It’s September 14, 2018. On this date twenty years ago, I officially began my pastoral journey with the launch of our student church at the University of Waterloo. There were months of preparation that went into our kick-off at the Humanities Theatre, but that night was when things really began. We tried to spread the word the best we could, which was quite a challenge in a world that was just dipping its toes in the internet and still several years away from the advent of social media. I was hoping and praying that God would draw 50 students out that night, not because numbers were the focus of what we were doing, but because the theatre we were meeting in had 675 seats and anything less than 50 people simply would have been embarrassing. In the end, 85 people walked through the doors and our church was born. I remember lying in bed late on that first Monday night and saying to Melissa, “I just thought of something: We have to do this again next week!”
(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.)
Of course that first night was really only the start of our journey, and here I am two decades later still plying my trade at pastoring a community of people. A small remnant has stuck with us through all of these twenty years, but the community has changed a lot over the years—and of course so have I. As I reflect back today on the night our church was born, I realize that it was also the birth of my pastoral vocation, and so it’s a date that will always hold significance for me. Despite all that this year has brought with it, I am grateful to God for this calling and am (somewhat surprisingly) no less committed to walking out this calling than I was before this ‘hailstorm’ began.
Earlier this week, I found myself in a place that brought back some more early memories from that same foundational season of life. I was at the head office of our denomination’s District office for a meeting with our District and General Superintendents. The last time I was in that particular room, it was for my credential interview. I have some pretty vivid memories of that night, as a couple of my written responses on the credential application were not what they were hoping to see, so we had some fairly intense conversation about whether or not I was able to align myself with their stated positions—particularly on the controversial question of whether speaking in tongues was the initial physical evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is the theological holy grail for Pentecostals.
As I sat in that very same room again this week, I was reflecting back on that night and realized that I am a much different person today than the intimidated twenty-two year old ‘kid’ who found himself at odds with the powers that be. That night, they asked me to step out of the room for a few minutes and then invited me back in for a final clarification of my willingness to abide by their understanding of this particular doctrine. There were a couple of other minor issues as well; for example, at one point in my application I had explained that, with respect to their prohibition of gambling, I wouldn’t have a problem tossing a few coins in a slot machine, which they assured me was something they would have a problem with! At the end of the night, I acquiesced and they let me into the family. Things would not end so well this time around.
I attended the meeting along with a member of our Board, so it was just the four of us in the room, and really, in the entire building, as everyone else had left the office by the time we got started. I pretty much knew how things would roll out, so I wasn’t feeling at all nervous or anxious when I sat down, even though it did feel a bit like a sanitized version of an old-fashioned inquisition. Back in May, I had reached out to our General Superintendent and brought him up to speed on our journey over lunch in a seafood restaurant down the street from his office. At that time, we were still uncertain exactly what posture we would end up describing, so in fairness, I imagine that news of our decision to name this a disputable matter, while not a complete surprise to him, would have been disappointing all the same. I had not talked to my District Superintendent about our journey at all. We had always had a very positive relationship, it wasn’t that, but the magnitude of the conversation required me to engage with the head office right from the get go. I have always had a positive relationship with both of these men, so there was a palpable heaviness in the room as I knew I was in all likelihood about to part ways with some very good people who had supported both myself and the churches I had led over these past twenty years. I felt like I was letting them down.
The conversation was cordial and grace-filled. We spoke a bit about our differing views on the issue, but it was primarily an opportunity for them to make their position clear and explain that I was the one who was no longer in alignment. They told me they had no intention of disciplining me or making things any more difficult than they needed to be, but they were clear that unless I was prepared to reverse course and get back in line, that the next steps would be for me to resign my credentials and begin the process of dis-affiliating our church. In that moment, I was struck by the realization that one and the same place could be both where a journey begins and where it ends. In that meeting room, I had signed on to be part of this missional family of churches, and in that meeting room I was informed that, based on our church’s posture on the issue of same-sex attraction, I was no longer welcome in the same family. I wanted to push back more than I did, to try and put into words what it feels like to be told you no longer belong, but I was more focused on keeping the relationships intact and on honouring these men for who they were and for the genuinely good work they were doing for God’s Kingdom.
There was one instance when I did push back, however. One of them made a comment about how he had seen this happen before, and that when a church makes a decision like this it doesn’t go well. I’d heard the same comment numerous times—we were opening Pandora’s box, or we were starting down a “slippery slope”—but I couldn’t let that narrative win this time around. I respectfully disagreed with him, letting him know that our church was not doomed to this same fate and that we would continue to grow in a healthy way, seeing people come to faith and making disciples along the way. I told him that, despite their belief to the contrary, our posture did not compromise the core of who we are as a church and certainly didn’t compromise the gospel message we were sharing and being continually formed by ourselves. I was glad I said that much, at least, as I do believe that we have much to be hopeful for and I’m not particularly interested in giving such a pessimistic narrative a hold in my life.
There was a last ditch plea for us to reconsider our decision and re-align ourselves, and I said that I would debrief with our Board and respond accordingly, but I also acknowledged that our compass was already set, which they understood. The meeting ended with a heartfelt prayer and a commitment to honour one another in our parting. It was sombre, somewhat surreal even, but then again I’ve experienced so much leaving and loss over the past few months that it had surprisingly little effect on me—at least in the moment. I’m sure that in time I'll come to feel the gravity of it all.