It started with me helping to lead worship for a Sunday morning service at my church - a common enough occurrence since I've served on worship team for several years. I noted that the team on the platform seemed a bit bigger than normal - we had four or five singers instead of our usual three - but I also "knew" (as one knows things in dreams) that several other team members had recently stopped serving, recognition of which saddened me as the music started.
We sang through the first song as usual. But then a large group of people - several dozen - suddenly got up from their seats and made their way to the platform. They walked between those of us on the team, some acknowledging us with a nod of the head but others just looking forward and marching on. One man smiled at me weakly - a smile of genuine kindness laced with sadness - and laid his hand on my shoulder before going on with the rest. And at that point I realized they were headed to an exit at the back of the platform; all those people were leaving our church. Part of me wanted to follow them...but I knew in my gut I had to stay.
The tragedy is that the dream symbolized what has happened in my church over the last nine months.
You may recall that I mentioned something about this back in October and then again in January. I didn't say much then about what had actually occurred because the turn of events that precipitated everything was initially so confusing and because I felt I first had to see how things would resolve. Now, though, all the major consequences have likely played themselves out, so I can at least relate the facts as I know them:
- One day last October, two of our associate pastors were fired by the senior pastor for "insubordination." The decision was upheld by the elders;
- To protest the terminations, two long-term secretaries quit on the spot;
- The congregation was informed via letter the next day. The news caused such an upheaval that an emergency congregational meeting was called for the very next Sunday, just days after the letter had gone out;
- The tense, emotional meeting lasted for over three hours. Each pastor briefly spoke, as did the secretaries. Many members and attenders voiced their opinions as well. At one point in the meeting, the senior pastor issued his resignation, which he later rescinded. The meeting ended with the elders' decision to place the associates on administrative leave until a team from our denomination could come in, evaluate the larger situation, and make recommendations;
- The senior pastor and his wife, who served as our Christian education director, were not placed on leave. He was allowed to continue preaching through the fall and into January;
- Several families left the church shortly after the October meeting, heartbroken and confused;
- The mediation team - consisting of a district supervisor and both a vice president and the president of the denomination - made regular trips to our city and launched an investigation. They interviewed everyone on staff, as well as most former members of the pastoral staff, including the worship pastor who'd unexpectedly been relieved of his duties in July, 2011, just a year after taking the job, and my husband, who'd served as youth pastor several years earlier;
- In early January, our one remaining associate pastor - an ally of the senior pastor - announced that he'd taken a new job and would be leaving by the end of the month;
- On January 15, we had another congregational meeting to hear the denominational team's findings and recommendations. At the start of the meeting, the elders stood and collectively apologized for their failure to lead properly, acknowledging that their weakness had enabled dysfunction among paid staff to continue for years. Then the vice president explained that, with reluctance, the team recommended that neither associate be rehired. But they also recommended that the senior pastor be immediately relieved of his duties. The associates were not absolved of their responsibility for the tension that led to the firings, but the team acknowledged that primary responsibility for the problems fell on the shoulders of the senior pastor, who had, in fact, demonstrated a pattern of spiritual abuse toward most of the pastoral staff (including my husband) for about 10 years. So, with that, we went from having a pastoral staff of seven in July, 2011, to having just our youth pastor - a godly but very young man - in January, 2012;
- Many more families left, unhappy that the associates were not rehired. A couple other families may have left to protest the senior pastor's termination. My husband and I agreed with the decision about the senior pastor; in fact, we knew we wouldn't have been able to stay if he'd been retained. We hurt terribly for the associate pastors and didn't fully understand why they couldn't be brought back, but we felt called by the Lord to stay at the church anyway;
- In February, two "intentional interim pastors" recommended by the denomination began working with us on a process of healing. They are good men, and have done yeomen's work on many levels. Their ultimate goal is to help the church reach a point of health that will enable us to confidently call a new senior pastor;
- The elders held a series of home meetings to try opening lines of communication with hurting members. At one meeting, a number of families made it clear that they'd be leaving the church as soon as the two associates' severance packages were fulfilled in mid-May. The elders hoped to change their minds, but they were unsuccessful in most cases;
- The elders also offered meetings with and help for all three terminated pastors. The senior pastor refused everything. Meetings with one associate went well, but were more difficult with the other;
- The denominational team had recommended that we bring on more elders. Thus, after an extensive, retooled nomination process, we held a new election. All four previous elders put their names up for election again, though our by-laws didn't require that, and four new men joined them on the ballot. One previous elder did not earn enough votes, but the remaining seven men did. The interim pastors began working to "retrain" the elders since they'd been misled by the former senior pastor about elder responsibilities;
- In mid-May, just before the associates' severance packages were up, the elders announced that one associate, Doug, would, in fact, be rehired, effective immediately. At the same time, they communicated that, because they felt the circumstances with the other associate, Dan, were markedly different, he would not be invited back;
- Several families - the ones who'd previously said they'd go and a few others - left between mid-May and mid-July;
- After contemplating his next steps for months, Dan opted to plant a new church in our city, giving up his ordination with the denomination to do so. Most of the families that left between January and July began attending his church, which had its first formal service at the beginning of July;
- The secretaries never came back to their jobs. At least one has left the church and is attending Dan's church;
- The former senior pastor has made himself very scarce, despite living in the same suburb as many in the congregation. His home is up for sale, though no one knows what he'll do next;
- Before October, our two Sunday morning services were bursting at the seams, and a decent number of folks attended our Saturday night service. The Saturday service is now very sparse, and attendance on Sunday mornings is noticeably down. We've apparently gained new attenders since October, but things don't look or feel the same as they were.
