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Courage and Vulnerability

Speaking on anything less than a good night’s sleep is not ideal; my mind isn’t quite as sharp and my words don’t flow together quite the way they should. So when I stepped onto the platform after the scripture reading this morning, I knew I wasn’t at full capacity and that it was going to be a struggle—and this on a morning when I really couldn’t afford any slippage. People who don’t normally attend church sometimes ask if I get nervous when I speak on Sunday mornings and I always tell them, “No,” which is the truth when you’ve been doing this every week for nearly twenty years. But on a morning like this, I felt like I was doing it for the first time.

(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 energy was high and my heart was pumping just a little faster than usual. The church was as full as it has ever been, which was unusual to see at a time of year when many people in Southern Ontario are already starting to flock to beaches and cottages on the weekends. Just before the service, one of our Staff members commented on the number of people and suggested in jest that maybe we should start talking about sex every week! 

On a typical Sunday morning, I like to make eye contact with as many people as I can; it helps me build a connection and gives me some real-time data on whether or not my words are landing the way I’d hoped. But once again, this morning was different. It wasn’t long before my eyes fell on a face that was turned away from me as I was speaking—not because the person was distracted by something else, but actually in response to what I was saying. It was a member of our community who is a passionate advocate for marriage equality, someone I have had some deep, honest conversations with along the way. I knew that anything short of raising a pride flag at the end of the service would be a disappointment for this person, and I’m pretty sure it was the realization that this wouldn’t be happening that caused them to turn their head. I made up my mind to avoid looking in that direction again. 

There were other places I started to avoid looking as well, like the pew where I saw someone raise their hands to their head as if to say, You have got to be kidding me. This was someone who was wrestling deeply with this issue as some extended family members have already left the church in recent weeks. Of course it’s possible that I misinterpreted the gesture altogether, but when you’re on the edge like I was this morning, you can’t help but see even the slightest twitch as an indication that someone is passing judgment on what you’re saying and making a final decision about whether they will stay or whether they will leave.

Following the sermon, we headed over to the gym for our time of discussion, as we always do. The tables weren’t quite as full as they were the last time I spoke on this theme. I decided not to sit at a table myself, but floated around talking with people to get a sense of what they were thinking and how they were feeling about what had been said. If I’m totally honest, part of me knew that I would receive affirmation from people who appreciated what I had said and were excited about the direction our church was going. Normally that would be an unhealthy thing for a pastor to intentionally seek out on a Sunday morning, but at risk of sounding like a skipped record, this morning was different, and I felt like I needed people to tell me things were going to be okay. Other comments would come, I knew that—the ones where people let me know that they had done their best and stuck around as long as they could, but that it was now time to move on—but they could wait, at least until the afternoon.

The initial feedback I received was very encouraging. Much like the February sermon, people expressed deep appreciation for my courage and vulnerability, letting me know just how much they loved our church and how glad they were that we were moving in this direction. I do agree that courage and vulnerability were part of the equation, but knowing myself much better than anyone in my congregation does, I had to take those comments with a grain of salt. Courageous to stand up and talk about this topic, sure, I’ll give myself that. Who would ever sign up for that job? But as much as it was courage that was on display, it could just as easily have been fear. What if I was actually afraid of taking another path and this one actually felt like the easiest direction for me to take? 

It feels strange to type the word ‘easiest,’ as this has clearly been the most difficult stretch of pastoral leadership I’ve walked through. But I’ve been wrestling with that question lately: Am I being courageous? What if there are unconscious forces at work, steering me away from the greater challenge of either holding firm to a traditional understanding of marriage on one hand or swinging wide open to an affirming position on the other? I’ve done enough soul searching to feel confident in the path we are taking, but the question lingers in the recesses of my mind and I don’t know if I’ll ever see my leadership as purely courageous when I am so keenly aware of the turf war taking place in my heart and mind between so many opposing beliefs and ideas. 

And vulnerable? Sure, I could give myself that one, too. Not many people are willing to bare the intimate details of their emotional anguish and relational pain in front of hundreds of people (and whoever else happens to listen in remotely.) There’s definitely an element of vulnerability in every sermon I deliver, and clearly this season of our church’s life has demanded more than the usual dose, but then I have similar doubts about whether my vulnerability has actually gone far enough. As I was working on this week’s sermon, my wife said, “Just share your heart—tell them what’s on your mind.” I told her that that was the one thing I could in no circumstances do—that letting anyone see what was going on in my mind these days would be an absolute disaster! 

