Two years ago today was my last day in congregational ministry. I remember it like it was yesterday, but have been reluctant to write about it publicly. (I have journaled about it extensively.) I’m still hesitant. I have been open and humble about my own codependence and how it contributed to my departure. But, when I consider retelling what happened with the congregation (particularly the leadership), my stomach tightens and a fearful yet staunch voice inside me commandingly says, You shall go no further.
Am I ready to dive into the church part of what led to my resignation? I ask this myself on a daily basis because I know that eventually I will need to. I am diffident because there was such ugliness in the end. I fear some of the congregation’s wounds are still open and that someone will respond in an attacking manner. The time spanning February to October 2010 was some of the worst I’d experienced in my life.
I was unaware of how bad things would get when I preached my last sermon, which was an utterly graceful gift from God. Because of this I was able to speak into the moment — the pain, the disillusion, and the possibilities of where the church could go from there. God had me preach from a text that encompassed my life verse (Philippians 4:4-7). I called the sermon “A Fond Farewell”, most of which I recall here. I figure that rereading this sermon and reliving the moment in my head and heart are the best ways to be posthumously faithful to the time my former congregation and I shared in the presence and work of the Lord.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:2-9, NRSV).
Here Paul speaks to a beloved community following his departure. Leaving is always the hardest on the party that is left behind, I said to my congregation that day. It was a congregation that had seen the coming and going of five pastors (counting me) over their 40-year history; and now God had called yet another pastor away from them. How they responded over the following months and years was their concern, of course. However, the Spirit seemed to be speaking and offering options through the text.
- They could fight amongst themselves, as are Euodia and Syntyche in the text, and poison the congregation with residual anger, pain, and proprietary feelings (Phil 4:2-3)
- They could choose to fare well in the Lord (4:4-7) by riding out each part of the journey in faithfulness, knowing that there will be ups and downs. With this choice they would intentionally fare well/rejoice happy and challenging times and stay connected to God in prayer. Such a choice, says Paul, brings the peace of God that passes our own understanding.
- They could think on good things (4:8) by taking a glass-is-halfway-full approach and looking through the years we were together and asking God to reveal Godself in them. By doing so they would be more likely to learn from challenges and difficult times, rather than stewing and dwelling on them.
- Following the previous choice, they could celebrate the good that we did together and keep it going (4:9).
Then I tied it all together and shared what I believed to be most probable to happen.
Actually, it will probably be a process, probably a mixture of each of these things going on both within the congregation and for individual persons, and not necessarily in this linear fashion. Y’all might skip around, or perhaps you’ll be at a place somewhere down the road where you feel like you’re able to celebrate sincerely, and then something trips you up and puts you right back to the anger and bitterness again. This is okay. It’s called grief; and it’s a process. And the only way to healing, or a least living with it better, is through.
The person I’d become through the counseling and spiritual direction needed to be honest about what was happening that day; and so I concluded my sermon thus:
We have been in intense relationship with one another for 5 ½ years. And unlike Paul, I did not enter this community knowing that my term would be up within a certain amount of time. I came here to be your pastor: to love you; to lead you; to serve you; to challenge you; to serve with you; and to grow in faith with and glorify God with you. I wasn’t thinking of the end when I began; nor was I thinking of the end when I went on sabbatical. But here we are. And it hurts. Also, I know y’all don’t want me to linger here in the pulpit all day long because the potential that someone might feel abandoned is too much for me to bear.
But, here’s where the Apostle, Paul, the Good-bye man comes in to offer us another nugget from his vast experience with farewells. The last eight words of our text say this, “ … [The] peace of God will be with you.” No one is abandoned. Not you, not me, not our children, not visitors, not the church, not the community. The peace of God will be with you, and it will be with me. And that’s not nothin’, folks. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Today I am mindful of all pastors and congregations who are presently or have in the past experienced painful congregational ministry times and relationships. I empathize with you, pray for you, and offer you encouragement that no matter how chaotic you may feel the peace of God is indeed with you.