Before the town hall meeting where we were to make the announcement that my position had been eliminated, I called some of my closest friends to let them know the news. Britt and Holly, Scott and Nancy, Arna and Marissa, and a small group I had assembled to be a part of my sabbatical planning team. They were all dumbfounded, upset, but appreciative of me letting them know.
At the meeting, I sat down next to a good friend, who quickly informed me that I may not want to be seen with him. He said it could get ugly. I took my chances.
The thing is, as much as I had been a crusader over the years for the church as a whole to be “in the know” concerning big decisions, I hadn’t even considered the fall out from this announcement. I knew it would be sad, and people would have a lot of questions. But since I had, in some ways, emotionally divested myself from the situation weeks before the announcement, it didn’t occur to me that some of my closest friends and supporters would be as angry as they were.
In a lot of ways that meeting was like the time we sat in the backside and heard from the staff of the hiring of John Mark, only in reverse. Many were upset that the church hadn’t been made aware of the financial situation. UBC’ers who had served on the team designed to help raise funds for the church, a team that had dissolved after determining that they would not be able to raise large amounts of capital in such a short amount of time, were shocked to find out that the creation of the team was to save a staff position. How were they not informed of this? One of them remarked that they would have worked with more urgency had they known what was at stake.
In the meeting some stood up, upset, but still assuming something could be done to reverse the decision. These assumptions carried another implicit assumption—That I would want to change things.
I didn’t. I wish it had been different, but I knew it was time.
I believe there are two seemingly contradictory truths about my being let go from UBC. First, in the winter of 2014-2015 a decision had to be made about our financial state, and the elimination of a pastoral staff position was the wisest, and most courageous move for Josh and the rest of the Leadership Team to make in that moment. I know it devastated them and they did not make it lightly. The staff structure we were operating under was created in and for a situation where, essentially, the existence of a “Celebrity Pastor” gave us an extra pastor for free. Once that situation changed, something else had to change.
But I also believe this: It didn’t have to happen. It wasn’t inevitable.
Some people believe that one of the roles of a pastor is to shield his or her congregation from knowing certain things. Whether that is done by holding back information about the manipulative tendencies of a beloved Christian personality, keeping the church in the dark concerning a major upcoming change, or not adequately disclosing the potential consequences of a lack of funds, there is a view that to pastor means to protect. And honestly, I don’t disagree with this aspect of the pastoral role. The imagery that most often comes to mind when thinking of “pastor” is that of “shepherd.” And there is no doubt that shepherds protect their sheep.
But when your “sheep” are adults, complete with opposable thumbs and brains and (relatively) advanced social and emotional IQs, (not to mention the Holy Spirit indwelling within them,) the best way to protect isn’t to withhold, but to reveal. Had someone stood up at an all-church gathering on a Sunday morning in the spring of 2014 and said “Listen, if our financial situation doesn’t change, then one of your pastors will be let go a year from now,” I have no doubt that not only would my position not have been eliminated, but that the people of UBC would have found a way to allow us to minister with an abundance of resources.
But for some reason, UBC up to that point, like all the churches it was created in reaction to, had always been impaired in its ability to stand before its congregation and tell them the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
May 17th, 2015
I am 40.
Almost 15 years after my friend Jason walked through my doors with a brochure. “Hey, I just had a meeting at this church. I really think you should check it out.”
I’m sitting where I assumed I would be a quarter-century down the road, in a going away party. For me.
As the video they have created for me plays, my mind scans through so many faces and names. It stops on Erin, a former student. She grew up in Dallas, the daughter of an NBA star, nominally Jewish. She found Jesus at UBC, but could never say when, where or how. Her testimony goes like this– “Someone asked me once if I am a Christian and I said, ‘Uh, yeah. I guess I am.’ They seemed concerned at how uncertain I was and so they asked me WHEN I became a Christian. I told them, ‘Well, I started going to UBC. I felt welcome and loved there. Somewhere along the way I started praying the prayers and singing the songs with them, and I realized that I had become a Christian.”
I haven’t spoken with Erin in many years, but I tell her story a lot. I tell it when I’m talking about the idea of gradual conversion. But I tell it mostly because of how unsatisfying it is for some people. In our world of evangelical and post-evangelical Christianity, we want to know dates and circumstances. We want our stories about faith to be neater than that, more capable of being placed in easily discernible chapters. But that’s not how most of our journeys work. They begin at odd places and often have (temporary) endings long before we want them to.
I think of a lot of people in those moments. Kyle, obviously, smiling and disappearing around the corner. I think of cleaning the toilets with Matt and sorting garage sale items when it was just Kevin, Julie and myself, before it had become such a massive undertaking. I reflect on how I still don’t know what to make of God, but how I’ll keep praying the prayers and singing the songs anyway.
I longed to be the Jayber Crow of this place– Wendell Berry’s character, a town barber in the fictional Port William, who was afforded the honor of being the resident observer and holder of stories for the community throughout the rest of his life. Who knows, maybe that honor will come to me in other ways. Regardless, I walk out the doors remembering him, returning to the place in his novel when he is in the church, alone, making his words my own, as I have experienced similar visions….
One day when I went up there to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap. Waking or sleeping (I couldn’t tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any further) while Aunt Cordie sang in the choir, and I saw them as I had seen them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parent proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the world, the grieving widows and widowers, the mothers and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted – I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me. When I came myself again, my face was wet with tears.