I'm adding a new label tag today: ministry.
It could be expanded into "Things that perplex me about ministry." Or "Snapshots of the roller coaster of ministry." Or "When ministry rips your heart out." But it could most certainly not be called "Butterflies and sweet smelling fields of wildflowers and unicorn bells of ministry." Because ministry has none of that. No butterflies, no wildflower fields, no unicorns. At least none with bells. So, it's just ministry. Those of you who are in it understand why.
We currently work in the local church. We spent our youth preparing to serve the Church universal. We live and breathe and think and chew church -- both of us, my dh and I. We spend 75% of our day thinking about people in our church, present and past and even future people we haven't met yet. Mostly present. We invest, plan, prepare, anticipate, guide, encourage, wait and pray for all of these people. The other 25% of our day must encapsulate everything else we must take care of (like the children we bore, the business of life, the families we left behind, the property we own, and the ever-loving pile of laundry). If it can't fit into 25% of our day, it gets pushed to the next...o.k. sometimes the laundry waits weeks.
We do it with gladness. Absolute and complete gladness. It's an honor to get to be involved in so many people's lives. Really. We love this work of building community, of challenging others to become more of who God has designed them to be, of being present in their pain and their joy, of interpreting Scripture and creating clarity and trying to set things to rights. It's crazy-silly that two flaw-filled humans get the pleasure of doing this kind of work.
We're in an interesting time at our little local church. We've embarked on a new adventure, procured a new meeting venue, restated our purpose and are trying to give it feet. We believe it was a divine appointment; that it wasn't our own idea, actually, really at all, but a compelling call to live with mission nearer to the core. We asked our church to come with us and see what God will do. It sounds exciting, right? Well, whenever there's transition, there's -- ack, a horrible word coming up -- fallout. (See, horrible). And sometimes our smart, supportive people just don't see the excitement, the honor of it all and sometimes they simply don't want to go where we lead. Sometimes a lot of them decide this all at the same time.
Let me change voices here because I've discovered something. If you want to leave what it is we are doing here, be it with reluctance or relief, I'd love it if you would tell me (or us or some one of us who is giving their all to this body of believers) in person why it is you think it's time to say good-bye. Really. The in-person conversation is so much better than the email route. I know it's so much easier to try to put it in writing at your convenience and I know you did so with painstaking attempts to speak it as plainly as you could.
But when I hear it from you in person I get to see your eyes and know if the flame is still there. I get to tell you what you've meant to me. I get to send you on to the next step of your journey -- even to help you do that. And you get to see that I'm not angry. That life after our church community means new life in a new church community. I understand much more than you might anticipate. I feel compassion for where you are at -- it's not an easy place to be, I know. Most importantly, I get to tell you that it isn't good-bye. We will always be there for you. And I mean it.
You see, I'm human and the email route tempts me to read in-between the lines and when I'm reading things that aren't really there I get myself in trouble. Or if I never get to see your email (which, to be honest is the case 99% of the time because even when you walk away your pastor (er, former pastor...sigh) keeps your confidentiality.) then you're just gone. I mean, poof, gone. It's as if the time and effort we put into your lives, marriages, children, wholistic development, daily ecclesiastical operations and such simply never happened.
"Where have the so-and-so's been? I haven't seen them for a few weeks."
"They left a little while ago. But they wrote us an email."
Immediately following this comes the pang. All at once, I feel the weight of your absence. The stuff that was yet to be that I had imagined in my head gets instantly wiped away. The shame I feel for not knowing this sooner. Yes, shame. The sudden mis-beat of my heart. You're gone ? There is a moment of silence inside me as I adjust to this new body-shape without you. How do we continue to be the church we are supposed to be without x,y, and z of your gifts? I know that others will, and may have already, taken up residence in the places you used to serve. I know that the point of the church isn't to stay the same but to be transformed. I know that God leads people differently. I even know that your leaving may not really be about my husband's teaching (I'm gonna choose to believe that one, okay?). But I didn't get to hear from you or speak to you or anything at all.
Sometimes you don't even email. I don't even know what to do with that.
And then we meet again at the party of a mutual friend in a year or two and it's awkward and weird. And I become ashamedly stinkingly human all over again.
"So, what have you been doing lately?" (read: since you left our church)
"Oh, we've been busy!"
"Huh, yeah. Us too. How's your new married life?" (read: my husband did your wedding...)
"It's great. We love it."
I know. It's awkward and shallow. It's hard to try and guess where the other person is coming from. I can't ask you if you've found another church home because you never told me that you left ours. (And if you haven't then I feel like everything in our past was for naught.) I can't get to the deeper level of questions at all really because I'm not sure if I still have the right to meet you there. It'd be so much easier if you'd just said something when you left. That party scenario is so much better:
"So, how are you guys doing?" (read: I miss you, but I really want to know.)
"We're doing really well. The kids really like such-and-such church. And I'm involved in this and that and the other ministry."
"That's so cool. Tell me what you love most about it."
And then you tell me and I get to enjoy the kingdom work that you're involved in. I really do. Because I'm not proprietary in my kingdom work. You can do it with anyone. And in that sense we're still really doing it together.
A friend and I had tea today and she (is the second person this week that) told me that her family would be leaving our church soon. That our new venue and mission wasn't where they were at. And the conversation that ensued was a blessing (to both of us, I think). I loved that conversation. And when I left to go to my car, I did not cry or pound the steering wheel. I did ask God, "What next? For them and for our church? How do we all need to follow you next? Please show us." And I drove away.