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Peter Ilgenfritz reflects on ending a ministry well

Peter Ilgenfritz, a recent past PNC moderator, reflects as he closes his ministry at University Congregational UCC.

Peter opened with a quote from Frederick Buechner in an April 2006 article in Christian Century, “At the Last Supper: Bidding Farewell”: “It’s hard not to believe that somehow or other there’s always going to be another time with our closest friends, another day, so the chances are we won’t know it’s the last time, and therefore it won’t have the terrible sadness about it that the Last Supper of Jesus must have had.

“Not knowing is sad in another way because it means that we also won’t know how precious this supper is, how precious these friends are whom we will be sitting down with for the last time whether we know it or not.”

Peter Ilgenfritz at his last service as part of the University Congregational UCC ministry team. Photo courtesy of University Congregational UCC

I walked through the fall months, knowing it is the last time. Dec. 30 was my last Sunday after 25 years as pastor and member of the leadership staff at University Congregational UCC in Seattle.  I spent almost half of my life here.  The congregation saw me grow up here from my 32-year-old self, when Dave Shull and I were the first gay couple called to a church, through many incarnations of “Peter” over the years.  Peter as young social activist and as elementary church school coordinator.  In my 40’s, Peter as youth minister and as staff liaison to the Lecture Committee, Worship and Music ministry, and Peter as sailor in ups and downs, losses and gifts that life has given me.  I have had many lives in this one place. 

This place deeply changed me and made me the man and pastor I am today.  The congregation’s high expectations and deep love were a good combination for growth and transformation.  By “deep love” I not only mean the thank-you’s and notes of appreciation but even more the risk of speaking truth in love to me in an experience of hurt or disappointment so we could talk through the issues. 

It was working closely with an amazing team of colleagues and sharing in ministry with them in a unique model of a team ministry. 

When I asked how I would like to be remembered I said it would seem fitting that I not be remembered in a particular room, object or thing in the church but in a verb and an action: namely, to think outside the box. Dave and I were called to the church in June 1994 because the church thought outside the box.  The parts of my ministry that I am most excited about were working side by side with members, imagining new ways of doing things and carrying out ministry together.    

I didn’t anticipate how my leave-taking would be transformational.  I had not done endings well. This time I wanted to, but I knew I needed help.  It help came in surprising ways. 

It came with sitting down with Conference Minister Mike Denton, who offered a simple road map for navigating tasks in ministry in the last three months.  His reminder that putting down would not solve the other issues that I’d had in other endings in my life – and for sure it would bring them all up again.  It did.  He recommended I up my connections with people who could listen to and walk with me through this time.  I did and with the help of good counselors, soul friends and writing I found my way. 

I cleared my schedule to meet with folks.  The first meeting was the day after my letter to the congregation saying I was leaving at the end of the year.  At the end of our conversation, Sharon said to me, “It sounds like you want to spend the fall worrying about what you are going to do next year.” 

Part of me did.  I had felt the Spirit calling me out for some new work in the world, and yet I was also unclear the form that would take.  I knew it had something to do with what I learned in sailing, the journey of transition from stepping off the dock and onto a boat where everything is different.  Something about the deeper connection and conversations that arise on a little boat sailing together and something about the gift of empowerment, encouraging others to take the helm and sail the boat themselves.  There was something in this work of transition and helping folks step into it that I wanted to explore in some new ways.

I needed to gift myself with a sabbatical to make room for some listening and wonder, but the lack of a plan and a pay-check also woke me at 2 a.m. in sheer panic!  Sharon suggested, “Perhaps instead of worrying about next year, what if this fall you are just present with us?  I mean, what if you had a good goodbye, did your grieving and letting go with us this fall?  That would be the best preparation for you and for us for what lies ahead in the new year.  In January, you will know what you need to do.”

That sounded like the Gospel.  I always know it is the Gospel because my first reaction is I don’t want it, my second is, I don’t like it, and my third, DARN! 

I knew it was true and wondered if I had enough faith to do it.  All fall, I stepped into being present and letting go of my worry of what came next.  It served me well as I sat with members and friends for last conversations of thank you, forgiveness, love and goodbye, and as I met with groups and reflected on the ministry we did together, what we wanted to celebrate, what we needed to release, and what we wanted to remember. 

