Plus, in my time with the congregation, we accomplished many things together. We engaged in various styles of worship, explored different ways of preaching, developed online ministries, integrated artistic expressions of faith in the sanctuary, incorporated a kids' corner in the sanctuary, wrote/sang new songs, integrated new technology into worship, redeveloped adult education, reached out to the community through local media, hosted the Marriage Equality Bus at the church, assisted Christian members of CORC in the organization of an ecumenical event that featured author Brian McLaren, etc. All of these things were a true blessing.
But things were complicated. There were also some very unhealthy dynamics that made my leadership difficult. I will list three of the dynamics below.
First, there was an “inside group” (5%-10% of the church) and an “outside group” (90-95% of the church). The inside group had more power and sway than the outside group. The inside group also seemed more cliquey, unsupportive of pastoral leadership, and resistant to change. Conversely, it seemed that the outside group was less powerful, more collaborative, more supportive of pastoral leadership, more willing to explore change, and more active in worship and adult education. The longer I stayed, the more it felt like the church could potentially split along the “insider” / ”outsider” lines – especially if I chose to address what I saw as the underlying challenges.
Second, I sensed that the “inside group” thought they had “hired a chaplain” more than “called a pastor.” By this I mean it felt like the inside group thought they had hired me to do a job – and to do that job in exactly the way they wanted me to do it. When I attempted to engage in leadership that was outside their preconceived expectations or plans for the church, it felt like there was resistance and a sense that I wasn’t “doing my job” correctly. Instead of a spiritual leadership position, it felt more like I was expected to perform the duties of an employee of a business.
Third, I felt substantial negative energy from three lay-leaders of the church. This negativity got worse over time. When I noticed the negativity getting more intense, I invited these folks into one-on-one discussions. My goal was to initiate civil, preventative dialogue. However, all three of these individuals refused to meet with me. The refusal of a congregant to meet with their pastor was a red flag for me. But that was just the beginning. The negative energy got expressed through behaviors that I would describe in the following ways: undermining, triangulated, passive-aggressive, antagonistic, and, at its worst, bullying. The level of negativity and conflict that I experienced in this position was more intense than in any job/position I have ever held. There were verbal attacks against me - including one that was in ear-shot of my wife. There were nasty things said about my predecessors. There were comments that compared my physical appearance to those of one of my predecessors. There were undermining and/or triangulated e-mails sent. There were examples of anonymous criticism offered as blanket “we”-statements. There were valid concerns brought up in outrageous ways. There were attempts to triangulate my wife and me against each other. There were distortions of events told as if they were factual. There were occasions where hypersensitivity got expressed through verbal outbursts. There were plans to try to stay on Church Council past the allowed term - and when this failed there were attempts to get on the Pastor Parish Relations Committee. The list could go on and on. It was not a healthy situation.
In the end, I chose to resign in part because of the stress that these dynamics were causing to myself and my family. I knew it was time to quit when my pregnant wife said, “This isn’t just painful for you and me - it’s also painful for our baby.” Knowing that a baby’s development is deeply impacted during the nine months of pregnancy, it was clear that we didn’t want our baby exposed to any more of our stress. If it were just my wife and me experiencing these stressful dynamics, we could handle it. There are many great resources, support groups, and helpful colleagues for couples like us in ministry. But those things don’t exist for a fetus!
Everything changed for us when our developing baby was introduced into the mix. We wanted him to be as happy and healthy as possible during his development. And that included our own happiness and health. So I resigned as the pastor and my wife resigned as the music director. With our newly found free time, we have committed ourselves to eating healthier, exercising more frequently, and spending more quality time together as a couple. We’re nesting. And that feels like the best thing we could be doing with our time and energy right now.
While we need to work on being good parents, this congregation will need to work on its unhealthy dynamics. As a first-call pastor, I didn’t feel adequately equipped to help the congregation address these dynamics. There are skills that a more experienced pastor would have in a more developed way than I have as a first-call pastor. Therefore I decided to step aside in order to allow a different pastor to walk through this journey with them. I hope their new pastor will lead them into a vibrant future. There are some really wonderful people at this church - and the congregation deserves nothing but the best.
For now, we need to focus on being good parents. And continuing our work in special education classrooms of the local public school district. And finishing our first album. And helping with the Brian McLaren event in Iowa City. And cleaning our house (the perennial task of life). It seems like we have plenty of things to do!