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Not Done Changing

It’s March 22, 2018. Two days ago, we had our final Listen and Learn session and, by all indications, it went really well. Some of our Staff team gathered in the parking lot to debrief before heading home and we were all feeling pretty good. We made some adjustments based on our evaluation of the previous week’s event and they seemed to work. People were engaging the topic well, there was a good balance of opinions being shared around the tables, and we noticed more of an openness to sharing opinions across the spectrum.

But yesterday was difficult.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

The day began with an early morning small group I’m a part of with three friends from our church. We meet once every two or three weeks to check in on how we’re doing and to discuss something we’ve been reading or listening to in the time since we’ve met. It was just three of us this time, as my friend the apple grower sent a message out the night before letting us know that one of their storage facilities had burned to the ground—a reminder that a hailstorm isn’t the only thing that can cause serious damage.

At one point, our conversation inevitably wandered into the realm of our church’s conversations around same-sex attraction and Christian faith. I tried to explain a bit of where my head was at, that I could imagine being part of a church where people not only held different beliefs about this issue, but even lived out their beliefs differently.

I’m starting to realize that it’s the leadership piece that really gets people. Sure, I’ll hear, I could wrap my head around having gay people in our church, as long as we don’t have them in positions of leadership. This was the crux of the concern raised by some of the parents of our Youth: that someone who chose to live out their same-sex attraction should not be in a position of influence in the church.

I can see where they’re coming from, that it could be interpreted as a blanket approval of their decisions, making a statement on where our church stands. But the sticking point for me on this has been that drawing lines in the sand on who can or cannot serve in a leadership role has never been a part of how our church community has operated. The leadership question came up in a meeting last month with members of our Board and Staff, where someone asked me why I didn’t see this as a problem. I explained that we’ve never really had a checklist of leadership expectations, but have tried to look at the whole life of the person and how a particular role in the church could be a healthy part of their spiritual health and growth.

It’s a person’s heart that has always been the most important thing for me—their attitude, or maybe posture would be a better word. So we’ve had people serving and leading in the church who had areas of their lives that I wouldn’t encourage others to emulate, but I’ve never thought of the church as a place where only those who “have it all figured out” get to lead. My guess is that it’s because I know myself too well and could probably find reasons to disqualify myself from leadership if I got right down to it. What a hypocrite I’d be if I treated other people that way!

When I mentioned this perspective at yesterday morning’s small group, one of my friends responded by saying that he could not imagine being part of a church where people lived out their beliefs on this issue differently (ie. if someone in a gay relationship was also in a leadership role) and that neither could his family. We agreed to get together to talk about this more, which we’ll be doing tonight, but that was difficult for me to hear—not altogether surprising, but difficult all the same.

After grabbing a bite to eat for breakfast, I sat down at my desk and opened my email to find a note from a leader in our church who wanted to come in and debrief a particularly stressful meeting the night before. As it turned out, the meeting she was leading quickly got sidetracked by our current conversation and the team didn’t get too far into their agenda. The three other people who were there are all struggling deeply with what we’re going through as a church right now. I’ve had opportunities to listen to two of them share their concerns over the past couple of months and we've had some challenging, but healthy dialogue. The third team member has been part of our church for a long time and has always been a source of encouragement to me. He has not spoken to me, however, since my sermon six weeks ago, and I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is quite angry about what is happening and, specifically, with the way I am leading the church through all of this.

The leader who sent me the email dropped by our office and a couple of other Staff members joined in for some good conversation around the table. This process takes up so much time and mental energy and our Staff has often acknowledged how difficult it must be for others who don’t have a circle of people to process things with on a regular basis and who don’t have time during their workday to read or listen to all of the resources that are out there. At the same time, I think it’s important to say that almost all of my reading and learning over these past few months has come early in the morning and late at night, well outside the bounds of my own ‘working hours.’ This is a sacrifice that anyone who truly wants to learn and grow in their understanding about a complex issue like this will have to make.

The meeting in question was with our church’s Mission Team, and one of the questions that was raised was whether we should let our various mission partners know that we are having this conversation so they could make decisions about whether or not they wanted to remain in partnership with us. That kind of thought was not even on my radar, but it goes to show the level of anxiety this is creating in people and highlights an example of just how uncomfortable some people are even being associated with someone who they believe is in a sinful relationship.

What is it? What is at the core of this concern?

I wonder if it’s a theology of sin that causes so much concern about this—that regardless of whether another person is convinced in their own heart that the way they are living is not sinful, simply being associated with them somehow compromises one’s own purity. It’s like the Old Testament story of Achan that I mentioned earlier, where one person’s sin led to a heap of trouble for the entire nation.

