Reason #6 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Love Unlike Any Other

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.

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Reason #6 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: One-Stop Shopping

Today is Part 11 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.

So after two days of intense thought and prayerful discernment … I’m back.  Back with a spirit that I believe can transform my writing and reflection from a desolation into consolation.  Back with the hope that I can provide comments that can be used as a jumping off point for important conversations in many different ministry (and life) settings.

How did I make that relatively sudden shift?

By working my program of recovery in Codependents Anonymous.  With the help of my sponsor and my friends in recovery, I am not responsible for how others respond to my observations.  If I want to overcome the fear that can so often trigger me and bring greater health into the life of faith communities, I have to start by overcoming that fear within myself.  Please know that I won’t continue to write every day.  I will write only on the days and times when it feels like a consolation.

So with that, I will return to my reflections by talking about Reason #6 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry. 

At the outset of this series, I talked about a few of the parallels between parenting and pastoring.  Today, I want to pick up that comparison again. Another of the similarities between parenting and pastoring is that people are often compelled to come to the parent-figure with literally all of their questions and concerns: regardless of whether or not the parent-figure has knowledge in – or responsibility for – a particular area.

I remember when I was in my late teen years that I would come to my parents and ask them about literally EVERYTHING.  I would ask them, for instance, how long I would have to boil an egg for it to be hard-boiled.  I would ask them what insurance company was best to cover my car.  I would ask them what would happen if I changed my major in college.  You name it, and I asked them about it.  Because I felt as if I could get everything I needed from that one stop; I started to think of the time I spent with my parents as “one-stop shopping”.

Many parents love that stage of development – for they know it won’t last forever.  They know a time will come when their children never ask them about anything: so they make the most of those interactions.

In parish ministry, however, things are a bit different.  In the early stage of your ministry at a particular site (after they have trained you about how things are done around here), you reach a stage when many members of the congregation come to completely depend on you as the pastor.  It doesn’t happen immediately. It happens gradually – until one day, relatively early in your ministry, you wake up and find that people are coming to you with every question under the sun – most of which have nothing to do with your call – or job – as pastor.

They will ask you why the drip in the Sanctuary ceiling hasn’t been fixed yet.  They will ask you about what time the AA group is done with their Tuesday morning meeting so they can schedule their meeting.  They will ask you what company hosts the church’s website?  They will ask you if Taletha’s birthday is on the 12 or the 17th of the month.  You name it, and people come to the pastor and ask about it.

Here is where being a pastor is a little different than being a parent.  Many people don’t automatically move on from this stage of dependency to the next stage of self-sufficiency.  If they find a pastor who will answer all of the questions for them, they will get stuck in this stage of development and never leave.

So how do you break that stage of dependence?

I’ve learned the hard way that there is only one way.  The pastor has to set a clear and consistent boundary with the “kids” and refer them to the right source to answer that question.  If they ask about the roof in the sanctuary, for instance, you say, “That’s a great question.  Maybe if you call the head of the Maintenance Team – Mabel – she can help you out with that.”  Or if they ask about what time the AA group finishes with their Tuesday meeting so they can start their meeting, you learn to say, “That’s a great question.  I think our Office Administrator can help you with that.” This is the only way to break the cycle of over-dependence.

Sadly, due to my codependence it took me years and years and years and years to learn that simple lesson.  I was so desperate to please people by providing them with what I call “one-stop shopping” that I practically burned myself out.

The hardest part of this lesson is that it’s not a lesson you can try to teach just once and then assume people have mastered it.  Virtually every day of my ministry, I have to say a half dozen times, “You know that’s a great question.  Why don’t you give [fill in the blank] a call and see if they can help you with that.”

Of course, I don’t always have the time and energy to remember that.  Sometimes, I think it’s just easier to do the legwork for them and give them the answer they are looking for.  And every time do that it kills a piece of my soul by fostering their continued overdependence upon me.

This constant pressure for a pastor to provide the “one stop shopping” feature by answering every question was my sixth reason for wanting to leave parish ministry.

