Dear Church Family,
This is my last letter to you. That makes me sad. I have loved serving here—loved the people, the sanctuary and building, and loved the Spirit as it has moved through you in this amazing time of healing, renewal and change. I wish I could spend many more years with you, but that has never been a possibility since I signed the pledge in my initial covenant promising that I would not seek to be your settled pastor. I have stayed almost three years, which is a year longer than I thought I would, and I am so grateful for that extra time! I came to do the job of an interim, and part of that job is to leave before our hearts would have me leave.
Another part of the job is to send you off into the future along the path that we have discerned together, the path that leads to what God is calling you to be and do. I think of the scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when Gandalf has led Bilbo and the Dwarves to the edge of the dark forest of Mirkwood. They are standing where the path enters that unknown future of opportunity and danger, the path they know they need to take to fulfill their purpose in life. They are distressed that Gandalf is not traveling it with them. They hear him call his final wisdom as he rides off: “Don’t leave the path!”
My most important message to you is, “Don’t leave the path!” Don’t leave the path of your Identity and Aspiration Statement. Don’t leave the path of your Healthy Communication Guidelines and Manual. Don’t leave the path of your Open and Affirming Covenant. Don’t leave the path of your general Covenant. Stay on the path described by those four maps, and keep returning to them on a regular basis to keep their vision fresh in your minds and in the minds of those who join you along the way. Ask yourselves regularly how you are doing at following them. Read the Communication Guidelines at the start of every committee, Board and Council meeting and spend five minutes talking about it.
Don’t leave that path, please! It is the Spirit’s path through the wilderness. It is Christ’s way that he is calling you to follow. It is the path you yourselves identified and elected to follow.
My number two message is, do not despair when the path proves hard to follow. Bilbo and the dwarves did well until they despaired. Even when their doubt made them stray, though, they still came back around to their path. You may stray, but if you turn yourself back to those roadmaps, it will come out all right, whatever trouble or delay may result. Despair is the only thing that can keep you from returning to the path, so keep the faith! Pray! Live by metanoia! Turn your heart, mind, soul and steps back to the sacred way in each moment, and trust that the Spirit will respond to your openness by leading and empowering you, as your covenant says.
Please keep in mind that you are strong as a congregation. You have an exceptional group of lay leaders with experience in every aspect of church life and mission. You have been through hard times and gained wisdom and strength by working through them in a healthy, open-minded way. You have a beautiful, well-maintained building and you have some money in the bank. You have children and young families! You have scriptures, music and traditions to help guide and uphold you. You are strong! Plenty strong for what the journey ahead will require.
You also have proven that you are able to change and come through change as a closer, more beloved community. This was one of your biggest concerns when I arrived—recent changes or attempts to change had torn you apart three years ago, and yet you recognized that change is inescapable. Christ calls the church to serve the world that exists, not the world of the past. Society is changing at a dizzying pace. A church must be able to change in order to follow Christ effectively and thrive. You have transformed your way of going through the challenges and disagreements that change can stir up. You can face whatever comes now with confidence in your skills of healthy communication and beloved community.
You also have proven that you can forgive and heal. These are essential because we are not perfect, and we are not all the same, and there are bound to be rough edges that sometimes cause pain. Beloved community requires being able to patch up mistakes or broken relationships. I have been deeply moved to see people reaching across old divides with lovingkindness.
The biggest area where I have a concern is in the way you relate day to day to one another and to people who are new and to people who are outside the church. I have seen new people and even established participants in the church who were left standing or sitting alone before, during and after worship. I have heard the “ouch” when people have felt they were treated carelessly or inconsiderately by church members. As a Deacon pointed out recently, your feeling that you are as friendly and welcoming as you can be actually holds you back from being as friendly and welcoming as you need to be in order to grow in numbers.
The solutions to this are simple. They are first, to be mindful of every person as someone in need of your lovingkindness, especially those who seem different or alone or neglected, and second, to be careful in every single interaction you have with anyone anywhere.
The Communication Guidelines say among other things, “I will…
• Pray for guidance, patience and understanding before all interactions, communication, or meetings.
• Carefully consider the impact of my words, in oral, written, or electronic form.
We need to remember that every interaction and communication with another person is an opportunity to do ministry. We bear witness to a God who is love when we treat others lovingly. It is not enough that the sanctuary and music are beautiful, and it doesn’t matter how dynamic your pastor is, people need to feel loved and cared for and safe, they need to pick up on the positivity of the church culture in order to stay.
This is a challenge for congregations, so the UCC has developed materials to help. Here is one set: https://www.uccresources.com/products/extravagant-welcome?variant=1133881332 I hope you will take steps like these to make your every interaction more extravagantly loving and positive inside and outside of the church.
Related to this is the need to accommodate people who do not live up to what you consider to be proper church behavior, whether children or adults. There is a great story in the UCC resources about an unruly, shaggy young man in torn, dirty clothes who came into a large, conservative church in the middle of a service one Sunday. He walked forward trying to find a place to sit, but no one made room for him. Finally, he reached the front and plopped down right in the aisle in front of the pulpit.
The pastor kept talking nervously but the parishioners were distracted and tense. Then one of the ushers, a man in his 80s who was dressed in a suit and walked with a cane, came down the aisle. Everyone felt relieved that he would escort the young man out and they could turn their attention back to worship. But when the old man reached the front he dropped his cane and very carefully lowered himself down and sat with the young man in the middle of the aisle.
We all have our buttons pushed by different types of behavior, appearances or opinions. Jesus does not care—he calls us to do what he did no matter how we feel about the other person. He reached across every barrier, he welcomed, ate with and touched outcasts who made him unpopular or impure. Our task is not to change others to be like us or to force ourselves to like people who push our buttons. Our task is to find a way to treat them with love as they are. God is love, and love is a transformational force. Trust that if the person needs to change, God will work through our unconditional love to accomplish that change. The only change you need to worry about is that your heart be transformed into Christ’s. Do that and everything else will take care of itself!
The Deacons asked me to reflect on what was good about this time together versus what was hard about it. I think our best times were our hardest ones. It was hard learning and talking together about forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. It was hard working slowly and deliberately to discern what became our Identity and Aspiration Statement. It was hard admitting that we did not know everything about healthy communication and beloved community and had suffered from unhealthy patterns. It was hard learning how to communicate differently and go around the circle carefully listening and speaking in turn. It was hard facing our prejudices, fears and differences in the Open and Affirming process. It was hard becoming O&A knowing that several people in the congregation were opposed to it. Yet every one of those hard times was as meaningful and moving as anything I have ever seen happen in a church.
So I hope you will continue to choose to do hard things, knowing they will probably end up being among the best things, if you do them with the same healthy, loving approach. I hope you will take risks for Christ. I hope you will let the Holy Spirit drive you as it drove him. Dare greatly!
You are an extraordinary group of people with extraordinary gifts, and this is an extraordinarily challenging time that needs everything you can give.
I will be watching from not far away, eager to see where you go from here!
Thank you so much for all you have given me. It has been such an honor to serve you.
Peace, joy and love,