Out of the Big Tent

Initially no one was happy about David’s departure. He was the sole remaining founding pastor of UBC, and one of the last links to the early days of the church. (There were still 2-3 remaining people who had been around since the beginning.) Even those of us who had a complicated relationship with him and his role knew we had lost something wholly unique and special, someone who had been integral to our identity as a congregation.

But the words each of us used to describe what needed to happen after he left revealed fault lines in how we should proceed and, ultimately, what it meant to be UBC. Some used the phrase “filling in the gaps” that David’s absence would cause. These words carried  an assumption that UBC needed to find a way to exist in ways similar to the way it existed with him around. If the church was a Connect-the-Dot picture, some lines had been erased and we needed to find a way to pencil them back in.

Others described what the future should look like with the phrase “moving forward,” words that revealed another completely different assumption—That the “gaps” left by David’s absence didn’t need to be filled back in. Couldn’t we just connect the dots in different places, or not at all? Or, and this was more frightening for all of us, couldn’t we just scrap the old picture altogether and start with a new one, painting with similar colors and textures as the original picture, but completely open to the possibility that a new picture may emerge?

As you probably guessed, I fell in the “moving forward” camp.

***

There’s a church I know that had a very dynamic, charismatic pastor. Everyone loved her and she brought vibrancy to a congregation that had not felt it for decades. Conflict, which is always present in churches, was minimal under her pastorate. After many years of service to this church she left to pastor another. In the years after her departure, the church she left behind went through  difficult times. Friends of mine who were members of this congregation tell me this—She was such a magnetic figure that she attracted a large number of people who disagreed with each other on very fundamental tenets of faith and practice. But they all gathered under the Big Tent of her personality, either oblivious or dismissive of their differences. But once the canopy of this Big Tent was removed, they all looked around at each other in the sunlight as if to say, “Wait a second, what are YOU doing here? I don’t agree with you on ideas concerning faith and church,” before going their separate ways.

I believe a similar thing could have happened to UBC after Kyle died. There were certainly differences of opinion on whether the church should “fill in the gaps” or “move forward.” But in a very real way, Kyle continued to be the glue that held us together. All of us knew that each of us were hurting. And so, as much as we possibly could, we gave each other a little more grace than we would have if Kyle had simply left town to pastor another church.

But David’s leaving was a different story altogether. Like Kyle and the other aforementioned pastor, David was a force of nature in our community. He wrote songs for us to sing in worship that will be sung by other churches around the world for generations. He and his wife created an aesthetic at UBC that helped us embrace beauty, and that made it easier for us to see that the supposed division between what is “sacred” and what is “secular” is a line that doesn’t exist. We all gathered under the Big Tent of his charisma. It was a canopy that doesn’t get removed without ramifications.

***

 There was one “gap” I unabashedly hoped would never get filled.

Though we were never technically a “megachurch,” we operated under similar circumstances. We were a “Church on display.” In the words of the great journalist Ron Burgandy, people knew us. We were kind of a big deal. A component of being “kind of a big deal” was that people (actually, “fans,”) often attended our worship services from out of town. Some were just passing through, but many drove hours just to worship at UBC. To document the fact that they had, in fact, worshipped at UBC, it became common to see phones shoot up all over the congregation during the music to snap a photo of David and the band.

Not long after I began attending UBC I realized this would be part of the deal. And for a while, it was bearable. Actually, that’s not true. It was endearing and, often, exciting. A congregation that that had a global reach—who wouldn’t want to be part of that? Even though we knew who the “real show” was, we’d be lying if told you we didn’t feel a little like celebrities ourselves.

But it began to wear thin. I tried to remind myself that people were coming to participate in person with something that had been meaningful to them from a distance. It was hard to do this all the time and I often failed to extend an adequate amount of grace to David’s fans. But I’ve always thought of church as a home. In fact, in the evangelical (and post-evangelical) world this is what we call it: “Have you found a church home yet?” is what we ask those we meet who are new in town. Over time it felt like the Christian Paparazzi had invaded our home.