It wasn't hard for me to interpret my dream. Dan was the man who smiled kindly at me on the platform as he was leaving for good - I actually saw clearly that it was him - and all the other people were those who've mostly gone with him, including one of my best friends and her family and several other families who'd been at the church "forever," many of whom I've looked to as spiritual leaders and mentors. Dan and my husband are good friends, and he is a gifted man of God, so I'm not surprised that I'd see him as I did in the dream. And I wanted to go with the group because of my relationships with and respect for Dan and many of the others.
In fact, I don't really understand why God is asking my family to stay...but He is. In many ways, it'd be so much easier to go. If we left, we'd go to Dan's church - there is no other church in town to which we're drawn - and we'd be warmly welcomed by everyone there. We'd quickly "plug in," finding many ways in which our gifts could be used. And, since we've never been explicitly told why Dan couldn't come back to the original church - the elders have only said there are "reasons" it wouldn't work - we could even stand on the knowledge that we were, perhaps, on the side of justice.
All of which isn't to say I'm unhappy in the original church. In fact, I felt a great deal of peace - not perfect peace, but lots of it - when Doug was rehired. That indicated to me the elders' willingness to humble themselves, and - difficult as it is - I felt strongly that I should take it on faith that there really is a reason Dan can't come back. Of course, faith feels admittedly rather hellish in this case, but it's where my reluctant conviction stands for now.
We are also very well connected in the church, having been there 13 years this month. And, despite what was going on behind the scenes, the teaching from the pulpit has always been biblical, and it remains so under the leadership of the interims. We have good friends who remain, and we are both able to use our gifts and talents to serve the body. In fact, my husband is convinced that he really wants to and can be part of the solution. I'm unsure of my role in that process, but I know my consistent service on the worship team ministers to folks. And I'm desperate for the church to be healthy, so maybe my presence and my prayers are what I'm supposed to offer.
But I still feel an acute sadness when I'm at church and when I think about those who are no longer there. I feel as if our body has undergone radical amputations, and I wonder if my angst is similar to the "phantom pain" experienced by those who've lost a physical limb. I wrestle with anger towards the former senior pastor, whose behavior and choices over the years ultimately led to this mess, even though he felt like an older brother to me for much of our tenure at the church. On the other hand, I worry about his emotional health. Then again, I feel like an idiot for trusting him when I feel I should have "known better." And I waver between wanting to trust the elders on the one hand and wanting to throw up my hands and walk away on the other.
All of us who were with the original church have walked through these last nine months in a bit of a daze, I think. I don't believe we'll be faced with any new, troubling revelations, though, so, whether we've stayed or moved on, our "new normal" is set for now, and all we can do is continue to walk as the Lord reveals each one's path. My greatest desire in terms of the relationships is that we'll all remember that we're brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we now worship Him in different places on Sunday mornings. I couldn't bear to discover that those who've stayed are judging those who left...or that those who've left have disdain for those who remain.
And, on one level, I am very glad that everything exploded; the alternative was for the church to die a slow death from a "cancer" of discord and deceit amongst staff members that we laypeople didn't even know existed. So I do trust that God will bring ultimate good from this - and will somehow bring glory to His name through it. But for now the feelings I had in the dream - sadness, confusion, and uncertainty - are still my reality. Maybe things will be better nine months down the road.
Photo Credit: casadakini