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Reason #5 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Opportunities to Grow

Today is Part 10 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamthe ics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry.

One of my favorite findings during my sabbatical has been the discovery of a little book called “Sleeping with Bread”.  The book was recommended by a clergy colleague of mine last Friday.  The book is helpful because it teaches its readers a simple two-step process that can used to guide everything from one’s prayer life to one’s discernment processes.

The process is based upon an Ignatian spiritual practice called The Daily Examen.  In the modern version presented in the book, individuals are asked to answer two questions at the end of each day: (1) what was my favorite part of the day; and (2) what was my least favorite part of the day. They present several ways you can adapt those two core questions based upon your circumstance.  “What was your favorite part of the day?” for instance, could become “When did I feel most alive?” or “When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, others, God, and the universe?”

The three authors of the book encourage readers to write down your answers each day when possible.  The things you record as the favorite part of your day are called consolations; the things you record as the least favorite part of your day are called desolations.

The process can guide your prayer life by inviting you to include prayers of thanksgivings for your consolations in your prayer time, and requests for help with your desolations.  The process can also guide your discernment process by watching to see if a pattern develops in your consolations.  The basic premise of the process is that God wants you to be happy.  By tracking your consolations, you can see where your joy comes from – and make it easier to identify and then follow your bliss.  Conversely tracking your desolations can tell you want you need to stop (if possible) or devoted less time and energy to.

So why am I sharing this with you?

When I started my sabbatical, I thought that my writing would be a consolation.  I notice over the past three days that I’ve used the process, however, that my writing process had actually become my desolation.  I wondered why that was.  And then I thought of something that happened that changed things for me significantly.  Let me tell you about it – and how I’m working to overcome it.

When I started writing, I was excited about being able to speak my truth in love without filters – and say things that I thought could be of benefit to those who serve local churches, and those who attend them.  I began by speaking in pretty direct ways.

Then a few days in I received a text message from a reader from within my faith community.  Text messages are hard because you don’t have the luxury of screening them like you do with an email.  At least I don’t, since my personal and vocational texts all come to the same number.  So I glanced at it.

The content suggested that there were some in my community who had read the early entries and were thinking that I was mostly unhappy with my position and that I might not return from my two-month sabbatical.

That experience was devastating to me on two different levels.

First, I feared I had not communicated my reasons for speaking my truth.  I thought I had made it clear that I was speaking my truth because I truly LOVE local churches (and the church I am currently serving specifically) and wanted to help strengthen them.  Apparently, I hadn’t.

There were some positives that came from this, however – as it encouraged me to do a couple things that perhaps made my blog better.  First, I decided to split my time between talking about reasons for wanting to leave and reasons for wanting me to stay.  It also helped me tighten up my language in my posts.  I took out the phrase “Reasons I Wanted to Leave” and replaced it with “Reasons I Wanted to Leave Parish Ministry.”  This helped readers from the community I currently serve better understand that my frustrations were not with them specifically.  They were frustrations that seemed to be inherent to the practice of parish ministry these days.  Those were the positives that came from the text.

The negative that has overwhelmed me for the past several days was that it triggered the one thing that is my greatest obstacle in my work as a pastor: fear.  And one of the things that triggers fear more than anything else for me is when someone uses the old phrase “Some people are talking …”

Because of that triggering two-word phrase – “some people” – my whole attitude toward writing changed.  I no longer felt comfortable writing what I felt called to share.  And suddenly, my blog was devolving into a shell of what I hoped it would be.  That’s why I came very close to deleting everything I had written last night and simply disappearing.

Here is where my 12 Step work clicked in and helped me make a different decision.  For you see one thing 12 Step work teaches is that hard times are really a blessing because they have the ability to teach us something that we need to learn.  The lessons that come from our hard times are particularly helpful, in fact, because they force us to look at things we would otherwise never explore.  If you have the strength to hang in there and face the challenge head on, you can grow incredibly.

