I heard the term again today . . . Gracious Departure. I can't tell you how uncomfortable that term makes me. It's like a CIA coverup, let's work out a deal and then it'll be done and all go our separate ways. Before you know it, it'll be like nothing ever happened.
For people that's BULL. For churches that's BULL. It is the nature of relationships that some end. Many when they end, need to end, and when both parties recognize that it does become easier to move on. Those in that situation though are few and far between, and even then division of shared identity is problematic. This best case scenario then recognizes the irreversible change that we create on one another and the links created. This does happen, but it's never quick and painless.
A truly gracious ending to a relationship though is more complicated and happens only 1 of 2 ways in my opinion:
1. A recognition that a relationship needs to end from 2 parties, with a full recognition of mutual connections and commitments, and an understanding of the continuation of these apart, leaving open the potential for forming a new relationship in the future.
2. A realization that a relationship is not, nor was it ever as both parties may have interpreted it, with an agreement to continue to work and define said relationship for what it is, not what either side thought it was.
Of course to read between the lines there, many would argue that neither is an actual departure from said relationship. I would argue from a Human Communication viewpoint they are actual departures, just outside of what we view as the norm.
Yet, at this moment it seems though that this split that is happening within the PC(USA) is not amicable, much less gracious. Both sides have put a claim on parts of the shared identity as solely belonging to them. This means that we're not looking at a Gracious Departure, but a Violent Disassociation. I've been here done this in the Baptist world, some churches there had packed their bags more than a decade earlier and were already out the door, just playing house with the denomination. Their exit was expected, but they still thought that it would "prove a point." It didn't. Other churches still cling to some form of dual identity, but really have hacked off a leg or 2 in the process in order to feel comfortable with their decision. The problem for these churches is they realized the bond that was already formed and didn't want to lose it, there was value in the relationship they had fought for, and they still wanted to be heard. . .on some things. On the other issues, they'd take their ball and play elsewhere until their partner (SBC) made them take the rest of their stuff from the house as well.
I see both of these things happening in PC(USA). The "Fellowship" group is seemingly trying to do the latter, while a number of churches are willing to just take the bags they packed and leave. There though are many churches who haven't committed to either of these approaches, but feel the tugs of one or both. It is for these that I fear the consequences of what we choose to do with the others in regards to a "Gracious Departure."
I will use a circumstance I know for an example. I know 3 churches in an area who are all currently restless due to the passage of 10A. They all have sessions that are "examining the options" or have examined them. Given the right set of circumstances they may all take a chance at a "Gracious Departure." The pastors and sessions have tired of fighting with the denomination. So let's assume they agree to make a "Gracious Departure" would it really look like Grace?
Church 1 - Leads the Hispanic ministry in the area, without them this growing ministry collapses within the PC(USA) for the area.
Church 2 - Is more theologically diverse than their Session believes. Their pastor is honestly struggling to work through issues he's having, but is committed to the denomination, if they leave his turmoil becomes worse. The other staff member would quit immediately. The church would lose people and probably go under in the resulting turmoil.
Church 3 - Again, an active church in community outreach, heads up many presbytery wide initiatives (school and clothing drives, education events, etc).
Regardless of how both the church and denomination handled the departure of any of these churches it would be less than gracious because the connections are too deep. Termination of these relationships couldn't be done cleanly and quietly. No relationship termination is without explosive collateral damage when disassociation is involved.
I admit that I do not desire for there to be a mass exodus of conservative congregations, I feel denominations are stronger and better able to grow faithfully when there is pushing and struggling together rather than moving to places of ideological agreement. This also goes for efforts to name churches according to ideological stances on any certain issue (fellowship, more light, etc.) but as long as we don't use these tags to disassociate with one another, it would be a smaller price to pay in my opinion. I do not believe that in all cases the fight should be to keep those who have been out the door for years, they're going to go anyway, but let's not encourage others to go that way because we're acting as we feel we've been acted towards. I don't think this denomination would be stronger if the chopped off all that feel uncomfortable, don't fit. To say that it would is as fundamentalist as one may claim those who now feel like leaving are. This has been and will continue to be a complex journey of faith we take together. This is not the end nor is it a beginning, it is just another moment in the journey and the journey together is what I think it is really all about.
So maybe there is a way still to redefine these existing relationships, maybe though there does need to be some sort of "break." I don't know the answers, but I feel we're not doing enough to truly be a people where ALL are welcome when we're too willing to let the uncomfortable, the misfits walk (regardless of who these misfits are). This is a hard issue for our church, just as it is when friends, lovers, or any other relationship becomes strained and difficult for a long time. Let us journey together in God's grace.