And then, I decided to stay at UBC.
The next morning, after crying alone in my room, I felt a lightness I had not felt in many years. Maybe it was a bookend to the season of grieving over Kyle? Perhaps it was a revelation of how ridiculous I was being? Or maybe I just realized what I had—an imperfect community of imperfect people who were going to royally fuck things up when it came to living their lives together, which is pretty much what every congregation since, well, ever had been.
From the time I was two, when my parents moved to Chandler to find a good community to raise my sister and me in, until I graduated high school, I was part of the same church. I saw the members of that church bicker with each other over the most mundane things. I saw them question each other’s motives and, sometimes, their character. But I saw the same people love each other. They took care of each other’s children, they mowed each other’s yards when someone was sick, and they wept as the those in the church lost loved ones. The same people who were at each other’s throat during a Wednesday night business meeting would be out in the trenches of life with them on Thursday morning.
Eventually the conflict was too much for some at the church, so a group left to join another church, out on the lake. Then a few years later more of them left to start their own church, and then about fifteen years after that, it seemed they had all left. Through it all, my parents decided to stay, and I think of everything that I have tried to emulate from them, this was the most significant. My dad often said during the tumultuous years of their church that he never saw the point of leaving a church riddled with problems just to go to another church (or start your own) that would be riddled with a different set of problems.
Or, to put it another way, as B.T., an old man from my hometown once told me, when speaking of the church I grew up in, and which he had been a member of for decades: “My daddy taught me never to switch political parties, never switch wives, and never switch churches. That man was full of a lot of wisdom. Now I’ve failed on the first two several times over, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave that church.”
To be sure, there are good reasons to leave a church for another, or to start your own. Those who left the church I grew up in had legitimate concerns that made their exit understandable, as I would have had I decided to leave UBC. But something was pulling me in, closer. It wasn’t a defeated resignation that things were always going to be as they were, with decisions made outside the knowledge or input of the congregation. Nor was it a decision to stick around and fight for things to get better, even if I would end up doing that as well. It was, I think, a decision to give myself fully to this church, again, regardless of the outcome.
A few months after Josh was hired as UBC’s Teaching Pastor, he organized a potluck dinner meeting of all the people in the church who were older, non-college students. Most of us assumed this was simply a time to get together with people in our life situation to share a meal together and to hang out. Our numbers were growing exponentially, as could be seen in how full the room was, a room which once was more than adequate to hold all the people involved in the daily life of the church, but now was bursting at the seams with just the smallest age demographic of the congregation.
After we had eaten, Josh stood up to share why he wanted us all to get together. He said he knew there were people upset with the process by which he and John Mark were hired, as well as with the lack of communication in general by the staff and leadership team of the church. He wanted this to be an opportunity for us to share our feelings and to have an open conversation about our frustrations.
Some of us, including myself, were equal parts shocked and pleased that this was happening. I was proud of Josh for having the fortitude to do what no one else in the history of UBC had ever done—Hold a relatively open meeting, (it was only non-college students invited, but it wasn’t a select group of non-college students—everyone who fit the description was welcome,) and, more importantly, an open conversation that invited critique and suggestions for a way forward.
Others, primarily those who had been a part of all the closed meetings where decisions were made, did not seem as excited about what Josh was doing. As the conversation went on, their discomfort registered on their faces and body language.
I jumped on the opportunity to speak. I talked about how upset I had been since shortly after Kyle died. There were town hall meetings that feigned communication, but they disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Decisions were made, not just with no input from the congregation on what the decisions should have been, but with no one outside of Leadership Team, (and sometimes even they were on the outside,) knowing that the decision was something being considered.
I knew before that moment that I represented a small subset of UBC’ers who actually cared about any of this, and I always felt that others should care as much as I did. What I discovered during that meeting was that there were more than I expected. One by one people stood up to share their frustrations with communication and insularity within the leadership of the church. I was happy to know I wasn’t alone.
But again, not everyone was pleased with what was happening in the meeting. Some on the staff and leadership expressed dismay that we were even having this conversation. A couple of the staff members claimed that they had heard the frustrations during the hiring of John Mark, and had worked to alleviate the issues with communication with regards to the hiring of Josh. Ben reminded me that he had called me to get my opinion, and John Mark brought up to several people in the room that he had asked their thoughts on hiring Josh. Those he was speaking of responded with curious expression on their faces upon hearing this, until one spoke up and said, “Wait a second. When we were having lunch after church that Sunday, you asked me what I thought about Josh’s sermon. Is that what you are talking about?” Then I reminded Ben that it was days after the decision to hire Josh had already been made before he called to inform me about it, and that my input was never sought out.
It became clear what was happening. Rather than fixing a mistake regarding procedure and communication that was made during the hiring of John Mark, the leadership of the church simply made the same mistake again, but tried to cosmetically alter the narrative to make it look like they had sought out input from the congregation.
Surprisingly, when this meeting ended, even though there had been difficult conversations, I was not upset. Regardless of what was said during our time together, or what would happen after the conversation, in that moment I really didn’t care. I, and others like me, were given a voice because of Josh’s courage and thoughtfulness.
And I suppose I should say here, that the ways in which the decisions were made weren’t actually mistakes, as much as they were the natural result of a system of leadership and governance that had been in place at UBC, which wasn’t a system at all. It was, instead, the Wild West, and had been all along.