“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
– Genesis 32:22-28
I should have called this an ex-pastor in the pew but this doesn’t have the same ring to it really.
Between church ministry, seminary and pastoring I spend almost 10 years in ministry leadership. Much of that time was spent as a pastor in Toronto and in Manitoba.
During that time I spent most of a Sunday morning leading ministries or preaching. I taught senior and junior youth, I led adult Sunday school classes, I assisted in planning upcoming services with the ministry team, I preached and attended to various other duties.
On occassion I sat dutifully in the pew with my family and the rest of the 300ish congregants listening to our senior pastor, one of my peer associate pastors or guest speakers consuming and ruminating on the Word as it was presented.
Almost ten years ago I left vocational ministry in a cloud of divorce and scandal, and, save for the odd funeral, wedding and guest ministry, have not really looked back.
In the span of time since I left ministry I can count on two hands the number of times I have been back in the pew as a congregant.
It is difficult to explain why this is such a struggle for me. When asked, I explain in various and roundabout ways why I am no longer a regular attendee. I tell people I am “in the desert” and I don’t know how long this will last. I explain that attending church in my small town simply makes people around me uncomfortable given the circumstances of my departure from ministry, etc. etc.
I have been back on occassion. I have sought out Anglican, Catholic, evangelical, United and other styles of worship service over the years and nothing sticks.
I am the worst type of person to have in the pew – a critic. I sit and I listen and I judge the entire time.
“Why these songs? Why have they not updated the sanctuary to post 1970s decor? What was s/he thinking with that sermon illustration“, and on it goes. My worship is selfish and me-focused.
I miss being the centre of attention.
It is hard to admit these things. There was a deep and genuine effort to act as a conduit for the congregation to experience God when I was in ministry. My ministry was prayerful and as authentic as I could make it.
Now all I can think about in a church is how I would do it differently. In reality now, nothing distracts me more from God than being amidst a congregation in a church.
I was a person with a deep theology of community and now, I cannot find a way to connect to one in a meaningful, genuine fashion. What would Bonhoeffer say about this I wonder? He would probably admonish my selfishness and tell me to find service somehow. “Look for the work God is doing in and around you and stop looking at yourself so much“.
What do I miss? Do I miss the people? No not really – an introvert at heart, I would often avoid contact with people after services prefering to connect with people outside of the church walls…prefering the company of the unchurched, frankly.
I think the real challenge is that I used ministry as my way to worship God. I used it as my primary form of connection…I deisgned worship services I needed. I preached to a congregation of one – me. I quoted scripture necessary for my growth…and if others were lifted up in this so much the better.
I do not miss church. I chafed at the idea that God was there, in that place, at that time, in that way, with those people, on that particular day.
I struggled with being paid to do what felt necessary from a faith perspective, but that did not stop me from cashing my cheque. I hated that my office was also my ivory tower where I could hide from the world when necessary. I despised the hoops we would put the desparate through when they stopped into the church for money. We did it in the name of being responsible stewards and to avoid enabling…but we did it nonetheless.
Perhaps, in the end, I was never right for the role of pastor.
I am far, far more content now with faith and life then I ever was in ministry. I feel far freer to get dirty with my faith than when I was a pastor constrained by the image of what a pastor should be, how they should talk, and the height of the pedestal they should be on. I can have honest conversations about taboo subjects like homosexuality, abortion, the age of the earth and so on with out fear of an inquisition.
So this is where I am at now in the journey…not in the pack but somewhere off to the side, in the distance, following but not too closely. If this is a selfish faith I am ok with that. If I am grasping after cheap grace than that too will do.
I am who I am – the single most most unsatisfying response ever to the question put from the other whilest on the isolated and cold, wind-swept mountain top, but I like it. It makes me smile.