A Former Life

Recently facebook shared a memory with me. It was five years ago and apparently on that day I was “excited and all aflutter about the possibilities that lie ahead in life.” At the time, I was in the final stages of interviewing with a church to serve as their pastor. I haven’t shared much publicly about my experience as a pastor but now feel these words may be an encouragement to someone or help others understand the challenges of leading the church today.

My first day was April 1, Palm Sunday that year. Really the Easter season was a wonderful time to start work at a church. It is weeks of celebration if you follow the church calendar. We were all hopeful; I was hopeful, the church was hopeful. It was a new beginning.

Unfortunately, the new beginning did not last long. Within two months I started to feel that everyone was really concerned about the finances but no one would come right out and say it. No one really had any idea just how much money the church had in all of their reserve accounts or how much they had been spending. I learned there had been some concerns about whether they would be able to pay a full time pastor, a concern that was shared with previous candidates but not with me in the interview process.

I hate numbers with a passion. I was always getting the wrong answer in math class but could totally justify my result. This was important and I needed to be sure I had the right numbers so I spent hours during the month of June and July surrounded by pages of spreadsheets. I looked at how much the church had been taking in for years compared to what they’d been spending. I looked at how much we were taking in now and how much was left in the reserves and came to the realization that if something drastic didn’t change, we’d be without any resources within the year.

I presented this information to the finance committee and then to the church, because no one else would. I learned that in the fifty one year history of the church there had never been any real discussion about the finances, at least not like the one we needed to have. Each year’s budget was simply based on the budget from the previous year’s budget on paper. Powerful people within the church had been rolling over money from reserves for years without telling anyone. It wasn’t necessarily done with ill intent, they had lived through worse economic times than we were facing now and they assumed things would get better.  They believed there was no need to alarm anyone. They wanted to avoid conflict at all cost. When looking at the finances, I realized that some of the things that had been promised to me in the call process were never actually going to happen. I would lose thousands of dollars that had been promised to me. The person who had promised them to me had no authority to promise them but I didn’t know that. I also learned that the congregation had never voted on my final salary. So, not only was I telling them they were running out of money but they were looking at figures new to them that suddenly seemed like I was getting paid too much. (Let me assure you I wasn’t. It was still more than 10,000 less than I’d been making in a previous job)

Money wasn’t our only problem. Like many churches, we had a number of older individuals and about four young families. One of which was out the door before I got there and another was swinging in the balance the whole time I was there. As is often the case, many of the older adults were ready to give up their jobs and quickly began making their exodus out of positions once I started and the new nominating committee was established. They all wanted to the two young committed families to take on all of their responsibilities. I tried to engage everyone in conversation about taking the opportunity to examine some of our leadership positions, were they really necessary? How could we do things differently? But add the worn out feelings of doing a job for too long with the fear that was rising about money and no one wanted any kind of change, which left us in a terrible bind.

I joke that many times in the middle of meetings I would think, “It is a shame we aren’t recording this right now because it would be the perfect illustration of systems theory in a seminary class.” These members loved their church, understandably so, and wanted to do whatever it would take to keep the doors of the church open. They did not want their new pastor telling them they were at a critical point and so in ways I don’t even think they realized, they worked hard to make me change my dialogue.

Honestly, it was exhausting. It is always difficult to lead people in a way they do not want to be led, but sometimes you just have to go with your leadership integrity even if it means you get beat up some in the process. Here are some things I learned in the experience…

– Sometimes you can ask all of the right questions in the interview process and still not know what you are stepping into. People can only be honest with the truth as they understand it. You are hearing their best version of the truth as they understand it when they describe their church.

– In stressful situations, people are not the best version of themselves. They go into survival mode and it is not necessarily personal when they attack you to survive. However, when a church’s priority becomes keeping the doors open above everything else, the battle has already been lost.

– There are many bigger issues facing our churches that they cannot even begin to name themselves. Learn the history of the church. This church had been formed from a group of people who always had seen themselves as outsiders and had always felt like they needed to prove themselves to those that lived “in town.” To acknowledge they could no longer afford a full-time pastor made them feel like a failure in a deeper more systematic way than they could express.  Another church I’ve worked with recently is having a problem finding a new pastor but the town is dying from around the church. So admitting you don’t need a full time pastor, cannot afford one, is to admit that the town your ancestors built generations ago is dying. The family’s wealth is tied up in land that no one wants anymore. If a minister does not want to move to your area to work with you, who else will.

– For older generations, those jobs they’ve held in the church for decades are the way they have expressed their faithfulness to God. We had a Sunday School secretary who had been doing the jobs for probably fifty years. His generation was encouraged to serve in these positions because we needed them for the church to be successful. This was how they expressed their faith, their relationship with God. I asked him about the numbers he was still collecting, what did we do with them? He did not know. As I probed further with others I learned that the church had not been doing anything with the numbers for decades. He was collecting numbers just to collect them but no one had told him and here he was wanting me to find someone else to take his job because he was tired. He was tired of serving God this way, he’d been doing it for decades after all.

It is hard for this generation to hear that the way they’ve been serving God is no longer needed. If this is no longer needed, what does that mean about the life of faith I’ve lived? At a point where senior adults often feel like they are losing their usefulness in the world, feeling they are using their usefulness at church only compounds what they are experiencing. We have to make tough choices in most churches today but we need to give space to honor the way older generations have expressed their commitment to God. We need to give them space to grieve the changes and honor their service. However, we cannot use all of this as an excuse not to have the hard conversations in the church. In smaller congregations there are just not enough people to fill these positions and many of them now hold no real meaning in a life of someone seeking to be the presence of Christ in the world.

– You cannot save every church. Most of the younger ministers I talk to really do believe in the power of the church. We believe there is hope in dreaming a new dream for what it means to be the church today. We are in ministry because we have hope. The reality is that not every church will survive this season in our history. I’m not saying that is what will happen to the church I served but I came to the place that I realized I was not going to be the person who could move them forward. For me, shining a light on the issues the church had to face and continuing to force the church to face the reality excluded me from being able to move them forward.

Ministers who are facing this, keep a journal because when you leave it is quite possible that you will feel like a failure. You will wonder else you could have done. You will forget some of the awful things that happened, many of which only you and select people knew about, that forced you to make the decision to leave. You’ll need to be reminded that you did try everything at your disposal. You’ll need to be reminded that some of the insecurity you now have deeply embedded came from words and actions of people who were desperate. You will need to remember what you learned during this season, knowing that God can redeem all.

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