When the Band Breaks Up

How we mark life's transitions and goodbyes can honor and strengthen our collaborative relationships.

goodbye at work
The graceful art of goodbye rituals

August 2019

It's been a month of goodbyes. Office clean-outs, colleague happy hour send-offs, and now even this past weekend marked the last church service with a team of church directors who are much loved members of our church family.


Different contexts but the same need

As I was singing in the Praise Band with our director for the last time, it hit me that this moment marked a transition: an end-- but also a beginning, albeit the beginning of what remains yet unknown. The endings of collaborative relationships are ones that I have experienced many times before. In theatre, every musical and play I directed included a set- strike celebration filled with pizza, tears, and farewells. As the director who led these goodbyes, I wanted to make sure that the end of these experiences was marked in a way that both honored the significance of the event and the contributions of the people involved. This past weekend, as I sat on the hard wooden church bench listening to our pastor eloquently speak, I realized that all these events, no matter how different the collaborative context, benefit from a thoughtful and intentional grace-filled transition ritual.


“Transitions are almost always signs of growth, but they can bring feelings of loss. To get somewhere new, we may have to leave somewhere else behind" - Fred Rogers

Honoring each other's life's work

Fred Rogers, the man who first introduced me to the art of musical opera in his beloved Neighborhood of Make-Believe, said that "Transitions are almost always signs of growth, but they can bring feeling of loss. To get somewhere new, we may have to leave somewhere else behind." No matter the reason for the parting, both parties will be filled with mixed emotions about the relationships and organization they are leaving and also the uncertainty and hopefully (but not always) excitement and purpose of what lies ahead. How a leader frames the transition moment helps everyone create meaning and appreciation for the collaboration--past, present, and future.


1. Honor people's life work.

How many hours, days, years of sweat and tears and maybe even blood (in the case of our theatre techies!) was shed in service to this group of people? Meaningful rituals and their accompanying communication are built from this foundation.


2. Recount fun memories and stories.

Stories connect people and spark emotional connection among the group. Telling stories, especially ones that show growth and change, help people process both what they have learned and what they can take with them into the future.


3. Give a symbolic gift as a token to take with them.

These small objects whether it be a photo album, symbolic Christmas tree ornament, box, stone, compass, or anything meaningful and personal can be looked back years later as a symbol and memory of that experience. Heck- I have a special scrap of bubble wrap and a pack of throat coat tea that was given to me by a very special musical cast years ago! Often in our school years, we received things like this and might discount the idea now that we have matured, but these are powerful for adults too.


4. Blessing their call.

While this is a church tradition, it is one that can be applied in other contexts too. Simply adjust your wording as needed, but the core sentiment remains a powerful one. Speak life into their next chapter and remind them that you are praying for them, or thinking of them, and cheering them on from a distance. Doing this as a group amplifies the impact.


How a leader frames the transition moment helps everyone create meaning and appreciation for the collaboration--past, present, and future.

Building cohesion among collaborators

The meaning and memory we attach to these places and leaders often comes from how the ending is marked. For the other people in the group who are staying, such actions also demonstrate the value of people to that organization. As our organizations become larger, this personal connection becomes even more important. People have an innate need to connect to something larger than themselves. These transition moments provide leaders opportunities to voice and honor that larger mission, for individuals and for the organization. In doing so, the other collaborators sense the care given to the parting individual, and they then attribute that same care the leader also must have for them too. This, in turn, impacts trust, work ethic, morale, and team cohesion.


With social media and digital connectedness, I fear that all too often we assume that we will keep in touch, and so a formal goodbye is not that important. But the ritual of goodbyes powerfully allows all people involved to reconnect to their larger purpose and the mission of the collaboration. Although my season of goodbyes has been marked with some shock and sadness, a melodic truth sings quietly underneath the noise: the magic of these experiences exists because they never happen in exactly the same way again.