When you go from being the associate pastor to the lead pastor in a congregation, there's one huge dynamic that changes. You pay close attention to the numbers on the membership roles.
Everybody wants to know is the church growing or isn't it? Everybody wants to know why so and so hasn't been to church in a while? And as the senior pastor you need to respond.
Here's the secret I want to let you in on today: when you leave a local church, it hurts the pastor's feelings.
Even if the reason cited by the leaving congregant has nothing to do with me, I feel responsible every time it happens.
These are some of the reasons I've heard:
1. I am too spiritual for the church. (Yes, people really admit this!)
2. I don’t need a community to live out my faith.
3. I’d rather pray at home and do yoga.
4. I travel so much for work and fun. Considering all the time I’m gone it just doesn’t seem worth it to come during the couple of times a year that I am around.
5. I don’t like ____ person. I can’t come to the same worship space as them. I’ve been hurt. I will not come back. Reconciliation . . . that is out of the question.
6. My life is just too hard right now. I can’t be a part of a community. I need space. Lots of space.
7. This ____ project at church didn’t turn out like I hoped it would. Since I didn’t get my way, I can’t come back. It’s too embarrassing.
And the list could go on.
At this juncture, the direction of this blog post could go several ways.
I could pout. I could put down those who leave. I could strive to make comments about the state of American religion and the dying mainline church.
I could tell you to read a lot of Diana Butler Bass who says things like: “Although churches seem the most natural space to perform spiritual awakening, the disconcerting reality is that many people in Western society see churches more as museums of religion than sacred stages that dramatize the movement of God's spirit" in her book Christianity After Religion.
Or, I could propose some grand idea about how to reform the church so that such “I quit the church” declarations decrease.
But, I won’t do any of these things because I’m just not sure of these ideas are helpful.
The most helpful thing I know to tell the truth.
People are leaving church for no church.
But I don’t think this makes the church any less important in society.
For example, I do weddings and funerals all the time for those who are without a church who want to celebrate major life events in a holy space with a minister. When people find out I'm a minister, I'm asked to enter into spiritually focused conversations all the time. Folks show up at the door my church almost every week asking for assistance with food or desiring prayer and most all of them aren't members of my congregation.
I don't think that folks are searching spiritually any less than in 2015.
They are just finding what they want outside our walls.
So what does that say about what we are doing inside?
I was taught in seminary that the most virtuous thing you can do for your whole life is to serve the church with an undivided heart. "The church needs you!" my classmates and I were told over and over again.
Sometimes our instructions included more details like this: “Take care of the church like nothing else matters. Live in the community where you serve, join every local board you can, and know your neighbors. Those who give their whole life to the church will not be disappointed."
And I tried. I really tried to become the best local church pastor I could be. I attended neighborhood meetings. I sat at the bed of the sick. I climbed into the pulpit week after week. And for a while it was my calling.
I wanted to fit into the one-size fits all church box forever. I wanted to come back to my 30-year Duke Divinity School reunion and tell stories about the pastoral life just like I'd heard out of my beloved professor, Dr. William Quick.
But after six years in full-time church ministry I found that I could not-- even as much as my heart really wanted to. My time was up.
Walking away from what I once felt was my dream job (as a solo pastor in the Baptist tradition) last Christmas became one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.
I heard recently that when newcomers ask the church I formerly pastored why I left they say that "She become a writer." While I’m flattered with being identified as a writer (and I love writing), this is not quite it.
Furthermore, the change had nothing to do with the lack of joy in little congregation as they were great people. Nor was it all about my husband’s job in another state. Or even about the grant I received from the Louisville Institute to write a book, though these reasons seemed like legitimate ones on the surface.
No, I left local church ministry last year because I was finally ready to say yes to a calling. I was ready to be a nobody (if that is what folks thought of me) in order to be the somebody that I really am.
Right now, I am following that calling (though the "what do you do?" questions at parties now are harder to answer).
In the world from which I came both as a child of a pastor and also of a local church pastor making seminary-- to leave the church for something else felt to me like treason.
But in the past several years, I come to believe that being a whole person is much more important than a respectable career even if you have to feel like an outcast upon leaving. I took some cues from Barbara Brown Taylor here.
And for me to be a whole person, this is what I know:
I am not made for a job or type of job that lasts me my entire career.
I am not made to immerse myself into a particular local church community for a long time.
I am not made to just do one thing all the time or even just one thing at once.
I am not made for denominational life or ministry that values institution building over freedom of the Spirit.
Yet, with all of this said, I am made however for bolts of energy into new projects that need a leader.
I am made for community building with the global church.
I am made to multi-task my way through a variety of vocational pursuits that often on the surface seem like they have nothing to do with each other, but actually do!
I am made to speak the truth about systems that are broken.
And in all of this, I still feel ordained. I've not stopped being Rev. Hagan. I still feel like I’m in ministry.
I’m a writer sometimes.
I find myself in pastoral care conversation sometimes.
I’m a preacher sometimes.
I’m a strategist for creating community both in person and online sometimes.
I’m an administrator sometimes.
I do the laundry all the time. And I make dinner most of the time.
I'm thankful for the chance to do all of this "outside the church" but never too far from its larger mission.
And it fits. It really fits. The restless whispers of my heart have stopped yelling at me. I'm finally at home.
I feel settled even as pace of our current travels and activities make my family’s head spin when I inform them what I'm up to.
In this non-traditional life, I am happy. Truly I am.
I love supporting the communications department of Feed The Children. I love writing in a variety of different venues. I love having quality time for friends. I love traveling alongside my husband. I love preaching in settings (like next week in Hawaii!) that a local church schedule would normally not allow. I love that I have the freedom to find God both in and outside the church walls on Sunday morning-- depending on the week.
Lesson learned: when the whispers come, listen. I’m so glad I did. I hope I have the courage listen sooner next time. It’s ok to be different. Actually it is really wonderful even if some of my friends in the church don't understand.