I had been youth minister at the church I served in the eighties about six months when the couple that taught twelfth grade Sunday School let me know – actually, they told the pastor – they were leaving the church. Because of me. He was a professor of youth ministry at the seminary and was not pleased with the changes I was making because they didn’t follow the denominational curricula and weren’t the things he taught. And I didn’t have a degree in youth ministry. And – oh, yeah – he had been the interim youth minister prior to my coming.
Their announcement caught me by surprise. I had asked him to be on the Youth Committee. He had two kids in the youth group who were very happy. But he was determined to leave and he took the family with him. I was hurt, confused, and angry. I took in personally – mostly because he said I was the reason they were leaving. I never got to have more than a cursory conversation with them before they left. When I talked to the wife, she cried and said she was sorry. When I talked to the husband, he was curt and dismissive (my read on his feelings). The situation didn’t seem to hold any possibility for healing. They left. I didn’t. Life went on. (Well, I worried about how they would talk about me to others and, of course, it hit at the heart of my lingering feelings of not measuring up.)
When I was associate pastor at a church in New England, several families left the church over our decision to follow the equal marriage law in Massachusetts and perform same sex marriages. The issue came up because a gay couple in town came to the senior pastor and asked to be married in our church. The issue with the families was not so much equal marriage as it was the process by which the decision was made: they felt left out. We asked our area minister to lead a conversation among the families, the deacons, and the ministers. As the meeting progressed, the anger moved from the immediate issue to things they had carried around for awhile, many of them having to do with me — my preaching style, my dress, my manner in general – their read on me being based on the assumption that somehow I was gunning for them. One specific example was I had sung “We Shall Overcome” as part of my sermon one Sunday, which they took to be a brazen in-your-face challenge to them. I reminded them the sermon had been an account of our visit to a church for homeless people on Boston Common where we had sung the hymn and I sang it because I was moved by people with nothing having the faith to sing those words. Again, despite our best efforts, the situation did not end in healing. They left. I didn’t. It wasn’t any easier to take the second time around.
In both situations, there were things I could have done differently, less defensively, more compassionately. In both cases, the point came when I decided I had done all I could do, or at least I couldn’t change their minds or their hearts. By that time, in both cases, I was beyond being mad; I was hurt and sad.
I thought about both situations this week with the news that you and Michelle had decided to leave the church that has been your spiritual home for the last two decades. I haven’t been able to find any more information than has shown up in the various news stories, so I know I don’t know the whole story. Your move has some personal impact because you are a part of the United Church of Christ, my denomination. So is Jeremiah Wright. So are the other people at Trinity. You are my peeps who are hurting and hurting each other. That’s hard.
I have no idea the kind of pressure you are living under these days. I imagine you are right when you say your candidacy has created a great deal of pressure on Trinity as well. I’m saddened that the pressure has broken relationships that took years to build. I’m sad your church was not a place you felt you could go for comfort and support after all of these years. I’m also sorry you didn’t post anything on your website that provided more explanation for your decision and left that, instead, to the media who don’t understand faith and church to begin with. They make it sound like a political decision, as though you needed to break the ties in order not to damage your campaign. I don’t want that to be true.
Only you know your heart. Here’s what I know, looking back. I stayed another six years as youth minister and would have had the chance to see both of those kids graduate from high school as a part of our youth group. At the Massachusetts church, one of the guys who left used to go to Red Sox spring training every year and send an nightly email about the games that rivaled any sports writer you can think of. After he left the church, he took me off the mailing list. I missed out on a great deal because we couldn’t (wouldn’t?) figure out how to be church together.
You’re walking away from people you love and people who love you. Walk slowly. And know you can always turn around and go back.