Today is Part 12 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry. I alternate each entry between reasons for want to leave, and reasons for staying.
I am heading done the stretch in terms of this series. I can imagine exploring just one more reason for wanting to leave and two more reasons (counting today’s) for wanting to stay. I am so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to share.
My sixth reason for wanting to stay in parish ministry is the INCREDIBLE love that exists between a congregation and its pastor. Of course, I know that is not true in every case. That has simply been my experience over these past 18 years.
Let me give you two examples of that extraordinary love that come from the two communities I have served.
When I came to serve my first congregation (Mountain View United Church), I was in the early stages of my first long-term relationship. Mike and I had been together for just two months when I made my first appearance at the church to serve as pulpit supply in January of 2002. I stepped into their pulpit full-time about six months later.
So when Mike and I announced our intention to have a commitment ceremony in February of 2003, the congregation expressed their love for – and support of us – in ways that I had never seen before. They threw us a bachelors’ party at one of the members home. It was a 70’s themed disco party. The theme of was my choosing (yes, I LOVE disco). And the images of the group dancing together that night (in costume) to the Village People’s song YMCA will stay will me until I take my final breath.
I had also decided that when it came to the location of our commitment ceremony, I did NOT want to use the church I was serving. I wanted to have a little distance between my ministry site and this very personal moment in my life. So I decided to use my home church (Sixth Avenue United Church) for the ceremony.
Some churches might have been offended by their pastor choosing another site for his celebration. Not Mountain View. They not only respected my need for space but threw themselves into supporting the ceremony in every way they could – from providing music for the service to decorating the reception hall. I could not imagine a healthier, more joyous way to celebrate love. Thank you, Mountain View United Church, for creating a template of what love looks like for me that I have carried with me these past 17 years!
The second example of the mind-blowing love that can exist between a congregation and its pastor came when I announced my departure from my current ministry site: Woodland Hills Community Church. I worked hard to create a carefully drafted letter that let them know that I wasn’t just leaving WHCC – I was leaving parish ministry all together in order for me to seek a new chapter in my life.
When I sent out the letter on December 30, there were many responses I expected to hear. Things like “But what are we going to do?”, or “Is there anything we could do to get you to reconsider?”, or even a few, “It’s been real. But its also been 10.5 years – maybe it is time for a change.” I was ready to hear any variation on these themes. Underlying all of the possible responses was the assumption that many would make my departure about them – and not me.
I could not have been more wrong!
Virtually every person I interacted with said almost the same thing: “While I am sad for me, I’m happy for you. You need to venture out into the world and have the adventures you feel called to. Go with our love!”
Those responses blew me away. They expressed such unconditional love and grace – a kind I had NEVER known before. As I look back on those early days of January 2020, I remember thinking to myself, “You know, Craig. You totally underestimated how healthy the community is and how much they love you.” That is a second memory of love that I will take with me to my final days.
Both of these moments – and so many other moments that came in the years in between – grounded me in the powerful love of God that can be made real in the relationship between a pastor and his flock. It is a love unlike any other. And it is my sixth reason for deciding to stay in parish ministry.