“Moving On,” Pt. 2

Summers were a time when those of us who made up the core of UBC were in town and had more expendable time than during the academic year. Every year we held a large garage sale to help keep the church financially afloat  during these lean months. We also got  together for sno-cones and to see movies (and post movie drinks,) and on Wednesday nights we held small group Bible studies. On the Wednesday night after we returned to the building, Ben told us that he had important news about the life of the church to share. For some reason I knew the next few moments were going to be uncomfortable for me.

He told us that the church  has decided to hire another Community Pastor. This new position wasn’t to replace Ben, nor was it to be a preaching role, but rather someone who could pick up some of the needs of the congregation that had emerged as the demands on Ben’s times increased in the wake of Kyle’s death.

As he talked I could feel myself growing claustrophobic. And when he told us that they not just made the decision to hire a new Community Pastor, they had also, in fact, already hired this person, it felt as if every eye in the room shifted in my direction to gauge my reaction. A few of those present were members of the Leadership Team, and already knew about the decision, but the rest of us were hearing it for the first time. This may reflect an inflated sense of self-importance on my behalf, but it seemed as if the room was looking at me for guidance on how to respond. For the better part of an hour Ben fielded questions about John Mark, the person who had been hired, and what his responsibilities would be. I don’t remember any of it. My mind had turned to cloud as I tried to suppress on the outside any emotion I was feeling on the inside.

I needed to talk about what I was feeling in that moment, but the person who I normally would have talked about this with was gone. In his absence, I made a notoriously unwise decision to take to my blog and write a poem…

Eyes on Me…

Not about me,
but eyes on me.
What will he do, what will he say?
Eyes on me.
Is he red from surprise?
Is he angry?
Eyes on me.
Can he breathe?
Can he see?
Eyes on me.
Tell me, don’t tell me
do what you need.
What I would give if there weren’t
eyes on me.

I left the meeting earlier than usual, making some suspect I was upset with what was happening. When I posted the poem later that night, I removed all suspicion.

The next day Ben and I met. We always had a complicated friendship, which grew more so after Kyle’s death. We had a genuine love for the other and enjoyed each other’s company, yet rarely saw eye to eye on things. In many ways Kyle was the glue that held us together. Worltorstorff wrote about this phenomenon in Lament for a Son, stating that when someone dies, not only does your relationship with that person change (it is, effectively, suspended in time,) but the nature of your relationship with everyone else who had a relationship with that person changes as well. This seemed most true for Ben and me.

He chastised me for making my frustration public, and in retrospect he had every reason to do so. Even though most of my readers wouldn’t have a clue as to the meaning or circumstances surrounding my poem, some did, and most would figure it out soon enough. Ben was hurt that I wouldn’t just talk to him about my anger, as I would have been were the shoe on the other foot. We were friends, and friends need to be honest with each other.

But I was angry. The congregation was told, just a few months earlier, that we would be informed of any new large developments within the church. Within a week, two large developments (the building reveal and the hiring of a new pastor) were shown to have happened outside the knowledge of anyone, save the 4-5 people on Leadership Team, which was a self-perpetuating group, (meaning they chose their replacements, without any input from the church.)

***

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the years critiquing the actions of UBC’s leadership during this time. It would be unfair, though, if I didn’t also shine the light on some of my own insecurities that caused my reactions to be as visceral as they were.

First, I’ve had to ask myself these questions: Would I have been as upset at the church being left in the dark about these big decisions if I had been privy to them? Was my anger directed to a system that operated outside of congregational guidance and input, or to a system that operated outside my guidance and input? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, and can’t say with certainty that if I were on the “inside” I would have done things differently. Years later, when I was given a formal leadership role, I worked diligently to include a wide range of voices, even (sometimes especially) the ones at the margins of our community. But was this an act of altruism on my part, or simply a way of pointing out and atoning for what I perceived to be past institutional sins? I’m sure some will say the former and others the latter, and I suppose both own a little bit of the truth.

And then, there was this: I wanted to be a pastor at UBC. Up until a few weeks prior to the announcement of John Mark’s hire, I never voiced this to anyone. Frankly, I didn’t know how.

