Monthly Archives: August 2013

Who Deserted Who?

Well, it’s now official: I am the new senior pastor-elect of MCC of Northern Virginia (MCC NOVA).

Richard and I are both excited about the future; at the same time we’re both grieving the losses associated with our pending move. We’ve immensely enjoyed our time in the Chicago area. We’ve made wonderful friends, and the community at Holy Covenant MCC (HCMCC) has been good to us. We don’t expect to lose these friendships, either. At the same time, since MCC policy requires us to maintain a healthy distance from HCMCC to enable everyone to move forward with their lives, we know those relationships will change on a certain level. So while we are happy and excited with the decision to move and feel it is the right decision for this time of our lives, it isn’t easy.

I estimate about 95% of the people at HCMCC are happy for us. While some have cried and said they are not happy about the move, they qualify those comments by adding they understand and are happy we have this opportunity to move forward and grow. A few folks don’t understand why we feel it is time for us to move on; yet they aren’t angry. And another (very) few folks–while making it very clear they still love Richard–are nonetheless quite angry with me.

On one level I understand the anger. A relationship you felt was good and strong is changing through no fault of your own. This type of change is something that different people process in different ways. Some folks are able to understand that in Protestant Church World pastoral transitions are–while not always welcomed–normal. In fact, some statistics report the average Protestant pastorate is four (4) years. So at six (6) years plus, some people might say HCMCC and I have done well in our relationship.

For others, pastoral transitions tend to bring their often suppressed abandonment issues to the surface. Again, some people see these issues for what they are and are able to make the adjustments necessary to navigate the discomfort that comes with pastoral transitions. In fact one person has teased me about how my pending departure has done just that–raised their abandonment issues–yet they are looking forward to being part of the future movement that is HCMCC. Responses like these give me hope for the Protestant church.

Others, and for whatever reasons, are not able to make these adjustments as smoothly as their fellow travelers. These are the folks who throw words like “bailing,” “betrayal” and “desertion” at the departing pastor–and my situation is no different.

Again, on one level I understand. Different people process uncomfortable changes in different ways. What really bothers me about this reality in Protestant Church World, however, is usually the people making such charges have abandoned the church long ago. They attend church and participate in its activities when it suits them. If the aesthetics change and are no longer to their taste (see “Tealight Theology”); if they cannot get along with some of the people in the community; if the church service time is no longer convenient for them; if the order of worship changes, etc. they disappear until such time the changes they require are made. Oh, and if they do decide they need you in between those times, however, you had best be there for them–otherwise, and in their opinion–the church has abandoned them.

In these cases I ask the question, “Just who has abandoned who?”

While discussing this topic recently, Richard asked me a very pointed question: “Do you have abandonment issues when people treat the church like a commodity they can take or leave?”

The answer is, “Yes, I do.” When people leave the church, I usually question if there was anything I could have done differently within reason to encourage them to stay. Most often I’ve found the answer is, “No.” Life happens. People leave the church. Yes, pastors should do what they can to address the sincere felt needs of their congregants. At the same time, we can’t make everyone happy. So be it.

Something else I think is important for people to understand is that–whatever else it may be–professional ministry is just that–a profession. It is a job, folks. Make no mistake about it, either. Most days I love what I do. And like everyone else with a job they love there are days when I don’t love it as much. I’ll bet Jesus had those days, too.

What I’m saying here is that in most professions people realize there is–as Ecclesiastes reminds us–a time for everything, and that includes a time to move forward. It’s not always a reflection on the pastor who is moving on, nor is it always a reflection on the community they are leaving. It’s simply a part of life.

And to my clergy colleagues, let’s be honest about our abandonment issues, too. Sometimes people leave. It’s not always a reflection on us; nor is it always a reflection on them.

Sometimes life just is.

Blessings on your journeys–wherever they take you!

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