Yesterday, I said my last good-bye to Mark Stringer, the minister at First Unitarian Church of Des Moines. He told us six months ago that he was leaving the ministry, and I’ve been grieving ever since.
It’s weird—we never had a private conversation, just exchanged a few words as I shook his hand on Sunday on my way out the door. But in the three years that I’ve been going to First Unitarian, I’ve been able to share enough of my story with him to make a connection.
No, that’s not quite right. I felt connected to him.
From the first service I attended, I knew this guy got it. His sermons seemed like extensions of my therapy sessions, filled with the importance of mindfulness, compassion, acceptance, and awareness of our own realities. He made me laugh and cry—usually at the same time. Finally, after searching for years, I’d found a spiritual home and someone who spoke to the things that mattered to me.
PTSD makes me vulnerable to abandonment-thinking. Bipolar disorder distorts any thinking into darker twists of hopelessness. I knew I needed to work this through or I’d probably never go back to the church once he was gone.
So, I attended every Sunday service (once I was recovered enough from my last bronchial bomb). I cried ( okay, sobbed) through each one of them, Kleenex box clutched tight. I made myself look him in the eye after our hug at the door and thank him for the opportunity to do this work. Some mornings I was too verklempt to say the words, but Mark would hold my watery gaze and say, “I understand.”
While I grieved, I also noted every friend at church who sought me out, every acquaintance who grinned when our eyes met. I forced myself to see that FU (you gotta love a church with those initials) offered me real community and relationships beyond Mark. I made a point of wandering around after services to find people I knew and admired in order to weave another thread into our connection.
Yesterday we held his celebratory Farewell Tour at the performing arts theater of one of the city’s high-end high schools (very lovely). We needed room enough for the whole congregation to honor Mark’s sixteen years of service. He came to us straight from theological school and is moving on to be the Executive Director of the Iowa ACLU.
I wept like everyone else, touched by his words and deeds (he performed the first same-sex marriage in Iowa), amazed at all he and the church had accomplished (doubled the membership and increased FU’s legislative presence on issues of justice). But, my tears were of joy and gratitude, not grief. I spent yesterday talking to my friends, making sure I told the speakers and the choir now much they moved me, and asking questions about the ministerial search process. I did what I set out to do—I said good-bye well.
It might be good for me to get involved in the Search process, since who “ministers” to me is so very important. But, I’m tucking that thought away until I learn more. Will the various committees be able to use a bipolar member who lives an hour away and who may not be able to follow through? Can I allow myself to be that vulnerable? Can I get involved and accept my limitations?
It wouldn’t be an Adventure without some mystery and a little risk.
Here’s the first sermon I heard Mark deliver. Seventeen minutes is an eternity in blogland, but it might be worth your while.