Stage 0: Discernment.

1 Jan

This is the second part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeAs many colleagues have told me, most ministers leave either a year too early or a year too late. I have no idea where I fall, but I aimed for a year too early.

Just over a year ago, my family hit a crisis that took much of my emotional energy. The congregation I served held me in care and love and gave me the time and space I needed to attend to the crisis.

When something like this had happened before, I had returned to the congregation with renewed commitment and appreciation, ready to serve. But this time it felt different. I realized I wasn’t happy, but I attributed my discontent to being drained from the family crisis – I thought I just needed time to heal. I wanted to want to stay.

After the winter holidays last year, I thought I had internally recommitted to the congregation. I led a worship service where the congregation and I recited the promises we had made to each other during my installation. I shared that I looked forward to 7 more years together and wondered aloud what they might bring.

At the same time, I was finding the day-to-day of ministry no longer as satisfying as it had been. Even though leading worship is one of my favorite privileges of this vocation, it became more and more difficult to write sermons each week. I enrolled in graduate school, hoping it would engage me in new ways. I traveled more than previously because I had said “yes” to many commitments outside the congregation. In hindsight, I realize I was looking for reasons to get away from the congregation – reasons not to preach, not to engage.

There was no major conflict – no single event that precipitated my decision. To this day, I dearly love the people and institution of the congregation I served. But parish ministry was no longer working for me. I looked at what the congregation and I needed to work on in the coming years and found myself lacking enthusiasm. I began to realize that I was ready for a new challenge and the congregation needed a different type of leader to take it into the coming years. It was time for me to move on.

I decided to look around, not really expecting any positions would be open since the timing was wrong. But then I found something that I realized I was excited about, that would combine the degree program I was enthusiastically beginning, the ministry I was doing, and service to our larger faith tradition. I pursued it, went through the application process.

I was terribly excited when I was offered and accepted the position. But I was on summer vacation! How was that going to work?

While I did not feel I could share my process (at that point) with the lay leaders of the congregation, I did share what I was doing with my ministry team (Director of Religious Exploration and Music Director). We had always worked as a team, and I felt they needed to know. It is telling, perhaps, that those who worked closest to me, who I shared my ministry with and relied upon, were not surprised at this news. They had seen the telltale signs even better than I had. And so together, we began to brainstorm what the congregation would need to know/hear as well as what some of the possibilities were for the congregation since I would be leaving off the regular ministry cycle.

I spent my “vacation” working on a plan for who to tell, how, when, and what. For a few weeks, I felt the sword of Damocles hanging not over my head, but over the heads of the beloveds in the congregation I served. I knew this would take most of them by surprise.

When it was time to pull the trigger on my plan, I thought I was ready. And logistically and rationally, perhaps, I was. But I was not emotionally prepared, even with all the reading I had done.

go to Stage 1: Breaking News

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