First, the author of the book “Death and Dying” is not Elizabeth Kubler Ross, as cited in Bob’s sermon. It’s Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Moreover, given that she wrote the book at a time when women were often treated with disdain by the largely male medical profession, it might be nice to recognize the fact that the author was an MD. That said, Bob has never been one to type his own sermons, so he gets a pass on that one.
Second, Bob’s recollection of the book is inaccurate. Kübler-Ross’s book is not about the reactions of dying children, but rather about dying patients of every age, albeit with most of her subjects being adults. Indeed, in a subsequent book, Kübler-Ross noted that children have some profound differences in their views toward dying, most notably that children below a certain age cannot grasp the concept of the finality of death. This correlates with the differing physiological aspects of terminally ill children, with many becoming more animated as these move into the preactive phase of dying. This differs from adults, who typically become more withdrawn as they enter this phase.
Third, and most significantly, while it is important to care for parishioners at a time of change such as this, the reality is that clergy come and go. In fact, many contend that it is unhealthy for clergy to stay more than 7 to 10 years; when clergy stay longer, they often tend to feel an unhealthy ownership of a church, versus recognizing that they are there to serve the church and its members. But in either case, clergy are there to point members toward God, the divine. They are not there to point members to themselves. Thus, correlating one’s retirement with the grieving process that occurs with death is highly inappropriate.
To be fair, Kübler-Ross herself noted that her model not only applies to death, but to the grief that comes from relationships that end, jobs that end, and other forms of loss. But clergy are never friends, and it is not possible to have a healthy pastoral relationship and be friends with your parishioners. You may be friendly, and that is good, but you may not be friends. Thus, Bob’s retirement is the transition from one professional relationship to another professional relationship.
Moreover, if Grace’s search committee, the diocese, and the church’s members all work together, Bob’s retirement is an opportunity to build a healthier church in which conflict is handled appropriately, in which faith and friendly are not conflated, and in which healthy boundaries within the parish are established and maintained. In that context, members hopefully will learn that there is never a situation in which it is appropriate to urge others to commit suicide, or for clergy to commit perjury, or for a church to try to drag a dying woman into court. Or, for that matter, to bully each other. For any reason. Ever.
Above all, Bob Malm’s retirement is a chance for church members to put their faith into practice. The way people in the church talk to each other, and about each other, is highly inappropriate, contrary to the baptismal covenant, and contrary to Christian values.
Will members of Grace Church ultimately learn from the problems of the Malm era? The answer is that it will depend on their willingness to examine their conduct, their attitudes, their faith, both individually and collectively. Affection for Bob, which in many cases borders on idolatry, makes this a challenging proposition. But without this careful introspection, and specific plans to enact meaningful change, Grace Church will not last much longer.
Yes, Grace Church is inclusive, but if it’s not spiritually sound, why bother? There are far cheaper and less demanding ways to enjoy time with others, and without all the petty nonsense, gossip, and bullying that goes on at Grace Church. And while Bob has improved on his previous feckless management practices, Bob’s conduct and decisions during his tenure as rector have been profoundly damaging to the parish. (Sorry folks, it takes two to tango. Even if you think I am utterly evil in every way, Bob’s handling of our conflict has been stupid and unethical on myriad levels, not the least of which is his decision to engage in perjury. And yet again, just ask Bob for proof that Mom, or someone claiming to be her, ever set up an appointment with him. This was a complete and utter fabrication, made in writing, under oath, and with the advice of legal counsel Jeff Chiow. But more importantly, he’s taught people to disrespect each other, and in doing so to disrespect God.)
Bob Malm will soon be a memory, and for some a positive memory. But real churches are not built around their rector, and healthy churches view change not as a loss, but as opportunity for new and possibly better things.
In the meantime, lose the five stages of death and dying analogies. As Bob himself once said of Peter and Cheryl Barnes leaving (and this is a direct quote), “Why should I give a fuck? People come and go all the time. People transfer in and out of churches.”
And yes, there were witnesses.