Picking up the pieces …

May 14, 2008 by
Filed under: Religion 

It’s been a while since I posted something on my intentions regarding my congregation.

There’s a reason for that.  My employer (after we were told it wouldn’t happen) laid off a number of people last week (not me).  Then we got news that the company is being delisted from the NYSE.  It’s been a rollercoaster ride.

So here’s where I am.

This experience, and the reaction to it (some of which isn’t written here), have seriously damaged my self-confidence as it relates to this congregation.  I find myself walking on eggshells, and needing reassurance for things that aren’t even likely to be a problem.  On the other side of the coin, there have been several recent events where things went well, even VERY well, and I had a big part in pulling them off (very big for one, about average sized contribution for the others).

At the same time I’ve had bad news in other parts of my life, notably work (plus a few deaths and wake to attend for family of co-workers and such).

Please note that I didn’t say “damaged my faith”.  I’m making a distinction between my faith and my opinion of the congregation and organized religion in general.

It’s the time of year where the church asks folks to serve as an officer or on a committee.  I haven’t gotten an letter yet asking about either, so I have to assume that the church has decided not to ask me – either as a result of this incident or because I’m already busy enough.  I’m pretty sure they’re up to the C list by now, so if they haven’t asked yet they probably won’t.

I’ve also found myself censoring what I write on this blog.  That’s a big problem for me.  As I have written, some of my most important core values are honesty, openness and authenticity.  When my pastor asked me, “Is there anybody that you run your blog posts by before you post them?” it hit me hard.  Most of you agree that I may have a been a little too open and have said one thing out of frustration that you wouldn’t have said, but that it’s my blog and that I’m being careful enough by leaving out names.  I’m struggling with whether I can be myself in this congregation.  One of the things that I love most about Camp Johnsonburg is that you truly can be yourself – warts and all – and you will be accepted (and even loved).  Some folks have rougher edges than others, and it IS possible to get too far outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior for camp, but for the most part it’s a place where 90% of the folks who come there feel at home.  I expect that from the local congregation too – after all, isn’t that what we’re called to do?  I realize that this may be an unrealistic expectation, even if it is a valid expectation.

All of this is complicated by the fact that I’m co-chairing a committee whose job is to figure out how well the church is doing at welcoming people and making them feel at home.  That process is starting to identify some common strains that line up fairly well with what I’m experiencing  (or alternately, I’m identifying what look like patterns to me as I look through the lens of my experience).  In other words, the actions and events and feelings that are distancing me to some extent from the congregation are exactly what the committee is supposed to identify – and even more, to propose solutions to fix them.   It’s a little like recovering from surgery and being expected to come up with ways to prevent your illness/disease in the first place, while you’re recovering your strength.
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It would be nice to be able to pull back for a bit and let others take up the slack.  Unfortunately, events are conspiring to make that difficult.  My committee co-chair is in the middle of a medium to long-term family emergency, and is unable to take up the slack.  The pastor is the other member of the leadership of that task force, but his time is already split 50 ways and it’s not really fair to ask him to take up the slack either.  So it falls to me.  Supposedly God has a plan for everything – I hope the end result of this situation is a really good one because it’s a bit much now with two of us in the throes of issues (hers much bigger than mine).  The one area where things are winding down is youth group – we’re transitioning from school-year mode to summer and summer trip mode which is a smaller time commitment.

Last night the Youth and Young Adult Council met.  Before that meeting I had a private meeting/dinner with the Youth Director.  I actually feel much better about the church after those two meetings.

So here’s the plan for today and the near future.

A month ago or so I wrote that I want to either get more involved or less involved in the fall.  This experience and the lack of any invitation from the leadership to get more involved have decided that question with an answer of less involved.  I also need to retrench and take some time to lick my wounds.  The committee that I’m co-chairing completes its work in January.  My word and my commitments are very important to me, so there is no question about me completing the committee work.  I still LOVE working with the Youth Group, and I’m looking forward to the trip to Montreat this summer (with a little apprehension, but that’s just “I haven’t done anything like this for 20 years”).  So at this point the plan is to finish my committee work and drop back to just doing youth stuff (probably including Confirmation).  That’s where I fit the best anyway of the places where I have been invited to take part.

This is all subject to change – this plan isn’t remotely etched in stone.  This is just what the plan is today.

It’s a little sad because I know that I have more energy and skills that I could put to use for this congregation.

