Last week I received a lapel pin to commemorate twenty-five years of service to public education. It has actually been twenty-seven years, but my school system has only recently begun such recognitions and is a bit “behind.” I will not get a thirty year pin. When I close my calculus text in May, I will close a chapter of my professional life. Earlier today, I signed all the paperwork required for my retirement. My wife – also a teacher – beat me to the punch last Friday. We will “go out” together, a sort of Exodus.
In our educational and professional Egypt there were no harsh taskmasters, though, and no slave labor. I hope we made some bricks and built some monuments in the lives of students; I think we did. Looking back on the time, we realize how blessed we were and are – leeks and meat pots aplenty in the land of our sojourn. But, as a wise brother once told me, “There is a calling to a place, and a calling away from a place.” After much prayer and reflection – and wise counsel – we know it is time to leave.
At the end of the school year, there will be a picnic where I will probably be roasted by members of my department. You can’t work in one place for twenty-seven years and not commit many roast-worthy faux pas. We will have a good time. I will speak a few words of gratitude and encouragement – public education is difficult and the incredibly dedicated teachers there need encouragement – and I will be presented a commemorative school bell by the system. And then it will be over and we will all go home – twenty-seven years wrapped up in a few minutes. There should be more.
Understand, I am grateful for what will be done; kind and generous colleagues and friends will bid me a true fare-well and many will genuinely miss me. But, I know that my work at the school has been more than a job, more even than a profession. It has been Christian ministry, different in kind but not in degree from the vocational priesthood to which, in retirement, I can now devote more time.
What is needed in the leave-taking from this or any vocation done for the glory of God and to the welfare of his people is not merely a retirement picnic, but something like A Service for the Ending of a Pastoral Relationship and Leave-taking from a Congregation (Book of Occasional Service 2003, adapted throughout).
The celebrant – the principal, my department chair? – should begin:
Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
because meaningful work done well, with praise and thanksgiving and in service, is blessed by God and because those who perform it bless God in deed even when, perhaps, they cannot in word.
A collect should gather up our hearts and minds along with the years’ successes and failures and a life of hope and dreams:
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally, by thy mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then, instead of a roast there should be a homily on the dignity and gift of work, or perhaps just a hymn; I might even suggest Lord of All Hopefulness:
Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord at the noon of the day (lyrics, Jan Struther).
Afterwards, I would stand to speak:
In the academic year of 1989-1990, I was hired by Principal N. as teacher of mathematics. I have, with God’s help and to the best of my abilities, exercised this trust, accepting its privileges and responsibilities. After prayer and careful consideration, it now seems to me that I should leave this charge, and I publicly state that my tenure as teacher of God’s children ends this day.
Should my colleagues have a say in all this? Should the principal ask?
Do you, the faculty and administration of __________, recognize and accept the conclusion of this pastoral relationship?
Most would say yes – some gladly and some with mixed feelings. A few might say no, the few who might be negatively impacted by my leaving. But it is time and most of us know it.
I would then take a few moments to express my gratitude to those who have been more than fellow-workers: friends, confidants, mentors. And I would ask forgiveness from any I have hurt or slighted or ignored or failed to pray for through the years.
And then the prayers:
O God, you have bound us together for a time to work for the advancement of your kingdom in this place: We give you humble and hearty thanks for the ministry which we have shared in these years now past.
We thank you for your patience with us despite our blindness and slowness of heart. We thank you for your forgiveness and mercy in the face of our many failures.
Especially we thank you for your never-failing presence with us through these years, and for the deeper knowledge of you and of each other which we have attained.
Now, we pray, be with the one who leaves and with those who stay; and grant that all of us, by drawing ever nearer to you, may always be close to each other in the communion of your saints. All this we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.
Perhaps I might even be allowed a final blessing, for blessing is what I have longed and tried to do each day I served: blessing to my colleagues, blessing to the students, blessing to the community, blessing to the profession.
The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.
Retirement from any honest work well and intentionally done for the glory of God and in humble service of God’s people is a leave-taking of one pastoral relationship and the beginning of another. The accountant and homemaker, the custodian and physician, the real estate agent and financial planner, the mechanic and yes, the teacher in our parish is a priest in that place where he or she glorifies God through work. It is a blessing to have been reminded of that – and we all need to be reminded of that – for twenty-seven years.
Photo: Creative Commons