As a pastor, knowing it’s time to move on comes with joy and sorrow – Baptist News Global

Flipping through the last page of my notes, I throw myself into the benediction with the force of a loosely hung door taken unexpectedly by a summer breeze. I try to hold the moment by putting together a series of detached sentences, but it ends more abruptly than I would have liked.

Ending abruptly. That should have been the title of my sermon this morning. How awkwardly adapted.

When the collective amen finally falls, the pianist sings the postlude while I try in vain to sound busy for 90 seconds. The waning melody floats in the air as the last ivory gets tickled. I looked around the shrine, noticing no one had moved.

Justin Cox

No mass exodus to the exits. No catch-up conversation takes place on the benches. Just a sea of ​​compassionate faces staring at me. It was the opposite of all heads bowed and all eyes closed.

Looking at the balcony, the most reliable 13 year old audio/tech person I’ve ever known makes sure the live stream is off. The temperature in the room is cool, but do I notice a cold sweat forming on the back of my neck? There’s wetness on my hands like I’ve just had the unfortunate pleasure of being the first person to find out that the paper towel dispenser came out in a public restroom. Giving them a reactionary jolt, and with what little reverence I have left of good and shaken, I take a deep breath and move on.

Of course, now many knew what was to come. The official statement had been attached to church letterhead and mailed earlier in the week, ushering in the trifecta ripple effect of walk-ins, phone calls and text messages from people concerned. The conversations were different, but they were all the same. Like the legendary Hydra of Greek lore, whose severed heads produced two more, one question only fueled another as they tried to make sense of the news I had given.

“Of course, now many knew what was coming. The official statement had been attached to church letterhead and mailed earlier in the week.

I resign as your pastor.

different questions, but all from the same source. Why?

Closely followed by, Did we do something wrong?

Don’t worry, I didn’t go into these one-on-ones unprepared. I did my research. In the weeks leading up to it, I consumed countless articles on ministerial transitions. I went so far as to confide in a few trusted peers and mentors – those who had worn those uncomfortable resignation shoes before me, and got some useful information.

I received wise advice, but I did not understand everything. My self-completed thesis still had holes in it, and while most made sense to me, I wondered if it would make sense to others. It just goes to show that you can spend an exorbitant amount of time on something only to find that it’s not always what you want once you start processing it out loud.

In my experiences, my best-laid plans often unfold more like random thoughts thrown into a blender with the pulse set full blast. The end result being that the more I press on a subject, the more complicated it becomes. This spiral continues until I finally accept my limits, channel my inner James Tiberius Kirk and willingly waltz into mine. Kobayashi Maru, a scenario without a winning outcome but which welcomes me to test my character.

This realization offers some relief, but the knot in my stomach remains as I stand in front of a group of people, knowing that my words will change the way they and I interact with each other in the future.

“Can I be both grateful and comforting? Can I be honest in my uncertainty?

My thoughts race to what I can offer them right now. Can I be both grateful and comforting? Can I be honest in my uncertainty? Can I be open in my confidence that this is the right decision? Will they see how exposed I feel, how vulnerable I am right now?

As I begin to speak, I try to go through every word carefully. I chose them for a reason, offering a glimpse into what has given me life in recent years, even in the midst of a global pandemic where I often felt like all life was leaving me. I decided not to go into too many Why question here. I have weeks ahead of me to have these one-on-one conversations. The more I talk, the more it sounds like a college breakup story: It’s not you it’s me. My leaving here has nothing to do with what you all did or didn’t do. So I make a point of not attributing this to God. People need to know that God didn’t do that to them either.

No, God is not dragging me into the Great Resignation by kicking and screaming. Nor does God grant this relocation as being filled with an inexhaustible supply of false positivity. I am not strutting around, smiling and waving empty goodbyes as I make my way to a new religious community. You won’t find this in the pages of Your best life now. Yes, God is involved. Yes, let’s agree that the Spirit is unpredictable, but if I hear another pastor cite God as the sole cause of leaving a community, my bullshit meter will eventually break and abandon his Holy Spirit.

