Those who are personally connected to me know that on July 1 I began a two-month sabbatical that runs through the end of August.
I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how I could best spend my time. At the top of the list were things that I could do for my personal renewal. It feels great to have reached the stage in my development where the things I need for my personal development are at the top of my list.
I’ve also thought about how I could spend my time attending to vocational matters as well. It took a while, but I think I have landed on the thing of greatest value. Let me take a moment and give you a little background – and share how the idea came to me.
As some of you know, I spent the entire calendar year of 2019 coming to terms with the fact that I felt called – yes, called – to leave the practice of parish ministry. I engaged in a lengthy process to help me come to terms with my call to leave parish ministry in the healthiest way possible.
On December 29, 2019, I sent a letter out to the congregational I serve letting them know I would be leaving parish ministry – and my time as their pastor – on April 26, 2020. In the letter, I simply told the congregation that I felt called to leave the practice of parish ministry in order to pursue a more balanced and fulfilling personal life. The congregation could not have been more loving and supportive of my decision. Their positive and loving response exceeded anything I could have imagined.
I then spent the days between December 29 and March 19 exploring my options. I was completely ready to put whatever fit into my 2018 Toyota Corolla iM (leaving behind all that didn’t fit) and drive to Spokane, WA on Tuesday, April 28. I was ready to hang out with my family as I figured out what the next stage of my life would look like.
Everything changed for me, however, on the night of March 19, 2020. That was the night when Los Angeles’ stay-at-home order went into effect in response to the COVID-19 situation. I knew immediately that I could not pull out of town on April 28 as I planned. I HAD to stay with the community I loved so and help them get through to the other side of this. I immediately contacted the church’s Leadership Team and let them know of my offer. They quickly accepted my offer. The congregation was informed within 24 hours as well.
When I made that offer, I imagined that it would only take another 2-3 months to get to “the other side”. In the coming days, however, it began to become increasingly clear that it would take much longer than 2-3 months. At that point, I wasn’t concerned with how long I would extend my stay. I was focused simply on getting to the other side.
Then something else completely unexpected happened. As I was preaching a sermon on Ezekiel’s passage regarding the valley of dry bones on March 29, a sense of conviction overcame me. It was unlike any experience I had ever had before.
The commentary I used to inform my sermon that day talked about how when the vision was given for how the bones would be brought back together, the actual assembling of bones wasn’t given first. The first thing that was given was that the breath of the Spirit. Once the Spirit of new life had been given, then – and only then – would be bones come back together.
As I was preaching the sermon that morning – and talking about old bones coming together in new ways – I felt in my soul that I was being called to stay longer than 2-3 months. So I reached out to the Leadership Team 2 days later and let them know I was willing to stay much longer than just 2-3 months. That night we began a process that would eventually extend my stay at the church at least through June 30, 2021. We also pledged to one another that we would create a healthy process in the months leading up to June 30, 2021 that will allow both myself and the church to evaluate whether or not we want to continue beyond that date. I am so grateful to the members of our Leadership Team for following the leading of the Holy Spirit and creating a healthy process for living into important decisions regarding our futures.
With all of that said, what I realized in the middle of the night last week is that I would like to use my blog to engage in a particular writing project.
The concept for the writing project is based upon the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. I want to spend my time with you in July and August reflecting on the reasons why I felt compelled to leave the practice of parish ministry in the first place. I am not going to give you a specific number of reasons why I chose to leave at the outset. I want to create room for the Holy Spirit to clarify my reasons in the process of my writing. I also will not put my reasons in ranked order. Even if I wanted to, I’m not sure how I would explain why reason number four was less pressing than reason number two. I will, however, use a number on each blog entry to give my readers and me a quick point of reference.
There’s one last thing I want to make crystal clear as I embark upon my journey. My reasons for wanting to leave the practice of parish ministry come from my church experience from a variety of sources. They come from all the communities that I have been a part. These faith communities include Deer Park United Methodist Church (Deer Park, WA); Fox Island United Church of Christ (Fox Island, WA); Covenant United Methodist Church (Spokane, WA); Thornton United Methodist Church (Thornton, CO); Warren United Methodist Church (Denver, CO); Sixth Avenue United Church of Christ (Denver, CO); Mountain View United Church (Aurora, CO); and Woodland Hills Community Church UCC (Los Angeles, CA). My reasons are also related to the experiences I have had serving on the Committees on Ministry in both the Rocky Mountain Conference (UCC) and the Southern California-Nevada Conference (UCC).
I have given the full list of communities I have served (either as a lay leader or ordained leader) because it is crucial for my readers to know the church I am currently serving did NOT nearly drive me out of ministry. Far from it. In fact, the church I currently serve was a huge reason I decided to remain in parish ministry. No, the struggles that I face in deciding to continue living and serving in local churches came MUCH earlier – well before I responded to God’s call for me to attend seminary and be ordained.
I want to close this “Forward” by saying I am offering my reasons for nearly leaving parish ministry not out of a narcissistic desire to talk about myself. I have lived most of my 53 years keeping these experiences to myself and know that in some ways my life would be easier if I didn’t put the reasons out there. And yet I have chosen to do that …
I believe that the reasons I share can be helpful to folks from a variety of locations. I believe my reasons can help those who attend local churches pull back the proverbial curtain and get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes in local churches. I believe my reasons can help lay leaders whose perspective on local church matters is not always as expansive as it could perhaps be. I also believe my reasons can help my beloved clergy colleagues connect to (and then express) some of their frustrations that they haven’t yet put into words.
Regardless of what your social location is, I hope my words will spur conversations that extend FAR beyond my blog. For those who know me well know that I have a deep and abiding love of faith communities. While faith communities are certainly capable of taking actions that are painful and disorienting, I have seen some of the greatest acts of love and grace emanate from faith communities as well.
Thanks for journey me on this difficult, vulnerable, and – hopefully – satisfying journey.