I made the decision to leave the pastorate in March, while I was in the Holy Land. It was there that I woke up to the fact that I had not been living as a whole person. I realized I needed to step down immediately and not wait for another call, which I had been waiting for almost since I started. In fact, I realized that WAS the call — out of Tuckerton. The urgency came from the need to live authentically and embrace all of life. As long as I was a pastor, part of me would remain hidden and out of sight. I took a month to discuss the situation with friends and colleagues who helped discern that God was up to something. I knew I was leaving, my friends knew I was leaving, but the church didn’t know I was leaving. This caused me a fair amount of angst as I considered how and when to tell them.
I decided to tell the elders at the regular meeting of Session on Monday, May 5, 2014, six weeks prior to what I proposed as my last Sunday. It is fair to say they were stunned by the news. They didn’t see it coming. I stammered a little as I began, but as I went on I gathered strength and confidence. One of them said later that my entire posture changed -- I started tentatively, sitting slightly slumped, but by the time I finished I had energy and resolve that lifted my whole countenance. I felt it too.
That is not to say it wasn't hard to do, it was. It was also distressing to see their reactions. There was shock, tears, confusion and disbelief as they tried to listen and understand. How do you tell people you love that you're leaving? I'm not the leaver....I'm never the leaver. I'm the leav-ee. I don't know how to "break up." And that's what it felt like; like I was asking for a divorce. That's not a great analogy, because to do it right means that I needed to be their biggest cheerleader and advocate in the weeks remaining. I needed to help them celebrate the time we had together. I needed to leave graciously. A better analogy might be in the parenting realm, when the kids finally leave home and the parents send them off with their blessing. But in my case it was the parent who was leaving, so that’s not a great analogy either. It’s a unique relationship — pastor and church.
In my letter to the congregation, I quoted a high school valedictorian who wisely told her classmates, "Let's not cry because it's over, let's smile because it happened." Sure, it’s a little corny and a little trite but it’s nevertheless a genuine sentiment — I could not be more grateful to God for the nine years I've been the pastor of First Presbyterian Church. I have grown tremendously and I take pride in all the growth I've seen in the congregation as well. God has richly blessed us, and it's been a fruitful time. It's been a very good run.
I delivered the news as matter-of-factly as possible, with no drama, no apologies and no regrets. I told them that I simply felt God calling me to a new form of ministry. I was careful to say that I decided to leave the pastorate before I was offered the position of Advocate for Long Term Recovery at Monmouth Presbytery. I didn't want to generate hard feelings, especially since they will need to work so closely with the presbytery in the process of finding a new pastor. I firmly believe however, that the new position I was offered is further affirmation of God’s involvement and blessing on the situation.
At the congregational meeting on June 1, 2014, the First Presbyterian Church of Tuckerton voted to dissolve relationship between church and pastor on June 15, 2014. Some wept openly as the moderator from Monmouth Presbytery called for the vote. I tried to reassure them, saying that while “dissolving the relationship” sounds like a grim task, it’s not really. It’s a necessary formality that allows the church and pastor to move forward with mutual blessing. And it gave us one last opportunity to do things decently and in good order.