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It's Time to Move On

August 9, 2018. A few weeks ago, a member of our congregation offered to sit down with me with his “therapist hat” on. I knew I would take him up on it at some point, but I wanted to wait until the moment was right. In the old game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? you’re given a limited number of opportunities to receive outside help called lifelines, after which you’re on your own. You have to be strategic, because if you “phone a friend” too soon, you’ll have no one left to call for help when you get to the more challenging questions. In a way, I was holding off reaching out for as long as I could, but on the other side of the disaster in the Upper Room, I knew I was in trouble.

(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.)

There was plenty of silence when I got home that Sunday afternoon and, judging by the silence that my family offered in return, it was clear that Melissa had talked to the kids on the drive home, letting them know that I was going to need some space. I was grateful for that half hour of silence before we sat down for lunch. Thankfully, the rest of the day was unaccounted for, so I dropped myself down on the couch in the basement and watched a baseball game from start to finish for the first time in a couple of months. The rest of the family had other plans for the day, but my fifteen-year old daughter came downstairs and sat on the couch beside me. She didn’t say too much, but just sat there, and I could feel that in her golden little heart something was telling her that as much as I wanted to be left alone, what I actually needed even more was for someone who loved me unconditionally to just sit with me. When I tucked her into bed that night, I thanked her for being there with me. A moment like that is not something you take for granted.

Even with a day free of commitments, the weight of that Sunday morning encounter continued to grow heavier, and a couple of days later, I was still dragging myself around under its influence. I knew I was in a bad place, so I sent a note off to the therapist: “I'm not doing so well.” He emailed back right away, saying he was glad I was taking him up on the offer, and that afternoon he popped by the church to spend an hour and a half of his day with me. 

Sitting across from someone listening to them describe the trials and struggles of life is part of the pastoral role, so the setting was familiar to me, only this one I was the one doing the talking. I was at a point beyond pretending, so I dove right in and described the place I was at as openly and honestly as I could. It was challenging at first, as I had to keep convincing myself that I could interact with him in a therapeutic capacity and not feel guilty for letting a member of my congregation see me in such a raw state. But I knew it was good for me to do so and continued to argue with myself in favour of opening up. There were a few suggestions he made at the end of our time together that I feel would be helpful to share in hopes that they might also ring true for someone else walking a similar path (or, honestly, just for anyone):

1) Bring the positive to mind regularly to balance out the negative.

Over the years, I’ve made a habit of copying excerpts from emails that are particularly encouraging and pasting them into a document that I’ve creatively titled, “Nice Emails.” I learned pretty early on in this pastoral line of work that there will always be something to drag you down, so having words to reflect back on has been helpful—not to inflate my ego, but to keep my ego from disappearing into the abyss when the dark clouds are particularly ominous.

He encouraged me to do something similar with respect to this current season we’re in. Even though close to 10% of our congregation has left by this point, with more departures on the horizon, I know in my mind that most people are still on board and many of them are actually quite excited about the path we are carving out together. Moving forward, I need to find a way of reminding myself of this.

2) Allow the professional part of me to do the professional work of saying goodbye.

We talked a lot about the tangling of ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ during this season and the need to work hard at giving myself permission to disconnect the two. The phrase, “Don’t take it personally,” has been one of my least favourite pieces of cliched advice over the years. I’ve heard it countless times from the lips of well-meaning people, but a pastoral vocation, if nothing else, involves offering yourself to the people of your congregation: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” 

The day I stop following Jesus’ advice on this is the day I’ve handed in my resignation letter, so I have to find a way to hold the two—the professional and the personal—in tension. With respect to this particular area of people leaving our community, though, I have to find a way to allow myself to disengage my emotions. People will leave our church and I can’t allow that to affect me in such a personal way every time. I’m still figuring out what that looks like in real time, but I think it’s something like being outside in a heavy rainstorm when you’re so wet that you stop fighting to stay dry and just let the water roll off of your already-soaked body. 

3) Try to avoid fighting for a person to stay when a decision has already been made; instead, work on a healthy, mutual break-up.

I want to do whatever I can to help people negotiate the changing dynamics in our congregation in a healthy way, but I’m starting to realize that I have been engaging in conversations with a predetermined goal of helping each person see that there is a way for them to stay. A more genuine form of listening would involve me focusing on how individuals are processing their place in our community, remaining open to the possibility—the reality—that not everyone will be able to make this journey with us.

If I’m able to make this adjustment, I’ll be able to pastor people through these rough waters instead of standing on the shore calling out, “You can make it!” I don’t want to be too hard on myself, as I know I’ve done this on a number of occasions already, but I’m probably making things more difficult than they need to be for at least some people who are probably on their way out. How can I help them leave in a way that will leave the door open for a healthy relationship on the other side?

4) Talk with friends about the personal (not professional) side of their leaving.

And we’re back to the personal/professional theme again. Some of the conversations I’m struggling with the most are with people who are both members of our congregation and personal friends. Just as this member of our community has put on his “therapist hat,” I need to learn how to take off my “pastor hat.”

We talked about this a fair bit as it’s the piece that is currently stirring up some of the deepest emotions in me. The only way I can describe it is to say that it feels like people are choosing a stance over a friendship, but in the same way that our friendship exists outside of whatever our church connection is, it will continue to exist even if that church connection is severed. I’m not actually sure I believe what I just wrote, but it’s what I’m trying to tell myself right now.

5) Read over what I've written to date to validate my own experience, instead of looking for validation from someone else.

I expressed a desire I have to seek out pastors who have walked this path before and how much I want to hear someone identify with what I am going through. The therapist pushed back, though, observing that it sounded like I was looking for someone to validate my experience, when my own experience could stand on its own two feet. At one point I told him that I have been writing my story out in real time and he suggested that I find some time to go back and read it over—to remind myself of just how real and raw this whole thing is. I’ll try to set aside some time to do this soon.

At the end of the day, it was a good conversation that has left me with plenty to think about and some practical next steps. It was also a good exercise in allowing my community to take care of me the same way I’ve been striving so hard to take care of them. I remember one particular Board meeting in the early years of our church where I shared a quote from Henri Nouwen that expressed what I needed from them at the time: “Ministers and priests are also called to be full members of their communities, are accountable to them and need their affection and support.”

It’s a two-way street, this vocation of mine, and if I have any hope of moving forward in a healthy way and regaining the strength and vitality that I’ve lost over the past few months, I’m going to have to lean on people for some of that “affection and support.” And I definitely am ready to start moving forward. I’ll often refer to this as a ‘season’ of ministry, which I know that it is, but it’s starting to feel like one of those long, dark winters that starts to give signs of fading away, only to blast its way back with a fury, never quite giving in to the advancing hope of spring. I want to put the winter jackets and boots of this season away; I want to change my tires over; I want to start enjoying all of the sights and sounds and smells that come with the first signs of spring.

In the words of the late Tom Petty, “It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going / What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing.”

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