So that’s what I did last night and this morning: I hung in there, looked directly at my fear, and came to this realization.  I believe that one of the biggest things that holds our local churches back is this thing called “fear”.  Most leaders (lay and ordained) know what needs to be done in our churches to strengthen the life of the church.  Many times, however, we don’t do things things.

Why?

For fear of what some people might say.  If I had a dollar for every time this dynamic played itself out in my ministry over the past nearly 20 years, I could have retired to the Bahamas 10 years ago. 😊

So how did this somewhat experience transform itself from what many would expect to be a “reason I wanted to leave parish ministry” into a “reason I want to remain in parish ministry”?

That transformation occurred because the experience reminded me that parish ministry gives me an extraordinarily high number of opportunities each day to face my fears and overcome them.  To speak my truth in love.  If I chose to run from such opportunities and find a more serene job, I would cheat myself out of many, many, many opportunities to become the person and pastor God would have me to be.

So with that, I am going to take some time off from writing, and see if I can do some more of my work so that my writing can once again become a consolation.  In the meantime, please know that the words I have written to this point have been shared in the spirit of love and concern for both myself and the church.  I know that God, as The Daily Examen reminds us, wants the very best for us.  And that path of becoming our very best self is one that is paved – every day – by our decision NOT to let fear run our lives and our ministries.  Thank you, my readers, for being a critical part of this invaluable learning process for me!

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Reason #5 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: A Shift in Focus

Today is Part 9 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.

Now that I’ve caught up and balanced my reasons for wanting to leave parish ministry with the reasons I ultimately decided to stay, I will alternate between the two.  With that said, let me talk a little about a fifth reason for wanting to leave parish ministry.

If you were to ask most people on the street, “Why do local churches exist?”, they would say things like, “To meet the spiritual needs of their members” or “To provide services (or ministry) to those in need”.  Those would also be my answer to the question.

Unfortunately, something happened in during the 20th Century that changed the focus of many local churches.  Churches began to buy large pieces of property and build large buildings and campus facilities.

Much of the building happened at a time in the 1950s when church attendance was at its peak: at a time when the resources of local churches seemed unlimited.  They had all the money they needed to build new buildings and all the volunteers they needed to maintain the brand-new facilities.

Fast forward sixty years.

Church attendance has declined over past past 60 years. The number of volunteers willing to help meet the needs of the church buildings has diminished. And the number of dollars placed in the offering plates each week has dwindled as well.

In addition to the limited resources available to local churches, the once-new buildings are now rapidly showing their age.  The need for money to fix and maintain the buildings is skyrocketing.  The need for volunteers who have the expertise and time to make the repairs has never been greater.

Given those two sets of circumstance, do you see where we are today?

If you go to most church council or board meetings these days, a huge chunk of time and energy is spent discussing business matters.  “Where can we find the financial resources to maintain the buildings?” church leaders ask themselves.  “Where can we find people who can make the much-needed repairs?” congregants are asked.  More and more time is devoted to business matters; less and less time is devoted to spiritual matters.

This shift in focus has been demoralizing to everyone involved.  This is especially true for lay and ordained church leaders: most of whom stepped forward to lead because of their spiritual passion and not their business acumen.  Something has to give in order for our local churches to find their way back – so that spiritual matters can once again take priority.

How will that happen?

Clearly a paradigm shift MUST occur.  Local churches must think about themselves in ways that are less focused on their buildings and property and more focused on their spiritual life.

New models for how worshipping community can continue to exist have been emerging for the last few decades.  There are private foundations out there, for instance, who are purchasing local church buildings, agreeing to manage the buildings (including assuming responsibility for upkeep and building use), and then entering into contractual arrangements that give the worshipping community priority in the use of the facility.  That’s one model.

Another emerging model is where local churches work with community partners to establish a private foundation of their own.  The foundation can then take on responsibility for oversight of the buildings.  It allows the campus community to seek out things like public and private grants in order to meet the needs of the campus: grants that would be unavailable for local churches.  This model would put MUCH less pressure on church members to bear the burden of maintaining the facility alone.