Over the years I had preached many times at UBC, though those opportunities had started to diminish after Kyle died. I suspected, as was confirmed to me later, that this was because I wasn’t that good, even though I was told by many that I was decent enough. And the truth was, looking back, I  was a horrible preacher. I plodded through the biblical text and was able to create sermons that were semi-coherent and mildly entertaining. But they were wordy and rambling. Some of them extended to nearly an hour, about 4-5 minutes of which was actually helpful, faithful to the text and aiding Christian formation. Kyle claimed to love them, but he was notoriously non-confrontational, and because of his charm I was unable to read between the lines of his praise. Other people were complimentary, but I’ve since realized that its possible that they simply liked me as a person, and were either being nice or had confused an affinity toward me for an affinity for my sermons.

I also didn’t have a seminary degree, but neither had any of the current or previous pastors, except for Kyle. But I was well read, had an undergraduate major in theology, and was passionate about the church.

What I found, as I have touched on before, was that “putting yourself out there” with regards to ministry was a delicate balancing act, especially at UBC. In the evangelical world from which many of us came, the idea of “calling” was very strong. One had to have a strong sense that God was calling them into ministry before they let it be known that they are available for a particular ministry role. Although at UBC none of us still clung to this as ardently as we had before—we believed everyone was “called” to ministry, regardless of their vocational inclinations, and those who ended up in ministry were no more elevated than the Christian janitor or school teacher—there was nonetheless a small remnant of belief that “the call” was part of any movement toward a leadership role at UBC.

However, and this was the catch, you couldn’t appear to want it too badly. Because of David and his band’s emerging prominence within the evangelical world, being on staff at UBC had become something of a coveted possibility for many ministers around the country. We had barely placed Kyle’s body in the ground before the UBC office started receiving resumes from people wanting to be considered as his replacement. In the previous years we had become a “celebrity church” with “celebrity pastors,” and a lot of people wanted in on that action.

If there was even a hint of opportunism in your eagerness to serve in a leadership position at UBC, your shot was pretty much dead in the water.

I knew becoming a pastor at UBC would bring a certain amount of prominence, and I’d be lying if I said that played no part in my aspirations. But I had loved UBC long before it became a commodity, and had given a lot of myself to its community. If doing so could have been my full time vocation, I wanted to explore how to make it happen.

All I could think to do was reach out to Jen, who was still at UBC, but was devoting all her time to taking care of the children and trying to figure out what her role within the community would be. I asked her what she thought me having a pastoral role at the church looked like, and she seemed cautiously optimistic that it might be a possibility, and told me she’d put out some feelers to those who remained on the Leadership Team. She called me back much quicker than I had expected and told me as gently as she could that it wasn’t going to happen.

I assumed this was either a wholesale rejection of me and my fitness for ministry at UBC, or a simple matter of the Leadership Team, as we had been told before, not yet ready to make decisions about hiring new staff. My impeccably honed self-preservation mechanism convinced me of the latter, though I feared the former. Neither was true. (Or, at least the former wasn’t completely true.) What was true, according to what I was told years later, was that David had run into, by chance, John Mark’s father in an airport, had a conversation with him, and had the realization that John Mark, who had been at UBC as a student in the early days, would be a good fit at UBC. He brought it up to Ben and the rest of the Leadership Team, they had a conversation about it and made the decision quickly that we needed a new Community Pastor, and John Mark would be that person.

I was upset about the way the system of leadership and communication was working in the months after Kyle died. But mostly, I was jealous.

***

As is becoming obvious, this was the beginning of a period of discontent between UBC, particularly its leadership, and me. As I tell stories about decisions that were made during those years, I’m relying on snippets pieced together over time. I am certain that some will say “It wasn’t that way at all” and suggest I am misrepresenting conversations that I was never a part of. I concede this is probably true. But what also true that this is kind of the point. Over those years it became clear that decisions, BIG decisions, were going to be made with just a few people in the room. The rest of us were left to speculate.

I believe that these times began to reveal a growing dissonance between what type of church we said we were, and what type we actually were. On the surface we talked a lot about authenticity and critiqued the way many churches in the evangelical world were mimicking the business practices of Fortune 500 companies. We talked a lot about “community” and threw the word “organic” around more than a few times. But underneath the surface, we were becoming the type of church we despised. It wasn’t happening intentionally, but I believe it was happening carelessly. And I sometimes think it would have been better if it were intentional, because at least then it would be easier for us to know where we stood.

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