It's October 17, 2018, and it’s been just over a month since I last sat down to write. This is partly because the fall is always a busier-than-usual season in the life of a church, but it’s also a result of the fact that I actually haven’t been struggling to sleep lately. Pretty much everything I’ve written to this point has been during nocturnal writing sessions at the margins of my days, but today I have intentionally sat down to get caught up on our church’s story and how my own pastoral journey is moving along.
(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.)
It’s early fall as I look out of our living room window, watching the leaves of our Autumn Blaze Maple tree doing exactly what their name suggests. Aside from the cascade of colours, it’s an otherwise dreary day, but weather aside, I’m about to begin a two day mini-retreat that I try to take each year at about this time. A couple from our church own a little cottage on the edge of a river just outside of the city limits and I’ll be heading there shortly for some time ‘off the grid,’ as my email auto-responder says. It's an intentional time set aside for prayer, for reading, and for doing the kind of longer range planning for our church that I can only seem to do when I have no other distractions.
The past month in the life of our church has been incredibly encouraging. I’m actually smiling as I type this, as it seems so improbable given the challenging year we’ve had to this point. I entered September using the language of ‘turning a page,’ and I think that the congregational letter I sent out at the start of the month really struck a chord with people, many of whom seemed to be waiting for someone to suggest that we do that very thing. On the first Sunday morning after Labour Day, there was a buzz of excitement in the air before our service began. Our congregation has an admittedly bad habit of arriving late, and yet for some reason, on this first Sunday of this new season, there were dozens of people already filling the pews long before the service began. There was new life in the room, and I think the Holy Spirit, too, if I’m going to be honest. We introduced our new worship leader, who was leading for the first time that week, and she led us in a way that we need to be led right now. One of our Board members came up to me after the service and told me that this was the first time he had enjoyed being in church for several months. “It’s like there has been a dark cloud hanging over us and, now, the skies seem to be clearing up.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Don’t get me wrong, the losses have continued to pile up, even into the fall, with around fifty people now having left our church. We had hoped that those who would choose to leave would have done so over the summer, but there have been others who never got around to making a decision, but are doing so now. Fifty people is close to ten percent of the people who would call our church home, but nearly all of these people were actively involved, so it feels like we’ve lost more like twenty percent of our committed core over the issue of same-sex attraction. It goes without saying that we have some rebuilding to do, but we’re already beginning to see new people coming around and, in fact, I’ve sent invitations out to nearly thirty people to join us for our upcoming New-ish lunch; a sign that while we’ve experienced deep loss, we’re already beginning to see some new growth. And I believe there will be much more of that to come.
Of course it’s not just the church that needs rebuilding; it’s myself, too. On the other side of the departure of one of our Staff members, I came unravelled in a way that I have never experienced before. At the time, I felt like I had lost control and that I had bottomed out in a way that I was afraid I may not be able to recover from. But nearly two months after the worst of it, I am slowly but surely crawling out of the mud and pulling myself together.
Our church leadership has proposed that both Melissa and I seek out support in the form of counselling, and they have provided the resources for us to do so. I knew I would need help to get truly healthy again, so I asked around and was referred to a local counselor who has previous experience as a pastor, which was an important factor for me. He has been a source of encouragement over the course of our sessions together, and I certainly feel that our conversations have been helpful in getting my feet back on the ground and in charting a course forward.
One of the things he did right out of the gate was to give a name to what I was experiencing: grief. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but he told me that what I was explaining to him about the thoughts and feelings I’d been having over the past couple of months were classic responses to the experience of deep loss. For example, I have found myself being untrusting of people. Recently, when a couple of different pastors came up to me and greeted me with hugs at a city-wide luncheon our church was hosting, my mind immediately went to wondering how much they knew about our journey, and what the meaning of these hugs were. Were they genuinely showing me compassion or was there an element of judgment or even pity mixed in? The therapist told me that this was nothing more than a biological ‘fight-or-flight’ response—that I had experienced rejection and felt abandoned by people close to me and my brain was now trying to protect me from repeating the experience.
I also told him about another time when I was literally sitting on the couch in our living room in tears because of the overwhelming anxiety I was feeling about taking my thirteen year-old son out shopping for hockey equipment. Seriously, I was crying over shoulder pads and shin guards! I had never felt anything like this before and I was trying the best I could to explain to Melissa that for some inexplicable reason, I felt utterly incapable of making even the smallest decisions, including helping our son pick out hockey gear. Without hesitation, she offered to take him out shopping herself, but it was a frightening moment as I sat there wondering what on earth was happening to me—what on earth was wrong with me. Again, the therapist helped me understand how this momentary incapacitation was nothing to be concerned about, but was actually a normal, expected outcome of an experience of loss.
Because it’s such a unique vocation, pastoring can end up being a lonely profession. It encompasses your work life, your home life, your social circles, and your spiritual life all at the same time. Finding a therapist that has been in this role has been helpful for me, but I’ve also been intentional about reaching out to long-time trusted pastor friends, just to lean into during this season. I recently got together with the same three friends that I went on a road trip with back in the spring. I sent an email to one of them saying that things were pretty rough and that I just needed some safe people to be with. He made arrangements for us to meet up for dinner, and by the end of the night, I had to apologize for completely monopolizing the conversation. But I wasn’t really sorry for it and I know they didn’t need an apology. There was plenty of encouragement around the table, for sure, though I will admit that even in such a safe space I was constantly wondering if they were judging me and whether the way I had led our church would change things for us moving forward. At one point, someone suggested that they each share any stories they had about people leaving their churches in a negative way. One of them could think of one occasion, another had two stories, and the third could not remember anyone leaving his church under negative circumstances. Then the friend who suggested this conversation thread pointed out that, across all of their combined years of ministry, the three of them had a total of three negative experiences of families leaving their churches, while I had more than a dozen in just the past three months. It was so meaningful for me to hear him acknowledge this and I left that night thinking, Of course I’m going to be a mess—this kind of loss is something that few pastors will even come close to in all of their years of ministry!
One of the primary gifts I have received through the conversations I’ve had with a therapist is the validation of my experiences as ‘normal.’ Honestly, after the fall-out at the end of the summer, I was genuinely concerned about whether I would ever be able to fully recover—I felt so out of control, empty to the core. Now, though, I am confident that I will be healthy again, even if, in the words of one of our Board members, my normal is “a new normal.”
A couple of weeks ago I got together with Eric, to check in on him and see how he’s been doing in light of everything that has been going on with our church community. He shared about how hurtful all of the departures have been for him—especially those of people he was close to—and how he feels like the reason they are leaving is that they cannot belong to a church that he is a part of. I told him that I felt almost exactly the same way about myself and pointed out how interesting it was that we were having somewhat parallel experiences. Both of us were feeling a deep rejection and both of us were feeling as though our actions were what had caused people to leave. We had some good conversation about this and I encouraged him to be patient in his recovery—advice that I have been giving myself in order to avoid stumbling by trying to move forward too quickly. I told him that some of the reconciliation that needed to happen in my life was going to have to wait—that, yes, I would move to rebuild broken bridges, but that my first priority was to get healthy myself. I asked him to consider allowing himself to do the same before doing his own reconciling. Admittedly, it felt a little like the blind leading the blind as I tried to offer him something of value during this mutually discouraging season, but I think it was actually more like another saying I’ve come across: “I’m just a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”