So my day started off with a challenge from a close friend, which was followed by a debrief with a discouraged leader, and then when I finally sat down at my desk again, I opened another email from someone who was “feeling really discouraged after last night,” asking if we could get together that afternoon. After arranging a time for us to connect, I grabbed my gym bag and left the church for a midday workout. On my way out the door, one of my co-workers asked if we could chat over lunch when I got back, and it was this conversation that ended up being the tipping point in my day.

He just wanted to check in with me, to see how I was doing personally, so we sat down to talk and, as we unpacked our lunches, I told him that I was doing quite well, all things considered. I let him know that I actually haven’t been feeling the stress and anxiety that I was carrying back in January and he said that he was glad to hear it. He went on to share some of the thoughts that were swirling around in his head, but as soon as he started talking, I knew I was in trouble. As I’ve already shared, I’m not an emotionally expressive person, but I could feel tears welling up in my eyes and knew that there was basically no chance of escaping this conversation unscathed.

What I realized in that moment was that, while the words I had just said to him were factually true—I had not been feeling the heaviness of all this lately—there was another, deeper truth trying to force its way to the surface. I struggled through the rest of the conversation, being forced to admit through tears that I was quite obviously not as ‘together’ as I thought I was. Processing my emotions on the spot, I acknowledged that I must have been suppressing a lot of the stress and wasn’t even aware of how much it was affecting me.

As I was trying to figure out what was going on, I realized that part of it stemmed from the fear of a loss that I hadn’t consciously named to that point. When this Staff member came on board with us in a half-time capacity last summer, I was excited about what he would bring to our team and was looking forward to leading our church into the bright future I knew we had. Most people in our congregation would have plenty of good to say about who we are as a church already, but I’ve never been satisfied, knowing there is still so much more that God wants to do in and through us here in our city. A series of setbacks in recent years had distracted me from leading the church in a way that I knew I was capable of, and I saw this season as a time when the stars had aligned and we would finally become the church I longed for us to be.

As I was talking with my co-worker yesterday afternoon, I confessed my newfound feeling that this wasn’t going to happen after all—that, far from entering a new season of growth, the present conversation we were navigating would only end up tearing down much of what we had built up. “I’m ruining our church,” I told him, struggling to get the words out. “I’m destroying everything we’ve built.”

He assured me that I was not ruining or destroying anything, and that we were going to make it through this together and that we would come out even stronger on the other side. To be honest, I’m not sure if I believe it, but I needed to hear it all the same. I need to have some hope.

When I got home from the office, Melissa and I found somewhere we could talk without the kids around. The way my emotions had bubbled to the surface during my lunch hour conversation had caught me off guard and, to be honest, scared me a little. While I wanted to tell her about everything that was swirling around in my head, I was also concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find the words to express what was going on.

I told her about the conversation and expanded on the concerns I shared with my co-worker, wondering out loud if opening this can of worms had been a big mistake; wondering if I’d even want to lead the church that came out on the other side of this mess. She assured me, just as my co-worker had, that I hadn’t ruined anything and that we were going to make it through this together. She reminded me that just because we were having this conversation didn’t mean we had to change anything: If people couldn’t handle being part of a church that held to a traditional view of marriage, then some of them might leave and we’d be okay. It wouldn’t be easy, but we would be okay in the end.

Melissa’s comments about how we didn’t have to change struck a new chord in me—one that was starting to imagine what it would mean if we did change. What I started to think about in that moment, maybe for the first time, was that maybe I was starting to change.

I tried to express some of this to Melissa and my fears about not having the words to say were realized. I think my confusion caught her off guard, and she responded by saying that I was always the one who was confident; that I was the strong one.

“But I’m not strong,” I said. “And I don’t know how to be strong right now. I feel so lost. I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and no idea what I even believe about this anymore.”

I mumbled away, trying to find words that would open the door just a crack, that would let my wife see what was going on inside without releasing the full power of whatever it was that was trying to break free. She asked me if I sensed whether God was trying to say something to me through this and I confessed through more unwanted tears, “That’s the hardest part: I haven’t heard anything.”

Yesterday’s uninvited emotional reactions have left me thinking about how hard it is to wrap our heads around all of the things that are going on in our hearts, just below the surface of our awareness. They’ve also left me thinking about how grateful I am to have a partner through all of this who may not understand what’s going on with me any more than I do, and who may even be a little scared by it all, but who I know will stick by me whatever lies ahead.

In the words of John Mayer, “I may be old and I may be young / But I am not done changing.”

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