Transitions and Tribulations

Dear Superfriends and Blogofans,

Thanks so much for keeping up with me on this blog. I haven’t been very good about updating it this year, for reasons I will get into shortly. Today, I am resolving to begin again in this new season of life.

So, here’s the story:

It has been a year of dramatic, repeated, and painful transitions for me. In the last quarter of 2016, I reached the conclusion that I needed to leave my pastoral position at North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I loved that congregation and they loved me back. Serving them was never easy, but those three years were the happiest of my life so far. The main reason for leaving was financial. The congregation was running out of money. Even though I kept accepting pay cuts, they were still allocating a higher and higher percentage of their budget to my salary. The situation was untenable and leaders, ordained and lay, were quickly burning out. After much thought, prayer, and consult, I decided that leaving was the right thing to do.

One bright spot in this transition is that I decided to take the opportunity to join The Episcopal Church. This is something that has been in my heart for the last fifteen years. I “married into” the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I have served for several years, and have happily pastored two fantastic congregations with them. I have been honored to serve at my presbyteries and the General Assembly. My decision to leave has nothing to do with conflict or disappointment with that denomination. I leave with only gratitude in my heart for the PC(USA) and the wonderful people who worship and serve there. The issue is that my core theological framework has always been Anglican, which is related to (but also distinct from) the Reformed tradition. There are certain theological convictions that I have come to hold dearly, for which there is simply no room in Reformed thought. More on those in a future article.

In March of this year, I started a new job in Community Development & Parish Administration at an Episcopal parish in nearby Battle Creek. This was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. For the first time, I was working as a staff member at a larger congregation, I was getting an immersive experience of daily life and ministry in The Episcopal Church, and I was seeing congregational life from an entirely new perspective. I learned more about finance and administration in seven months than I had in my entire life to that point. I got to do intensive research on church growth and discovered, to my great surprise, that there is actually some really fantastic research on the subject.

But all was not well. In the space of a few months, it became clear that the parish needed a trained and experienced bookkeeper more than it needed a community development person. My gifts and skills make me ideal for the latter, but I struggled to keep up with the former. The rector was concerned about parish finances, I was miserable, and my family was worried about me. I was not a good fit for the position and the position was not a good fit for me. Once again, leaving seemed like the right thing to do.

I struggle to convey just how disheartening it is to realize, twice in one year, that the church where you work is better off without you. Imagine the scene in Isaiah 6, when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!”

Now, imagine if God were to respond, “Thanks, but no thanks.” That’s pretty much what it feels like.

Since the end of September, I have been unemployed. I had a couple of irons in the fire, even an offer to teach college again, but those have fallen through.

Not all has been doom and gloom, though. I am investing all of my time and energy into my primary vocation as husband and father. I take care of the family and the house. I have had more time for my children than I have in years. The house looks better than it has in a long time. I am eating healthier and running six miles a week. I’m even learning how to cook, and discovering that I’m pretty good at it!

I am also looking forward to my confirmation in a week and a half. In that moment, when the bishop lays hands on my head, I will cease to be a Presbyterian pastor and will become an Episcopal layperson. This is the point of no return: my Presbyterian ordination will be nullified without any guarantee of ordination as an Episcopal priest. Imagine a circus act where an acrobat has to let go of one trapeze before the next one arrives. It’s a terrifying prospect, but it seems like the right thing to do. Here’s why I think so:

When I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, I was asked the following question:

“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture calls us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”

If asked today, I would have to answer that question in the negative. My study of the early Church fathers and mothers has brought me to a fundamentally different understanding of the Church than the one expressed in the writings of John Calvin, the Westminster Catechism, or even the lovely Confession of 1967. There is much in these works that is good, but the differences between their ecclesiology and mine are substantial enough that continued service as a Presbyterian pastor would be a compromise of integrity. I will write more on this later.

At least six months after my confirmation, according to canon law, I can begin the process of discernment for the priesthood. The process can be expedited (at the bishop’s discretion) for those who were previously ordained in another tradition, but formation will still take several years, and there are no guarantees.

Some have suggested that I not take the risk to my career, but I think it would be the height of hypocrisy and cowardice if I were to claim to believe certain things about the apostolic nature of the Church and the authority of bishops, but refuse to reexamine my personal sense of call in the light of what I have come to believe. If am truly called to the priesthood, God will make the way clear. If not, some other ministry will emerge.

In the meantime, these new circumstances afford me an opportunity to live more deeply into the Benedictine principles that have given my life structure for the past several years. St. Benedict teaches that God is to be found in the most ordinary places and activities. Each day, I pray as many of the liturgical hours as possible and try to center my direction of the household on humility, gentleness, consistency, flexibility, hospitality, and sensitivity to others’ needs in my endeavor “to be loved rather than feared.” (RB 64:15)

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I can honestly say that I don’t hate what I am doing right now. I am finally coming home to The Episcopal Church. Tending the hearth is the single biggest contribution I can make to our family life, even more than a steady paycheck. Who knows whether my example might even present a helpful antidote to the toxic masculinity that is running rampant through our society right now?

My most pressing concern for the moment is whether this arrangement will be fiscally sustainable for us. I am prepared to take on part-time work, probably in retail, if we get desperate for cash.

In the long term, I hope I get the opportunity to make use of my ministry gifts in some meaningful way, whether I am ordained or not. Until then: Ora et Labora.

PAX.

One thought on “Transitions and Tribulations

  1. Rev. Deacon Judith Cirves

    I lift you in prayer as you make your transition, and welcome to the Episcopal Church. I hope you do not stop blogging during this period as you have much to offer in this transitory period. I do look forward to your writing. I am a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, many parishes, my own included, are going through strained fiscal times. We started meeting with church representatives of several denominations in our neighborhood who were facing similar problems, with the aim to be possibly sharing resources, space, starting a joint ministry in a new space, etc. We have been meeting for just over a year and we are learning together how to “be church” in our neighborhood and have begun to do some exciting things together as “Seeds of Peace”. Blessings and prayers during your search. Deacon Judi

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