On Leaving—A Pastoral Letter

All artwork in this communication courtesy of All Angels parishioner, Sam Wedelich.

Recently, I was part of a digital clergy gathering discussing the current challenges we face and how the church might adapt. The gathering included some of the best and brightest young clergy in the Episcopal Church today. Those who met with me were smart, high functioning, creative, and winsome leaders, with long histories of success in ministry. Normally, our conversations are dynamic, energizing, and refreshing. On that day, however, it was not.

It was, in a word, depressing.
There was a heaviness throughout the “room” as we discussed what was happening in our churches right now. This heaviness wasn’t just to do with the virus that was continuing its death march throughout our nation (though, this certainly casts a pall over everything these days). It also had to do with how our communities were fraying in the midst of all the weight and pain of the present moment. One priest spoke about widespread bitterness and infighting on her staff. Another spoke about how several members of her staff had become given to substance abuse. Yet another confessed coping with loneliness and depression in the face of constant, competing criticism from irreconcilable viewpoints. A final priest talked about feeling abandoned and betrayed by those over him in leadership.
“Honestly, I’m about ready to resign and move on,” this last priest said. “This isn’t the job I signed up to do.”
I don’t know about you, but conversations like this have become increasingly commonplace in my corner of the world. Maybe it’s been the same for you. Maybe you or people you know have experienced similar moments of angst, or frustration, or disappointment––maybe even, despair. Maybe these moments have come in your family, as you’ve attempted to navigate brand new terrain in your life together, all while sheltering in place. Maybe they’ve come in your work place, as the various inflections points of the pandemic have pressed your organization through difficult crucibles. Maybe they’ve come as you’ve wrestled with what’s happening in our nation as a whole, and wondered what your place or role is in current events (do I have a place? does anything I do make a difference?). Or maybe they’ve come as you’ve struggled to negotiate care or schooling for your children, in a time where we still have no idea what these things might look like. Maybe they’ve come as you’ve worried about your health, or the health of those you loved––maybe even as your health or the health of those you loved has been in (literal) peril.
If I’m honest, I’ve felt my own share of anxiety and hopelessness in these days. Perhaps, more than at any other point in my life. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t at least some small part of me that resonated with my colleagues confession about wanting to leave. Many of you have heard me say before, I never intended to become a Rector. It was only because I and this church heard the unmistakable call of God that I winded up here in the first place. Still, I never imagined that becoming a Rector would mean trying to lead a church though a global pandemic in my very first year on the job. Hopefully, you can forgive me for at times wondering whether the grass might be greener somewhere else (don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere).

But on that day, I walked away from that conversation with two other takeaways, too.

The first was a sense of gratitude to God, and specifically, gratitude for how much God loves All Angels Church. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve seen our own share of ups and downs. This hasn’t been an easy season for us (not even close). But hearing the sort of things that colleagues at other churches have gone through, it was hard not to think we’ve been spared the worst of it. In my short time here, I have time and again seen our difficult situations find resolution––yes, in part, because of the generosity and hard work of talented staff and volunteers (I don’t want to diminish that in the least). Yet at the same time, even with these efforts, there’s been no final explanation for how well we’ve fared other than the action and the grace of God. I have no doubt that that’s been the case here again.

The second takeaway was something a wise, elderly priest in our group said in response to the priest who was considering resigning his call:

The feeling of wanting to leave is expressing something true. You should pay attention to it. Something may need to “leave.” But it may not be you. It may be that something in you, in the relationship, or the system needs to “leave” in order for you to be able to stay. And maybe you’re being called to stay so that you and your church can learn to let that thing go.

When he said this, I thought immediately of Mark 10, and Jesus’ encounter with “the rich young ruler.” I thought of Jesus’ invitation for the man to “leave” his wealth, so that he could stay and “have the one thing” (Mk 10.21) that he lacked: the Kingdom of God. As is well known, this was too much for the man. And so, he wound up leaving Jesus instead.

As I left that conversation, I knew these were words I would remember for a long time. They came to me, as it were, no less than as the word of God. Here’s why.

One thing I’ve had to come to terms with recently is that this “middle” stage of the pandemic has actually been the hardest one for me to cope with personally. There may be a few reasons for this. In part, we were working so hard and so fast in the early months of the pandemic that between the adrenaline fueled haze and the constant activity, there wasn’t much time to process or even to “feel” all that we were feeling. Sometime in June, I was finally able to slow down enough to let those feelings catch up with me. They hit me like a ton of bricks.

Even more than this, though, I’m realizing that this stage has been hard for another reason. In the early stage, there were constant fires to be put out. Every moment felt urgent. Yes, we were holding on for dear life. But there was always something clear we had to do. Always some crisis to address. Always some need to meet. Always some problem to solve. There was a clarity in the midst of this urgency, and also, a kind of progress. In this “middle” stage, that’s gone away. In its place, we’re now looking ahead, planning various scenarios for multiple different possibilities, and while staring down a horizon that is at best hazy, and standing on ground that is constantly shifting.

I am strategist by nature. I love to plan. I love to build. But right now, the way forward seems too hazy to plan. The ground feels too unstable to build. And so, I find myself left with a choice. On the one hand, I could try to keep juggling multiple balls in the air at once, investing untold amount of energy on a multiplicity of scenarios when only one of them (at best) might ever be put to use. On the other hand (and this is even harder than me) I could accept my limitations and the limitations of this moment. I could be patient and wait. And I could “use” (probably still the wrong word) this time for whatever else God might have in store for the waiting.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to our “Pastoral Resident” Jordan Wesley about some of these things, and said: “Maybe we just need to give up on 2020.” In her endless wisdom, Jordan said: “You probably want to find a better way to say that.” Here’s the better way to say it. What I’m finding might need to “leave” (me) is the need to always be doing something, always be accomplishing something, always be moving forward toward some imagined goal. That’s certainly unhealthy in the midst of a pandemic, but probably no more healthy in (so called) normal times. And what I’m finding I might need to learn is how slowing down, remaining open, and leaning into the ambiguity can be fertile soil in which peace, contentedness, and freedom, can grow.

Something may need to “leave.” But it may….be that something in you, in the relationship, or the system is what needs to “leave” in order for you to be able to stay. Think of a time you felt like you wanted to leave. Maybe…maybe you’re even feeling like that right now. And ask yourself: Could this be true for you, too? Could it be that what’s causing so much of that internal angst and tension is not (or not just) something happening “out there,” but something inside of you? Something you’re bringing to a relationship or a system? 

If so, then ask yourself: What might God be calling to leave you (or the relationship, or the system) that might bring health and healing to you and those around you?

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