Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Leaving

Word has been getting around that I am leaving soon. Two parishioners have taken off on month-long vacations and said their goodbyes to me already. A preteen at church wrapped her arms around me recently and said authoritatively “you can’t go.” And I have it on good word that when they found out about my impending departure the little neighbor kids cried. (“Real tears,” the mother said, as if to underline the injury I’d given to their young senses of permanence).
This is all too familiar for me. I have been in many short-term ministry places, from the house church in Prague where I studied abroad, to my 5-month and 3-month stints in Uganda, to counseling at summer camp which is, by definition, a temporary community. There are many places where I’ve been invited to “stay;” to make my temporary home a permanent one. But I have kept moving, drawn forward by the next adventure or “call.” And while I accept that God has called me to several and varied places, I wonder if it is an intrinsic part of God’s call that I must keep moving like this, or whether at some point I will actually get to “stay.”
There is, of course, a missiological model for my transitory ministry. The Apostle Paul was on the road for many years, and had close ties to churches in many cities. Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher, and according to Matthew his last commission to the disciples started with “Go” (Mt 28:19). Christians have been on the move ever since, seeking “unreached peoples,” going on crusades, making pilgrimages, and sometimes even intentionally adopting the lifestyle of uprooted poverty.
The Presbyterian church is not as uproot-happy as, say, the United Methodists, who typically relocate their pastors every three or four years. A PC(USA) pastor who finds a good fit in a church may stay for decades, if everyone is happy with the arrangement. Still there are many elements of temporary ministry in our current setup, from the 1-year YAV program, to 1-year internships, to the temporary and rapidly shifting community that is a seminary. Demographically speaking, Americans move around more than the people of most other nations do; but Christian leaders seem to move a lot more than even that. Is this according to God’s call, or is it a convention we invented for ourselves?
What I am specifically uncomfortable with is the division of space and time between the pastor and the parish. We have on the one hand a population of solid Christian non-pastoral leaders who will stay with the congregation, maintain it, minister and be ministered to in it, and hear a call to make it their spiritual home in the name of God. In Lostine many of these people will belong to the same church for their entire life. On the other hand is the pastor, who belongs to a certain group either privileged or cursed (depending on your attitude) with frequent Uprootings and Sendings, who consider this moveability to be sanctified by the call of the same God.
I appreciate the call to uproot, both because of the example of the early Christians and because it reminds us well that nowhere on this earth can be our true home. Relocation is a spiritual practice that continually challenges me to travel light – quite literally to be sure all my worldly possessions fit in a station wagon – and to keep free of idolizing the non-essentials. Being a stranger in a new place is also a spiritual discipline which opens our minds and humbles us. Yet I feel that most of the other Christians in the congregation do not identify with these spiritual practices much if at all, and I am uncomfortable with this division.
One question is about the relative worths of doing maintenance work vs. new development. My clear bias is toward development, which lends itself to an outsider-led, short-term model. I have not a little scorn for doing long-term maintenance work myself, because I have seen several pastors spending much of their energy on propping up near-dead congregations. When a project at Lostine has come to rest entirely on my shoulders for maintenance, I tend to panic at its non-sustainability. I hope and pray that my bias against doing maintenance will not lead me to declare myself “finished” with a congregation prematurely, or to jump ahead of God’s call. Gentle maintenance must surely have a place in a healthy congregation too, and provide a reason for a pastor to stay in a call for more than a few years.
The counter-question, however, is whether new development work, led by outsiders and done on a short-term basis, ought to be reserved for pastors, or whether other folks with non-preaching inclinations ought to also be “called” out of their home congregation to bring their skills and energy to help another congregation. As a church that confesses the priesthood of all believers, saying that the only difference between the elders and pastors is whether they “rule” or “teach,” I wonder how we could learn to share the burden and blessing of relocation more evenly, but I do not have an answer to this.
A Biblical comparison may shed light on this question. Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, and Paul always traveled with companions. With the exception of married clergy couples (two ordained persons who often take a job that one person could do), this is scarcely the model in the church today. The lone-wolf model has personal implications in terms of burnout, but worse implications for the shared nature of our Christian vocation. The question arises, “is Talitha called to go to Uganda” but a better question would be, as a community, “are we called to send people to Uganda,” and if Talitha is particularly willing to lead this venture, “whom else can we send with her?” I wonder if an approach more in this line would share the uprootings more equally between those with theological gifts and training, and those with other giftings. It would require much more rigorously interdependent communities, and would hopefully bring those communities into closer touch with one another.
The clergy/lay divide is one of the aspects of “church” as we know it that frustrates me most. During my time in Lostine I have felt in many cases that the work is wonderfully and equally shared. Pastor Steve is not the center of the church, and people joyfully step up to do their part. So now my awareness is shifting; Lostine is a great example of the church as it could be, but I am going back out into the great institutional maze of “the church as it is,” which sets me apart as a leader and gives me the privilege and burden of relocating.


  1. A most insightful meditation, Madame Future Moderator. Wow. A couple of thoughts in response:

    1) Jesus never formed, led or even served on a building committee. Despite his presumed carpentry expertise! What a slacker! He'd never get a big-steeple position these days.

    Translation: maybe we do so much maintenance because we *don't* want to do what he did and we're stalling instead. For all of our maintenance, it doesn't seem to be working--you'd better run for Moderator while there's still a quorum at GA.

    2) Your 2x2 comments are excellent. In my role as a teacher, I've found sustenance in the Road to Emmaus story, where lone-wolf Jesus intervenes innocuously, illuminates, intrigues, inspires, and then vanishes so that the travelers are taken to the next level without getting comfy and complacent.

    That's my role model for my serial 15-week stints as a college teacher, and would seem to function similarly for perpetually relocating pastors. This accepts rather than questions the lone-wolf status of the pastor, and the pastor-congregation (and teacher-student) divide rather than transcending them, however.

    Where can I purchase your book of collected sermons/thoughts/etc.? Seriously, you have a lot to say to us that's of more moment and permanence than a blog posting. Or maybe I'm just old-fashioned.

    With admiration,


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