I remember during the early days of planting the church that I pastored for 12 years. While I loved the work, there were stressors everywhere. Anxiety inducing questions arose all the time: "Would anyone show up?" "Would they stay if they did come?" and "Who's going to make the coffee?" By far, though, the hardest question to deal with was, "What happens when someone leaves?"
Like most new church planting pastors, when someone chose to leave, no matter the reason, my heart and soul ached: I questioned my pastoral abilities, I grieved the loss of relationships and I always had an urge to do something to get them back. One of the things that I learned over those dozen years of saying hello and goodbye to folks is that, while there was always room for self-reflection, more times than not there was no one to blame. I also learned that when the leaving was caused by a difference in theological perspectives, there was no amount of arguing that ever got someone to stay once they had decided to leave. The best course of action was to model graciousness and understanding, even if/when it was not reciprocated.
These situations did not happen often, but over time I noticed a cycle and rhythm to the life of the church when, not not only were people going to leave, in order for everyone to thrive and grow, sometimes people needed to leave. After all, if I truly cared about their spiritual well-being and growth, I wanted them to do the hard work of discernment and then follow where God was leading them. As their pastor, my job was not about theological victory or numerical success, it was about leading in a way that everyone grew in their experience and expression of faith. Period.
In a recent piece by that was printed both here and here, Fred Heuser, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, makes a case for taking a longer view of the life of the Presbyterian Church (USA):
Presbyterians are a discerning people who seek the will of God through reading the Bible, prayer and being in communion with each other and other Christians. But the discernment process has meant that Presbyterians have a long history of disagreement, conflict, schism, and reunions.
The conflict and divisiveness within the PC (USA) today is part of a broader pattern that is deeply rooted in our past. The "flash points" that have produced these conflicts may be different, but the underlying tensions that birthed them are remarkably similar.
What is new is that these conflicts and tensions feel new to us. I suspect that these tensions feel new because we are trying to understand them outside of any historical framework.[Please read the article in full here.]
One of the reasons that recent developments in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have not caused me great anxiety is that I think we may be experiencing such a cycle and rhythm of our life. Our struggle now is to move away from the many adversarial postures that exist and acknowledge that God may indeed be working through and in all of us during these days of denominations shifts.
Now of course, this does not mean that I do not care or do not grieve the loss of the denominational relationships with those who are leaving, but I also do not begrudge anyone or have an overwhelming urge to fight to make people stay when they are feeling like this is no longer a good place for them. What I am trying to do is to be gracious in the face of frequent castigation and loving as I see colleagues move into a new denominational relationship; all the while, remaining committed and faithful to my part in discerning what it means to be the Presbyterian Church (USA) today and into the future.
Yes, there are questions about property, pensions and legalities, but I firmly believe that if more people than not adopt a spirit of graciousness and understanding, ways forward will emerge that all can agree too. All of that aside, my deepest hope and prayer is that new surroundings and new relationships will allow everyone, those who remain and those who leave, to live into God's intentions for our lives be it in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians or wherever folks may find their denominational home.
Lord hear our prayer...