Leaving the Sanctuary

The time between announcing that I was stepping down as pastor and actually doing it seemed unreasonably prolonged.  Though it only took six weeks, it dragged on — feeling more like a trans-Atlantic cruise ship that takes forever to pull away from the pier while family and friends wave goodbye and throw streamers from the shore.   I knew it was an important time for the church, and my goal was to leave as graciously as possible.  But when the time for parting actually came, the timing seemed just right.  It was natural and fitting  by then.  Six weeks allowed us to get used to the idea so that the farewell was more of a celebration than a bittersweet  parting.

I was glad Session chose to mark our time together by planning a worship service  on the Saturday afternoon before my last Sunday. Those who wrote the order of worship were intentional in choosing elements that were important to me.    The Praise Band played favorites like “He Reigns,”  “Hosanna,” and “If We Are the Body.”  They also sang “How Great is Our God” which we sang at my ordination in Liberty Corner in 2005.  The choir sang “The Offertory” by John Neer Beck, another one of my favorites.   Some of the elders made gracious remarks about my tenure as pastor and they presented me with a beautiful watch.  The only difficulty I had was during the invitation to the Lord’s Supper.  The sacrament holds so much meaning for me and I knew it would be the last time I gathered with this congregation at the table— this made it all the more significant.  The words caught in my throat and a few tears slipped down my cheek.  Afterwards, we went outside where  they dedicated a new, white dogwood in honor of my service as their pastor.

Then enjoyed a catered dinner, complete with a “candy bar” done in great, lavish style – like the overflowing wine jugs at Cana.  Roberta, the young woman who arranged it said that while people were arriving prior to the service, it suddenly occurred to her that it was like my funeral, and that made her cry — hard.  I was touched by this, and tried to offer comfort. But as I thought about it, I realized Roberta was right…it was very similar to a funeral;  or more positively “A Celebration of Life and a Witness to the Resurrection” as we Presbyterians like to call it.   Who actually gets to attend their own funeral?  Not many .  It was an honor and privilege to worship God and hear people reflect on our time together.  I was moved and humbled.

I have been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church, and have found it to be an interesting companion during the season of my departure.  Someone recommended the book to me when I was first ordained, and I had started it but it was not speaking to me at the time.  I’m glad I waited to read it, because I would have wondered how much it formed  or influenced my decision and experience of leaving church.  Reading it concurrently with my own experience, I was amazed at how many similarities I found between Brown’s journey and my own.  About her pastoral identity, she writes:

When people saw [my collar] in public, they shifted from normal gear into the most reverent gear they could find.  I was a reverend, after all.  They talked about things that they thought might interest me, such as Sunday school or how the plans for Vacation Bible School were shaping up.  Although I never asked, some explained why they had not been in church lately, while others promised that they would catch up on their financial pledges just as soon as they were able.  As well intentioned as such deference was, it was as distancing as a velvet rope in a museum.  (Brown, Leaving Church, p. 144)

I had also set up my own barriers to keep people at a safe difference — telling myself that appropriate “boundaries” were a good and necessary way to preserve some privacy and some healthy balance between my personal and professional life.   In truth, it all served to isolate me…to a breaking point that finally gave way at the Dead Sea.  I was tired of being alone.  Barbara Brown could have been in my head for all the truth-telling she was doing.  For her, like for me, pastoring was hard.  Perhaps this is the heart of the issue:

We were not presented with Peter or Mary Magdalene as our models, so that we could imagine ourselves as imperfect disciples still able to serve at our Lord’s right hand.  Instead, we were called to fill in for Jesus at the communion table, standing where he once stood and saying what he once said. We were called to preach his gospel and feed his sheep.  We were, in other words, presented with Jesus himself as our model, so that most of us could only imagine ourselves disappointing everyone in our lives from God on down.  (Brown, p. 150.)

I wanted desperately to go back to sitting at the feet of Jesus, and not stand in for him any longer.  These were the matters on my heart as I prepared to leave the pastorate.  I kept wondering if I would have regrets…when I would decide I was crazy for leaving and that it was all a big mistake.

But that never happened.  Oh,  I had a moment or two as I left church on Sunday morning for the last time…when I sat in the empty sanctuary; when I thanked the Clerk of Session for all he had done to help and support me.  I had a moment in the parking lot before I drove away.   But after that, I never looked back. 

Instead, I had the feeling that I had just finished reading an excellent book.  It was deeply satisfying.  It  shaped my life and fueled my thoughts.  It formed a part — but only a part — of my identify.  As I left the safety of the sanctuary for the last time, I was overwhelmed with gratitude, with only a tinge of sorrow. 

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of my call and for the plans you still have for us.