Over the past few months, I read posts by several blog friends as they prepare to, and then leave a church under less-than-ideal circumstances (in other words, it's not "I feel God leading me to this new ministry setting, so let's celebrate the fruits of our ministry, cry a little, and prepare to move forward", it's more "I really need to leave this place for my well-being/that of my family or because I have no choice but to leave."
I'm sure that leaving a church is painful no matter what the circumstances, but it seems to be especially heart-wrenching and have a painful aftermath when the situation resembles the latter of the two I mentioned above. Granted, I've only left one church, and it was a "get the heck out of Dodge" situation, so it's not like I have vast amounts of experience in that area.
In my situation, less than two weeks elapsed from the time my D.S. called me (while I was in a Wal-Mart parking lot, incidentally) to say that, "these people are out for blood, it's your blood they want, and things are not going to get better if you stay until June; it will get much worse" and then proposed the "paid study leave" that turned into an unpaid family leave. I received his phone call on Tuesday, April 22, 2008 and my final Sunday was May 4, 2008.
At first, I was elated, because a) I was going to get out of there and it had been his idea and not mine, b) I was (at first) still going to receive my salary for another eight weeks, c) I would be free to join my husband and reunite our family in a brand new setting. However, over the next week or so I began to have conflicting emotions. I still sensed that I needed to leave early...or at least would pretty much have no choice by the end of things...but also struggled with the need to be gracious and take the higher road while also really wanting to throw things and cuss some people out. Because of the timing of everything (the initial phone conversation happened the day before my DS left for General Conference, our denomination-wide gathering), just about everything was done via phone or e-mail. There was pretty much no interaction between me and the congregation's leaders. My next-to-last Sunday (April 27, I think), the tension in the worship service could have been cut with a knife. There was a special Council meeting after worship (that I did not attend, because the DS pretty much advised against it), and an e-mail later that afternoon from my PPR chair, who said that they decided to "pass" on the proposal "offered by you and Rev. ____" because they didn't "see any benefit to us." They had decided to let me continue as their pastor (not like they really had any choice...) until June.
The D.S. was furious at them, because the key leaders had essentially agreed to our initial proposal, the Council meeting was supposed to be a formality, and so they essentially reneged on the deal. As he explained to me the next day, I had a choice; I could stay at SJ until the end of June (when my appointment would officially end) or I could take unpaid family leave ad interim and have the next Sunday be my final day. Well, you know my final choice; I shook the dust off my feet and left early. I took 24 hours to pray about it, and while I did wonder if I shouldn't just "tough it out" for two months, I eventually decided that the cost to my family and my own well-being just wasn't worth "toughing it out". Harry made it very clear that he wanted Nora and me away from SJ ASAP and he didn't care how it happened. I also felt that given that the entire congregation knew that I had essentially tried to leave with a severance package, things probably would be have REALLY REALLY bad for those final weeks.
I made the decision on Tuesday, wrote a very gracious letter of resignation to my PPR chair, and gave it to her in person that day. Her reaction, "well gosh, I hope you don't think we were trying to run you out of town!" Of course, I was nice, but you know what I REALLY wanted to say? Pardon my French, but it would have been this, "Oh, please, b*tch, that's exactly what you were trying to do, and we both know it."
For my final Sunday service, I stayed with the "take the high road" theme and had my Lay Leader (who made my PPR chair seem NICE in comparison-she didn't even talk to me that last day) read scripture and my PPR chair help me serve Communion. Some people knew it was my last Sunday; although there had been no formal announcement, my PPR chair had undoubtedly called my Lay Leader as soon as I left her driveway on Tuesday. My lay leader had a mouth wider than the Mississippi, and she probably called half the congregation herself ("we did it! She's leaving early!") . Of course, others had no clue until they arrived at church and either a) someone told them or b) they heard my announcement. I wrote a lovely letter to the congregation (too bad I can't find it anymore) and while I don't remember lots of it, I do remember there was one line where I said, "I may not be your pastor anymore, but I would be honored to be your friend." I preached on John 17 and talked about unity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Finally, I prayed for the congregation at the close of the sermon. Yeah, I took the high road. I was so high above some of them, they were SPECKS.
Afterwards...nothing. Several people hugged me, one cried, and several sincerely said they had appreciated my ministry and wished me well. The rest? Either ignored me or gave empty expressions of goodwill. My PPR chair was very "nice" and made a big show over Nora and how much she'd miss her. Against my better judgment, I let her hold Nora for a few minutes.
And then we left...I took a day to pack and gather what we'd need for two weeks in Harry's one-bedroom apartment. We closed on our new house on May 16, and were moved out of the parsonage by May 21 or so. We left the parsonage IMMACULATE, mostly thanks to my cleaning lady (I had that luxury in Danville, but not here) who spent about 20 hours cleaning the parsonage after we moved out. Even the ultra-critical Parsonage Committee found nothing wrong with it.
Sometimes I regret having been SO. DANG. NICE throughout the whole leave-taking process. I feel like I repressed some emotions that I was feeling and robbed myself and them of the potential for some healing. On the other hand, if I had shared more of my emotions and been more up-front with the congregation at large of the issues at hand, that might have caused more problems.
I've really grown a lot...and experienced a lot of healing and recovery in the past year and a half. But there are still some scars, and I'm glad that I have this blog as an outlet and fellow clergy who have "been there, done that, got the T-shirt" who can offer empathy and support. My prayer is that we will all continue to move forward into the next great adventure that God has planned for us...whatever that may be.