I am beginning to emerge from a dark place. The fact that I can now see the light makes me aware of how great the darkness was. I knew what I was doing and I knew it was the right thing to do for my ministry to have any kind of integrity, but I didn’t understand that it would hit me in my core and shake so much of my self image.
A little over two years ago I began a call at a small urban church. Even in the interview process the church was honest about their financial situation. “In three years, we’ll either be something different or gone” was the phrase that one of the pastor nominating committee members used. I could tell as he said it that the rest of the group agreed, but they were uncomfortable that the words were said aloud.
I took it at face value that they wanted to change, that they wanted to keep on living and that they were willing to do what was required to be a faithful witness of Christ’s love in their community. But there’s something else; I took this as a challenge. I believed that I had the energy, creativity, and faithfulness to turn this little church around. My pride got involved.
Long story short? We failed each other. I failed to be the catalyst for growth that they expected that I would be by my mere presence and they failed to change in ways that would make them a viable ministry in the changing neighborhood that surrounded the church. I’ve oscillated between feeling like it was 100% their fault and feeling like it was 100% mine. The truth is in the middle somewhere and it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t live with what I perceived as their failures. They were okay with mine so long as I didn’t ask them to do anything uncomfortable. I failed because I could not make them want to go where they needed to go. For a number of reasons, some of which I may not even be aware, that pastoral relationship failed.
I’ve failed at things before. This was different. This was not like losing a wrestling match or not making it into regional jazz band. It’s not even like not getting called back for an interview or being shot down for a date. This is what I imagine divorce feels like. I don’t mean to elevate what I do to some obscene level, but what we do as ministers is different from other professions. It is both occupation and vocation. It is a calling. I felt called to that relationship and now it is no more….
We often do ministry with very high-minded ideals. We work for virtues: love, peace, justice, hope, etc… We work to proclaim the Gospel. We work to see the reign of God proclaimed to every corner of the earth. We also work with some very base realities in the church; the money runs out. The stock market leveled our endowment. We are aging quickly. We’re dying off. We don’t have the energy to continue. We don’t want to change. Of course, then there are our own base realities: I have a kid to feed, I have loans to pay off, the car needs work. What? Another kid?! Perhaps the greatest failure, for both church and minister, is that of compromising ideals for realities.
In the midst of the darkness I considered that the failure may not have been mine or the church’s primarily. Perhaps this was God’s failure. God certainly allowed us to fail, which is an infuriating thought. God didn’t intervene. There was no manna, no water from the rock, no multiplied loaves and fish. Where was our miracle? Were we not faithful enough? Did God not care? Was God not able to help? Or maybe that’s not how God works….
I write this from a quiet sanctuary with the stain of ashes upon my fingers. I sometimes feel as if I have been stained by this failure. My honesty about this situation has brought many an interview to a halt, and those are the ones who have chosen to interview me at all. I am changed, shaped, and marked by this experience. I am reminded that I am dust. I am a failure. And yet, despite it all, I am reminded that I am loved…