What most bothered me about this was that even though our times of worship were special, (and I believe worship is the primary work of the church,) I felt it was hardly the most interesting thing about UBC. I wanted to tap some of our guests on the shoulder and suggest they bring their cameras to The Pub later in the week. There they would find some of us having difficult conversations about theology and how to be church for each other. There might even be an argument or two, as we all realize that we believe conflicting things about God. Or, come to one of our Mi Casas, where we would sit around a table and share a meal, and talk about our struggles with doubt and cynicism. That was the real show at UBC– What happened between Sundays.

I was looking forward to the cameras being put away.

***

The most obvious logistical gap that did need to be filled in David’s absence was Sunday morning music. Who would take David’s place? Almost immediately Tye, a long-time UBC’er, stepped in to help us out on a week-to-week basis. Many of us had watched Tye grow up before our eyes, from the moment he entered Baylor as a Freshman in the early 00’s. He was energetic, engaging, and had shared a lot of life with us. He remained in Waco after college for graduate school, eventually working with a local non-profit. We all knew he was musical, as he had been in a band that often filled in on Sunday mornings. But I’m not sure any of us, myself included, realized how gifted he actually was at leading worship until he began to do so consistently.

In fact, this was one of the things most welcome about Tye’s leadership—He wasn’t a professional musician and didn’t appear to harbor any ambitions in that direction. He had been “on the ground” with us for some time. His biggest gift to us in those early days was reaching out and making use of the wealth of talent available at UBC to help him lead worship. Every week we were led by incredibly gifted artists and worship leaders who had not previously been given an opportunity to do so.

***

I regret a lot about my approach to ministry in the months after David’s departure.

People were hurting, and for good reason. A person who had been an integral part of our community since its inception was no longer with us. In many ways we met God through the gifts that David shared, and his departure stung many among us. But because I was so eager to “move forward,” and a little dismayed at those wanting to “fill in the gaps,” I didn’t allow a proper amount of time for grieving that needed to accompany the loss of someone so dear. What I most hated about how the church seemed to short-circuit our grief by erasing Kyle’s name from our times together after his death, was the thing I was more than ready to do in David’s absence, shamefully dismissing the pain this caused to others.

On several occasions I lashed out verbally against some struggling to live in this new reality.

In the spring of 2011 UBC hosted a concert of two well known Christian musicians. Pulling off events like this can be tedious and exhausting, as you have to deal with tickets, fans, shady promoters, and the artists themselves. (The headliner for this particular concert, though, was incredibly engaging, kind and affable toward me, which made my disdain for the idea of “Christian Celebrity” seem pretty frivolous at the time.) At one point a UBC’er who was working hard to pull this concert off remarked how much she would miss stuff like this. (We all assumed, whether we liked it or not, that we would not longer be a “destination” church for such concerts.) I replied, harshly, “Oh, I’m so over this already.”

I had many such moments in 2011, but was given a lot of grace from other UBC’ers because of the year I was having. After the whirlind second half of 2010, in which I became a pastor at UBC, and went through the tumultuous learning curve of being on a unique church staff situation, David left and my dad died. A week after I returned home from my dad’s funeral, I was in a wreck that totaled my car and broke my right foot.

In the midst of my emotional outbursts that year, several people suggested I take some time off because of all I was going through. I declined. I didn’t want to believe that my dad’s death had anything to do with how I was behaving. Because if it did, then I couldn’t blame the conflicts going on at UBC and within me on other people who I believed “just didn’t get it.” I also instinctively felt that if I stepped aside for any amount of time, then I may again lose my voice within the community.

But it was grief that was making me an emotional basket case. My life had been accumulating losses and sorrows for many years. After Kyle’s death in 2005, Kevin, one of my best friends from childhood died of AIDS in 2008. Then in 2009 one of my early mentors in ministry, Bob, died of a sudden heart attack while mowing his lawn. By 2011 I had lost a lot. I would be damned if I was also going to lose my community.

So I stuck around trying to move forward, while others attempted to fill in the gaps.

 

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