Listen, I’d love to poetically tell how God whispered in my ear during a morning devotional that it was time to go, but it wasn’t. I wish I could share a vision I had that made all of this clear. I want to tell the faces looking at me this morning that I received an irrefutable sign waking me from my slumber, but I can’t — because my faith and my calling have never been so simple.

Unlike Charleston Heston, God did not turn my hair white and grant me a direct path forward. My spiritual journey is riddled with fewer promised lands and more bogs of eternal stench. I grew up a lot in those bogged down, dark places. I learned a few survival tips here and there, but they came at the cost of scars. Scarring is what leaving a place and its inhabitants does to a minister. It’s not a question of whether it’s going to hurt but how much lameness you’re going to have afterwards.

“Scarring is what leaving a place and its people does to a minister. It’s not a question of whether it will hurt but how much lameness you will have afterwards.

No, it was less Damascus Road and more of a slow burn of revelation unpacking a rabbit hole-like series of questions, nudging me to attend to practicality. Would this potential community be open to my family’s unique background, culture and traditions? Will my family be receptive to those we go to? Will my family find their own opportunities and relationships? And perhaps most uncomfortable to discuss, will I be compensated fairly?

Unfortunately, openly spreading the pragmatic in ministry circles is more preachy than sexy. This must change. A real conversation must take place. I’m scratching the surface here, but you get the point. Deciding to leave a place and start another “call” is not neat. There are a lot of moving parts. I want to own this fact.

With the measured divine nudge and justification weighed, there are other times you know it’s over. You feel your time in one place is coming to an end. Feeling this boost a few months ago, I pulled out the cover letter I sent to this congregation years ago. The person who wrote it was no longer me. I changed. My family dynamic has changed. My sense of calling has changed. Staying would be comfortable, but it wouldn’t be comforting for either party.

“Staying would be comfortable, but it wouldn’t be comforting for either party.”

Much of this came out of many late night conversations between my wife and me. We made room for heartfelt discussions about what matters to us and where we see ourselves in the future. Sharing some things we’ve struggled with over the past few years, we found out that we weren’t Wendell and Tanya Berry (damn, that confession kinda hurts). We wanted, for now, to be in a more populated area.

While it may seem small and superficial, deciding to have Thai or Greek takeout on a random Tuesday night is meaningful as it represents a level of diversity that we have been missing. Aside from the delights of baklava and khao soi, other concerns were more genuine and spoke to the stage of our lives with young children: how quickly can we get to a reputable hospital if we need medical care ?

Three years ago, none of this was on the radar, but being in a very rural setting allowed us to name our need for the kind of closeness we wanted. Conversations leaving us somewhere between takeout and accessible healthcare helped us determine this new calling. We’ve seen it offer us a chance to thrive in a place and not just feel like we’re sustainable.

Behind the pulpit, I’m almost done. Thank you very much for the privilege of being your pastor, your neighbor and being part of this family. We will always be connected with you. I say these words, and I mean them. My sentimentality is in overdrive now.

I am prepared for this part but not ready for the gratitude and kindness that overwhelms me from those present. Is this what it means to be baptized in the Spirit? The Spirit is overwhelming you with love and appreciation? Wash yourself with genuine affection? Plunge into debt, the kind of thing you can’t repay but can only hope to pass on?

I want to keep this scene in my head for one of those days when I wonder if it’s worth it. I wonder if my new community will know how much the previous one will offer them.

Part of my “calling” is to make sure they do.

Justin Cox has served as Senior Pastor of the United Church of Lincoln Vermont since 2019. He received his theological training from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at the McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, baking and home gardening, Justin spends most of his time with his wife, Lauren, and their two daughters. He will begin his term as senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Ct., in September 2022. His ramblings can be read at blacksheepbaptist.com.

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