Letting a group of men that I had served with for almost 9 years know that we weren’t on the same page at all anymore was tough. It didn’t speak to my love for them, which makes it even harder. If I didn’t like them, it would be easy…real easy. But I did and still do. But sometimes an impasse is an impasse, and different philosophies of how basic things should happen, and what priorities should be become so radically different that you have to admit that it is best to part ways and then continue on your own pathways.
As Christians, this is doubly difficult because our goal is supposed to be the same: bring glory to God and honor Christ by making disciples that make disciples. God is honored when we bear much fruit for Him. How different can that pursuit be? The simple and correct answer is that it shouldn’t be difficult. The banner of Jesus Christ is something we should rally under and leave our differences aside. But even Paul & Barnabas took different pathways after a time (Acts 15) because of a sharp disagreement, and they still loved each other through it. So, this is the pathway we took, too, even if it wasn’t the one anyone had originally intended.
As I said in my last post, I didn’t want to drag this out. It wasn’t right to make a big to-do over this, and I didn’t want to create ‘camps’ within the church after I was gone. No good would come from that. So, I told the elders my plan, that I would announce my departure the following Sunday, preach again the Sunday after that and then fade out quickly. I had committed to a small group of men that I had begun discipling that we would finish out a certain amount of time on Wednesday nights, and that would be my goodbye.
There are a lot of things that can happen as you walk through this process. Things you thought might happen, and other things you didn’t even think about or imagine. Everyone’s experience in this pathway will be different, but one thing matters most: we keep our eyes on Christ. There’s a way in which this feels like a break-up or even a divorce. It hurts, but you still love people. There are mixed feelings, difficult conversations…people do take sides.
I could share details, but it’s better not to go down that road. No one gains anything, and you have to wonder what the end game is or even could be in pointing fingers, shifting blame. When you come to this point and place, there’s always a shared experience that leads to it. Unless incredible circumstances have led to this, this is a shared experience for everyone in leadership, and only hindsight leaves you with any advantage.
There are countless resources, articles and organizations that exist for the sake of pointing churches into healthy, growing habits and practices. (I have several listed & linked below.) But everyone must be on board for these changes to take place. The whole leadership team must be of one mind, bought in and invested for a long haul operation if we are to chip away the decades of bad practices, unbiblical thoughts and self-centered ideologies that are encountered with most church revitalization projects. After all, the church isn’t a business, but people. The church is people, the Bride of Christ, and she must be loved, led and guided into correct practice. This is a fragile time, and tugging in multiple directions simply causes chaos.
We had been through a review by an external organization meant to help us find that direction. I had been working with a coach, going step by step with what he encouraged. But when it comes down to it, everyone must want healing enough to pursue it, the new vision for what God wants to do must be compelling enough within them, that they own it wholesale. This time, that didn’t happen. God had put something big on my heart, an intergenerational, multi-ethnic congregation that truly represented the neighborhood she served. It was a big change, it would have been beautiful. But, not quite yet. Not here.
So, on Sunday, I did my best to put on a good face, I recused myself before the service. I came out to preach, and with God’s help, I made it through my short sermon on unity in Christ, preplanned for this Sunday six months before., it was very appropriate. During invitation, I had arranged for my parents and family to leave the room. There was no way I could look them in the face while I read my letter. I couldn’t have completed it. After invitation, I stepped back up to the platform, and invited the elders up to join me.
The rest, as they say, is history. I read my letter. I prayed over the elders & congregation. I cried. There were gasps and tears from the congregation. I told them my exit strategy and that I still loved them. The people who weren’t in my ‘camp’ (I hate making divisions like this, “I am for Apollos, I am for Paul.”…it’s nonsense) left without saying anything else to me. That was fine, it wasn’t my concern at that point, and it was a small number of people. There were lots of hugs, words of care and support from the rest and people asking where we were going…and I honestly couldn’t answer that one yet.
I just knew it wasn’t local. We had been called out, away from home.
I was emotionally exhausted, physically spent.
I wanted nothing but to sleep for a couple of days.
I had tried my hardest to keep human, petty nastiness out of the mix, so that even in this difficulty, God would be honored and the baby Christians among us wouldn’t be soured or turned away. I wanted this to feel as ‘natural’ and as ‘painless’ as it could.
I honestly can’t tell you specifically what happened the next week. I know I worked on my last sermon, and that I spent time confiding in ministry friends and prepping for CPAC (Church Planters Assessment Center) in North Carolina. Other than that, it’s a blur. On Sunday, I came in, talked about God hitting the restart on Abraham’s life by calling him out (a topic chosen 6 months before but suddenly very appropriate) to a place he did not know, and how faith was his vehicle for his next steps. (I’ll write sometime about prepping and study for long term sermon planning. It’s super effective.)
It was another short sermon. I fought tears the whole time. At the end, I prayed the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6 over the congregation and we closed with the Lord’s Prayer as we did every week as an affirmation of our unity in Him. I didn’t make it through this last part, my voice left me, & where I couldn’t continue, the congregation did. They all surrounded me as we wept and prayed. It was beautiful and painful, terrible and cathartic all at once. But it was done. My big goodbye was over…ish.
I spent the following weeks on Wednesday nights discipling my guys, trying to give them a stronger foundation and attempting to hand over a group of willing men to one of the elders to continue the effort. After the agreed upon time was over, I was gone. I had stopped attending on Sunday mornings, and we began going to another church in town with some very good, long time friends. I’ll post more on this later.
In mid-March, we came back for a lunch after church for a formal good-bye and thank you from the elders. I didn’t want to go, I wasn’t in a good enough place to do it, but I knew there were people who needed time to process and then say their good-byes. Our last name was misspelled on the good-bye cake. (It’s an honest mistake for the store to make, my last name is unusual.)
I just had to laugh.
Our healing was coming.
Thom Rainer gives 7 quick reasons when leaving is okay
Focus On The Family’s Counseling Referral Service
Chris Maxwell speaks into Pastor’s receiving counseling
Karl Vaters gives 7 reasons when transition is right
Check your church culture out,:
Healthy Growing Churches
The Covenant Group
Natural Church Development
Emotionally & Spiritually Healthy Church