Tuesday afternoon a church member and good friend stopped by to see me, walked into my office, looked around and burst into tears. My first thought, “Something really bad has happened.” And then she said, “The reality just hit. You are leaving.”
I had packed up many of my books over the weekend. Normally stuffed-full shelves sat, mostly denuded and dusted, waiting for the next set of books to fill them. Family photos all packed as well.
The time pressure has hit. In a month, the movers pick up and store all my belongings so the parsonage can be cleaned and prepared for the next (and still unknown) occupant. Although I will still have two more weeks to work after that, everything must be packed and ready to go. I will then bunk with a generous friend for several weeks before moving into the apartment I have leased.
All those belongings include books. I am leaving many behind. Limited space in my new dwelling demands that I cull with determined abandon. And “abandon” feels like the word here. These books are my friends–much more so than the far more convenient e-books, none of which need be left behind. But these heavy, underlined, page-turned-down, broken-spined pieces of paper and binding stock hold memories for me. From the classical works to the lighter mysteries to the works of the mystics to the theological explorations to the economists’ take on human behavior to medical musings on the human bodies–all have befriended me and enriched me from my earliest memories. But I can’t take them all.
I spoke with the librarian in Krum. She assured me that every book I donate will eventually find a home. I will also make open offers to associates and friends to grab anything I know I can’t take for their own libraries. They will make new friends–the books that is.
I picked up each book lovingly. This one provided essential information for my D-Min final project; that one taught me to pray more freely. One, In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden, stays tucked close–I have read it once a year for over 30 years now. I suspect in another life, another time, I would have been called to the monastery, to the life of obedience, prayer, community, hidden work. Perhaps it helps explain my marital failures. But probably not.
As I handed them off to the friend who was helping me pack, she suddenly stopped and said, “Look, Christy, this is you.” She noted the cover photo—an open birdcage with a white dove flying free. “You are getting free just like that bird.” The book, Leaving Church, is Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir of her own leave-taking from her post as Episcopal priest to the life of academia. I decided not to pack it but to give myself the pleasure of re-reading it.
I found myself stunned as I read. So many parallels there. While acknowledging that she is far, far more famous and influential than I, we both gained some public acknowledgement of our preaching and writing skills, we both pastored growing churches that did effective mission, and we both had to leave, both of us before it was time, both of us dogged by an unyielding sense of failure. Both of us asking in one way or another, “Is it possible that we are doing church all wrong?”
An intriguing family visited our church this past weekend. Four of them, mother, Lucy, her husband, Charles, their grown daughter, Lisa and 13 year old granddaughter, Sarah. They had just moved to Krum earlier that week and wanted to start out immediately finding a place of worship. I introduced myself as the pastor and Lucy said, “A woman pastor! How absolutely wonderful!” They had just moved from Hawaii where Lucy has worked for years as a Salvation Army officer primarily with those in prison. From what I gleaned from conversations with them, there are no female pastors in Hawaii. None.
When Lucy found out I was retiring, she told her daughter, “Something is wrong. She must be seriously ill to be retiring at her age.”
I am not physically ill, although I’m tired beyond measurement. I am more anguished in heart.
Since turning twenty, and hearing in a way that I could understand it for the first time the words of grace and love, I have wanted to do nothing but serve the church, God’s chosen vehicle for embodying Holy and Redeeming Presence in the world.
In one way or another, I have done so. For better or for worse, that has been my path, my love, my passion.
And I have this deep sense that we (including me) are doing this all wrong.
At lunch with a friend yesterday, she said in reference to a church under conversation, “Well, I guess they must be doing something right—their numbers look good.” And then we looked at each other and both said, “Really? Is this the way to measure the blessing of God in ministry?” Because if that is the proper measurement, then charlatans like Joel Osteen (He is a great motivational speaker—but, in my opinion, destructive to Christian thought and action) and the latest “Atheist Church” movements are the places where God is blessing the most.
That’s not the path of Jesus.
I shall continue to ponder and write about this, but I do say this: the need to be “successful” in ministry may be the cause of the death of more good pastors than any other single factor.