Of course, these aren’t the only two choices out there. There are a variety of other models out there as well for how local churches can redefine themselves in the 21st Century so the life of the church is no longer driven primarily by attempts to maintain their building and property.

I have no strong feeling about which choice our local churches should make.  Each community has different needs and values.  Each community must make the series of choices that feels right for their ministry context.  All I know is that we can’t continue with business as usual (pun intended). A shift in paradigm MUST occur.

What will it take for local churches to make this shift in paradigm?

My 12-Step thinking tells me that local churches will have to hit bottom first.  I hope I am wrong.  My sincere hope is that local churches can be honest with each other and begin by naming the overwhelming challenges they face.  In being honest about the scope of the challenges, it might encourage church people to begin thinking outside the box and find innovative ways of being church.

Until that shift in paradigm happens, local mainline churches will continue to have their lives increasingly dominated by business, rather than spiritual matters.  That reality is be a big reason why pastors like myself will consider leaving parish ministry.

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Reason #4 for Wanting to Stay in Parish Ministry: The Ability to Affect Change in SO Many Areas

For the first thirty years of my life, I struggled to find one place where I could direct my time and resources in order to tend to the things I most cared about.  That’s because there were so many things I cared about that, on the surface, seemed completely unrelated.  As a result, I found myself constantly split in so many different directions.

I found myself devoting my time to so many different causes.  I would spend a couple nights a week at church, for instance, directing our church choir and attending a Bible study.  I would spend another evening in a board meeting helping out with a charitable cause or on a campaign that would further a cause in which I believed.  I would spend another night at a lecture on an important topic I cared deeply about.

The same thing happened with my limited financial resources.  I would send a few dollars to a group advocating for human rights.  Later, I would send a few dollars to support a local or national candidate in whom I believed.  Then, I would then save my pennies so I could attend a cultural event that was sponsored by a non-profit I supported.

For those first 30 years I was always on the go.  I was ALWAYS busy and engaged.  Sadly, I was always haunted by the nagging frustration that I was never doing enough.  Never giving enough. 😦

It wasn’t until I answered the call to attend seminary and began my preparations for parish ministry that I realized there actually WAS a place in my life where all of my interests – spirituality, public policy, advocacy, and the arts – came together.  And that place for me was the church.

Over the years, I watched as the communities God called me to serve did amazing things.  I watched as one church dedicated vacant space on their property to create a community garden – which brought residents of the city together to care for God’s earth.  I watched as our church first gathered donations to stock the shelves at the local foodbank – and then provide volunteers to help get the food out to those in need. I watched as the communities I served provided progressive spiritual formation programs that helped people of all ages grow in a variety of ways.  I thrilled as a portion of each dollar I put into the offering plate at my current ministry site goes in a number of directions ranging from a domestic violence shelter, to a community-based Nursery school program, to a mission program in Peru, to a denominational camping program that nurtures children from throughout Southern California and Nevada.  I watched as our church welcomed community theatre groups first rehearse and then perform on our campus: bringing an expression of the arts into our neighborhood.  I glory as our church opens its doors twice a year to host meetings for a local chapter of a non-partisan organization that works hard to form sensible public policies to end gun violence.  My heart soars every time I watch community members flow into one of our rooms for a 12 Step meeting that helps liberate those whose lives had been nearly lost to some form of addiction.  Most folks who do not participate in the life of a local church have no clue about how much goes on in our community – how many needs are being met – because of our local churches!

The more I invested my time and energy into ministry, the less I was haunted by the nagging fear that I wasn’t doing or giving enough.  Serving the needs of my local community – and of the entire planet – became so much easier, I found, when I focused my time and energy in one place: and then set about working tirelessly to ensure that place grew in its desire to address the needs of the world.  TOGETHER, I am reminded every day in ministry, we can do AMAZING things!

This ability to focus my time and resources in one place that has the ability to transform the world in so many, many, many ways is my fourth reason for wanting to stay in parish ministry.

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