is that the next Pope is more attuned to what could save it: ending practices stuck in the middle ages that promote policies of misogyny and homophobia. It seems unlikely.

This morning, I was reading about the retirement and some of the responses from clergy. Catholic officials around the globe and California praised the Pope for his intellectualism and his humility. None of it was particularly insightful, until I got to the comments offered to the local paper by non-Catholic colleagues in ministry. Rev. Erin Matteson, co-pastor of the Church of the Brethren in Modesto, is quoted as saying “I applaud Pope Benedict for setting a healthy and helpful model for leadership regarding self-care. Too often leaders hesitate out of guilt or thinking, “They can’t live without me,” rather than realizing that stepping aside may be an opportunity for new life beyond me that this time and place may be calling for. May Pope Benedict take care of himself and discover new life, trusting the Catholic Church will not fall apart.”

Now I’m no leader of more than a billion faithful worldwide. I’m a quarter time cheerleader for about 65 faithful in the southernmost part of California’s Central Valley, a minister in the smallest mainline religion in the United States. But the change the Pope is facing is not unlike the change I am facing in my leadership, and thanks to Rev. Matteson, I can see the Pope differently now, with more compassion.

I’ve been asked several times over the last few months if I would be willing to stay on here at the UU Fellowship of Kern County. Part of me wants to shout, “Yes!” I would love to continue to be part of this congregation, full of people I love, as we figure out what our role in the world is, and embark on new exciting journeys together. But the larger part of me knows how hard it is to be 200 miles away about 85% percent of the time, reading local news that is not local at all to the folks I serve. My body knows that packing in 20+ hours of worship and meetings into a weekend sandwiched between 3.5+ hour drives is exhausting. It’s unsustainable, at least for me, a guy who quit a lucrative job ten years ago because of the time it required behind the wheel.

But this my heart knows: This congregation will find, as Rev. Matteson said, “new life beyond me that this time and place are calling for.”

Over the last few months, we’ve had visits from a few UU ministers and ministers-to-be, preaching from our pulpit on Sunday. The goal of the worship team, in inviting so many guest preachers, has been to show the congregation what is possible: different styles of worship, different methods of leadership, different foci of calling, and different possibilities for us all in the coming year or years.

Your newly formed New Minister Hiring Committee — Linda Haggerty and Duncan Low — will be working on your behalf to reach the goal you have collectively set out: to hire a world class minister by offering fair compensation and a commitment to Unitarian Universalism.

In the coming months, as we plan for the future and prepare to say goodbye, may we all discover new life, new energy, and new ways of being in relationship with one another.

In Peace,
Rev. Denis