Supporting the Minister When the Co-Minister Dies

Published on: July 15, 2015

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On the night of Friday, February 9, 2007, when my friend and minister Vicky Elder called and said haltingly, “Ro’s gone,” I instantly knew two things.

First, the Big White Bear of a man who had embedded himself in my heart and become my best friend over the past six years, had gone on to a larger field and a greater calling more suited to his outsized vision for humanity.

And second, that his wife, best friend, and co-minister, Vicky, was going to need me and my wife Carolyn to be supportive and loving as she dealt with the always-imminent, never-expected loss of her soulmate.

Rev Rory Elder had finally decided that the fight to stay on this plane was no longer worth the struggle, given the ravages that years of cancer had wreaked on his body. A big, strong man who had survived an earlier bout with the disease (20+ years before) and authored a book about his life-altering journey, Rory now found himself frequently unable to do even simple tasks.

After I shook off the disbelief—“He didn’t seem that sick! He didn’t say goodbye!”—I asked myself, “So what is mine to do here now? Where was my unique calling? What could I do better or perhaps with less effort than anyone else in the community?”

I was not an “official” part of the church leadership (e.g., a board member or staff member) at Unity of Monterey Bay, Calif., (UMB) but I was informally acknowledged as a key part of the ministry team. Rory, Vicky, my wife and I had been meeting weekly for several years planning sermon series, talking about organizational structure, and creating new programs. During the preceding two years, Rory and Vicky had been inviting me to fill the platform and deliver the Sunday lesson from time to time, and I had also taught several mid-week classes with Vicky and/or independently.

In fact, there were several occasions when Vicky had to call on me with relatively short notice to fill in for her because of Ro’s health challenges. One Sunday morning in January, she called to ask me to fill in that day for her. I learned to keep a talk in the hopper for such occasions.

Beyond that, Ro and Vicky were great fans of a communal model of ministry. From the very beginning of their then-10-year ministry at Monterey, they had created a collegial atmosphere in which every congregant was also called to be a minister. I remain convinced that the vision and foresight they showed in creating such a model explains in large part why things ran so smoothly during the time of Ro’s declining health and the immediate aftermath of his passing.

When Rory’s health began declining (3-4 months prior to his death), I tried to be available to both Rory and Vicky in whatever way I could, like filling in for more Sundays and teaching more classes. During the final month of frequent but usually short hospital stays, I held or co-hosted a few healing services at the church. Rev Steve Maynard, who had come through Unity of Monterey Bay and was now pioneering in nearby Salinas, co-facilitated one of those healing circles with me.

Providing Consistency and Comfort

When Ro passed, it fell naturally to me to fill in for Sunday lessons. By then the community seemed to have become comfortable with my teaching and the Leadership Council (Board of Trustees) expressed strong confidence and support for me to continue in that role for the eight weeks it took for Vicky to be ready to resume the pulpit. I’m sure there were others at UMB who could also have taught, but Vicky and the Leadership Council agreed that my consistent presence would better serve the community during this difficult transition, and the shock that followed his loss.

The Leadership Council encouraged and supported me in myriad ways. The music director worked directly with me, the worship support activities (e.g., ushers, PowerPoint presentations) continued smoothly, and the church administration (all volunteer) ran without a hitch—a real testimony to the way Ro and Vicky had organized the systems of the spiritual community to function in a culture of maturity, respect, responsibility and love.

To their credit, I don’t recall a single person in the congregation asking, “How could Ro not heal himself? Isn’t that Principle?” Though the thought may have occurred to some, Vicky and Rory never hid his illness and they taught Principle with great clarity. Thus even though his actual passing was sudden and unexpected, they had taught about death within the context of eternal life.

Bear Hugs for All

In the immediate aftermath, as I watched our community grieve, and as we all marveled at the example of living Principle that Vicky provided us for how to traverse an unthinkable tragedy, an idea occurred to me and Carolyn. People kept saying how they missed “Ro’s bearhugs.” We decided we would buy a bunch of teddy bears and scatter them through the pews. Anyone who came to our community who needed a huge “Rory hug” could get one. Those who needed a friend could take one home. Others brought in more bears to replenish and expand the number. Today, Unity of Monterey Bay is known throughout the area as the “Church of the Teddy Bears.”

I have been blessed to continue in the role of spiritual teacher, supporting Vicky and serving UMB. I still do Sunday lessons 2-3 times a quarter, and whenever Rev. Vicky is away on business or vacation. I also continue to help plan and teach mid-week classes with Vicky, and/or independently as-requested.

One other area I have continued to pursue in Ro’s memory is our shared passion for interfaith and inter-spiritual work. It was our favorite topic of conversation and imaging during our years together. With the support of a few others in our community, each Fall we have sponsored a program to promote interfaith understanding, as well as an Interfaith Celebration of Light candlelight service on the winter solstice. As I continue the work we envisioned together to the best of my ability, I frequently ask, particularly in the face of challenges and annoyances that never seemed to bother him at all, “What would Ro do?”

Dan Shafer
Dan is the spiritual teacher in residence at Unity of Monterey Bay, Calif.

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