I don’t mean that I want to be dishonest, but even vulnerability can go too far if too much is shared too quickly. A purely vulnerable sermon would be like a fire hose to the face, leaving people staggering around wondering what had just happened to them. So avoiding that isn’t hypocrisy, it’s love. It’s not an unwillingness to open myself up, but a willingness to keep some things inside for the health and well being of the people around me. There’s no denying that my preaching has included increasing levels of vulnerability as a result of the deep dive that this stage of my life has been, but I’m not quite ready to pat myself on the back for being vulnerable when I know only too well how much there is that I have not shared.

My inbox started filling up with words of encouragement and expressions of commitment moving forward. Again, having been down this road before back in February, I expected as much, knowing that the truly difficult conversations would likely take a little longer to rise to the surface. People would want to give themselves time to process what had been said, maybe talk to some friends or family about it, maybe even give the sermon a second listen once the podcast was posted. (It’s a strange feeling knowing that people I’ve never met are listening in on our church’s conversation thanks to the wonders of the internet.) I know a handful of individuals and families in our congregation who have been struggling deeply with these questions we’re asking; I’ve sat down for lengthy, heart-to-heart conversations with some of them and have heard through the grapevine about the difficulty that others are having. Now it’s a waiting game: anticipating the email or phone call that will determine whether the vision I’ve shared has drawn them closer or driven them further down the path toward leaving.

When our Board asked me to switch up our calendar to make room for this sermon, I had to contact a couple of families who had a child dedication scheduled for this morning, letting them know about the changes. While I’m aware of the strong opinions that people in our congregation have on this topic, I know that those who are not part of a community that prizes a Journey Mentality tend to hold even stronger opinions. With this in mind, I thought it was only fair that we try to avoid creating additional conflict outside of our walls, which might have happened if we exposed extended family members and friends to the kinds of conversations we’ve been having. 

So I gave the two families the option of picking another date; one was happy to keep things as planned, but the other decided that it would be best if they postponed. The latter couple approached me after this morning’s service and expressed that they were quite conflicted when this all started back in February and that they have been feeling uncertain about whether or not they could keep walking this path. They told me that, after hearing what I said this morning and knowing their extended families the way they do, they were very glad they decided to postpone the dedication, but they also said that they personally feel much more hopeful and are ready to walk this path after all. This was such a gift for me, as they have been a part of our community for many years and it would have been heartbreaking to see them go. I had the privilege of officiating their wedding ceremony, and now it looks like I will also still have the privilege of dedicating their little girl to God and praying over them in front of our church family. 

At nine o’clock this evening, I received an email that was both expected and difficult to accept. It was from a member of our Board—the one I had met with the week prior—informing the rest of the team that she would be stepping down. Here is part of what she said, shared with her permission: “I feel I must follow my convictions that are so different from several of the stated postures. To me this is almost no longer about the issue at hand and more how I view scripture, my relationship with Jesus, and what I am being called to as part of the body of Christ. Being part of that body, I feel great affection for you all and have enjoyed being part of a group forging a new way ahead. I have loved having challenging discussions in a thoughtful, loving patient environment.”

She gracefully resigned her position, offering to remain involved during her transition in whatever ways she was needed. Having sat down with her and her husband just a few days before, I was well aware of how difficult this decision was for them, both because of their long history with our church and because of their children’s involvement with our kids and youth programs. This was no rash decision, nor was it an angry protest. It was a well thought out decision based on their understanding of who God was calling them to be and the kind of church that they needed to help them continue to grow in life and faith. Even as I’m writing this, I have this feeling (fear, perhaps?) that I’ll look back on these days and lament the loss of these relationships. I wish there was some way to avoid this feeling, but I don’t think there is.

While this was not the first time someone had left our church because of theological differences, it was the first time a Board member had stepped down for such a reason. Over the years, we have had a couple of Board members choose to end their terms early due to unique challenges they were facing in life, but this was the first time that a disagreement about the direction our church was going had led to a resignation. Our team has been talking about how we will communicate this to the congregation, not wanting to cause any undue concern or tension, but also needing to find an appropriate way to acknowledge that decisions like these will be part of our journey. These are sensitive times, and I pray that God will lead us well enough through them; that even in our parting we will find ways to honour Him.

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