At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, March 2, 2014

One of the Many, Part 1

It's good to know I'm technically not alone, but staggering to realize I'm one of many in a vocation that is so much at risk.

This August will be the ten-year anniversary of when--at a Presbyterian church in Salisbury, North Carolina--I was ordained and installed into the pastoral ministry. I was just shy of thirty-four years of age, brimming with hope that a new position can bring. I went into my new post with three clear rationales: (1) faithfully preach Scripture to the best of my ability; (2) people are genuinely excited about the adventure of being a follower of Jesus and are willing to invite others on this journey because (3) the Gospel will do its own reproducing.

Over the next fourteen months of my life, I diligently pursued rationale #1 to the best of my ability and still do. And I never lose hope in rationale #3.

What happened was that I fell into a deep depression because rationale #2--in my parish--was nowhere close to being the truth. Going to church, accessing the church, controlling the maneuvers of the church was the sum of the adventure. Being the church was so absent.

There were some successes. We took in some new members over time for our small church. I learned a great deal about how to respond to conflict and how to manage responses so that I could move people toward a consensus (even if it was hard to arrive there). I discovered the depths of perseverance previously unknown as I refused to give up no matter how bleak things got.

But that's about it. I wasn't removed for moral reasons, or for spouting heresy, or for making unilateral decisions that were disastrous.

A church that--in retrospect--didn't have a chance, that was saddled with many members used to church split-type conflicts, and tragically was riven with a spirit of merely wanting to accumulate Christians like them rather than seek the skeptical and spiritually hungry and befriend them…I wasn't ready for all that.

I wasn't ready for leaders to tell me, "I really don't think we need people who don't believe in Jesus in the church."

I wasn't ready for the greatest hostility to the movement of the Holy Spirit to come from professing Christians.

I wasn't ready for a transparent sermon on God's love for sinful people to be skewered because of the presence of a reference to Seinfeld and because we hadn't said the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles Creed in the service.

And I wasn't ready for--after thirty of the stonewalling and gospel-threatening adherents in the congregation left and we were down to forty-five people who loved Jesus and were excited about our chances--a clandestine threesome of a subcommittee of our regional church association told me I was out due to declining attendance and dollars. And then they dared to offer me a mere two-month severance package.

I wasn't ready for Christianity in that place to be defined more by adhering to what Focus on the Family said rather than by grace.

Really? This is what Christians who risked life and limb, who met in Rome's catacombs, who prayed and bled in laying the foundation of the ancient church and defended the core teachings of God's friendly heart…this is what they died for?

The life of a pastor is grueling enough, but much about it can make a cleric desire to quit, as the website ExPastors ably lays out. Over the next couple days, I'll be sharing some thoughts about their findings, which are quite stunning. Some were not particular to me; some--such as depression and the negative impact on family--are. No, I never contemplated suicide. But I completely understood why pastors might.

Yes, I am one of the many. That is true.

However, I discovered one thing that the ExPastors report will not discuss.

You can be faithful in your calling. You can experience disaster and have 'failed' by other people's standards. And that's okay.

Because grace is stronger and God's love never fails.

More later.

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