It was a surprising gift for me to become the pastor I had never been before—another face of “Peter”—and this time the pastor who cries.  I had never cried with members of the congregation. All fall I became the pastor who did.  I’d show up for a gathering and ask for the tissue box.  At the heart of those tears was opening me to receive the congregation’s love and gratitude.  I hadn’t been good at that.  Perhaps I was too much of an independent New Englander, walled off and not trusting a relationship of interdependence where together we share and feel the joys and sorrows of life and walking in it together.  All fall I experienced that. It was a miracle to my soul and a healing in my life. 

It helpful when John, a retired pastor at church, mentioned to me at coffee hour one Sunday, that it was his experience that endings are always messy and he cautioned me not to clean them up.  I told him that was exactly when I got in trouble, when I tried to “clean up” organize my way through the emotional turmoil of this ending instead of letting myself be present to it.  John’s invitation to me freed me to not just be the organized and dependable and “together” pastor but the messy one, as well who could feel and be present in a way I had not been always able to be present.  It was a gift and grace to cry my way messily through the fall. 

Peter’s poem about a Messy Ending is online. For information, call 206-524-2322.

Messy Ending

It’s going to be messy, he said,
Don’t try to clean it all up.

Messy as opening my mouth to tell the staff I’m leaving
and bursting into tears instead.

Messy as trying to get the committee to see
how quickly they are moving on
how it’s all too fast,
leaves no room for incompletion
and the place of possibility yet unseen,
wondering all the while if anyone will ever remember me.

Messy as wanting to jump in and say something
and half way into a sentence remembering this is no longer my place.

Messy as leaving the meeting early
so they can talk about the future here without me.

Messy as standing there in my office fussing over emails
not knowing what to do with myself
when there are fewer and fewer chores to do.

The loneliness of just how self-important,
so charged with meaning this time feels 
and the messiness of trying to explain any of it. 

The messiness of their yawning indifference,
as I go on and on as they smile, nod and go on to their next meeting.

The messiness of the sermon
that she tells me made it all about me
wondering if we’ll have two more months of 
talk of grief while the election is coming and the world 
is falling apart.

The messiness of wondering if there would have been a better time to leave.

The messiness of realizing the applicant for my position
could do a better job than me. 

The messiness of her saying I get it and you probably should have left 5 years ago…

The messiness of his telling me over and over again
he doesn’t get it, 
the absurdity of leaving without knowing where I’m going. 

Messy as waking again at 2 AM in cold dread,
dreams of falling through clouds.
wondering what I am going to do
and how possibly am going to survive.

The messiness of remembering what she said… 
What if instead of worrying about what’s next,
you were present here instead, 
Present in the goodbye and grief. 
Wondering what it might possibly mean.

And so, I rise into a beautiful afternoon in waning fall light
bare limbs and golden leaves,
sunlight and gray clouds,
a sprinkle of rain and dance of wind.   

Peter Ilgenfritz
October 28, 2018

For the past years I’d written a number of poems reflecting on the seasons of faith and my ministry.  A friend suggested it might be a nice gift to give the congregation.  With my nephew Peter’s, help we published a small book of poems and it was a great gift to give them out to members and friends of the church.  I shared with the congregation, “I hope this little book will be an inspiration for you to take the love in your life, and the grief in your life and make of it something beautiful to share.”  The book is called “Setting Sail: A Collection of Poems” and you can ask me for a copy or order one from 

I step out into this new season of life with a small pocket of savings for a self-funded sabbatical to live into the call of my soul for some intentional time for wonder, conversations, writing and contemplation.  I trust that in taking this step the next steps into my next chapter of ministry will be made clear.  With my nephew Peter’s help I set up a simple website, “Navigating Change,” and I offer in this in-between time to make myself available to others and their communities who might want to talk about navigating the challenges and gifts of change in their lives.  If I can be of encouragement to you, let me know.

On that Sunday in June that Dave and I were voted on by the congregation to be their associate pastors, we concluded our sermon with a quote from St. John of the Cross.  In a time of challenge and change in his life he wrote, “I said to the man who stood at the gate, give me a light that I may see my way into the dark!”  Instead the man at the gate – who is Jesus, who is always Jesus said, “Put out your hand into the dark, that is safer and better than a known way.” 

I concluded a few weeks ago with that reminder and with William Sloan Coffin Jr.’s benediction.  May it be a reminder and blessing for all of us in these times of challenge and change,

May God Grant you the Grace never to sell yourself short. 
Grace to risk something big for the sake of something good.
Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth
And too small for anything but love.


Pacific NW United Church News Copyright © January-March 2019


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