I also could put that energy and skill into things beyond the local congregation (witness the Moderator Candidate event) but for one thing – the PC(USA) polity doesn’t really know what to do with somebody who has an affinity for the polity but who isn’t an elder.

At this point, I have no plans to leave the congregation.  I’ll just fade back into the anonymous mass of members.


8 Comments on Picking up the pieces …

  1. Alan on Wed, 14th May 2008 5:11 pm
  2. When you wrote about that experience, I guess I’m just not sensitive enough to see what the whole problem was. Too open? Frankly I’ve reread those posts and still don’t know what they were about exactly.

    And if my Pastor asked me “Is there anybody that you run your blog posts by before you post them?” Well, he wouldn’t ask me because he would know that it isn’t any of his business. But if he did lack the manners to realize that, I think he’d expect that I’d let him know that politely, but rather directly. Maybe it’s easier in a small church where we all know each other.

    I don’t blame you for pulling back. Walking on eggshells is only slightly more fun than walking on broken glass. However, having said that, remember your membership vow: “Will you be an faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service, and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?” If you can’t serve there, then maybe there isn’t where you should be.

  3. Jon on Fri, 16th May 2008 11:53 pm
  4. Mark, I am very grateful for the leadership you have shown. In a real way, I believe that you have become one of the most irenic public voices of leadership in the PCUSA, and I appreciate your willingness to talk to everyone at all times. I value seeing your input in a variety of contexts and I think that the moderator event was a model for what our denomination needs (connectional in-person ministry augmented by on-lines community and organization). Everyone I know appreciated it and I think it will have an impact on the spirit and ministry of the church this summer.

    I don’t know your pastor very well, but I can speak as a pastors’ kid and a minister myself. I think that sometimes we are very sensitive to any criticism, even if it phrased cautiously or sympathetically. You and I have talked or e-mailed briefly about two of the most challenging areas involved here: money and membership. These are both areas that are extremely challenging to work in, for which ministers receive little training, and where committees often do an exceptionally bad job (and over which the minister may have no control).

    Ministers also often feel that they have a 100 bosses (or in your church’s case, a 1000), and they often don’t take criticism well. My hunch is that the pastor was just asking you to tread carefully with criticism, to bring it to him before posting it on the web. I haven’t found any of your posts to be offensive, but I could see how criticisms about the stewardship campaign or other topics would be a little irritating to him or her. For many of us, money hits at our deepest anxieties, our family histories, and our fears about the future. The gospel certainly has something to say about this, but it isn’t always easy to say or hear. As I said, I’ve never had a stewardship campaign that I liked.

    I do feel that you have enormous gifts for leadership. Maybe you could talk to your pastor or clerk of session and describe where you feel called and ask for their guidance on where the church’s need is. You might also consider involvement at the presbytery level (you’re still an ordained elder, right?) or in another place. And don’t undervalue your youth ministry: this is also a ministry that is of the utmost experience, that scares the hell out of most adults, and that is chronically overlooked.

    I also think we all have seasons of discernment, so if you decide you want to be less involved this may be a good time for some internal focus, either working on your prayer life, service, time in worship or something else. I find that I cycle through different types of ministry. It does sound like it’s been an unusually stressful time, and this may also be a time to ministery to your (ex) coworkers. I hope things are going well. I want to say again how grateful I am to you for your work and I hope that you continue to grow and lead in the church.

  5. Mark on Sat, 17th May 2008 8:08 am
  6. Jon,

    I guess you missed this sentence:

    “I also could put that energy and skill into things beyond the local congregation (witness the Moderator Candidate event) but for one thing – the PC(USA) polity doesn’t really know what to do with somebody who has an affinity for the polity but who isn’t an elder.”

    No, I have never been an elder. I did serve as a deacon 20 years ago, and served at the youth member of Synod Mission Council and a YAD to Synod. That experience has allowed me to seem to be an elder based on my demonstrated knowledge and experience. But no, I don’t have that actual experience or the required stamp in my passport in order to serve at the presbytery level or above.

    Thank you for your kind words.

  7. Jon on Sat, 17th May 2008 2:30 pm
  8. I forgot. You were a youth deacon, right? Hmmmm… Well, I think there are several ways to go about this. If you are sure you want to be an elder, and soon, I would let the nominating committee chair know you feel called to this. That seems like step one. Who on session handles the areas in which you’ve worked (youth, membership)? How is the session doing in terms of balance (age, gender, etc.)?

    I would also think about what your longterm ministry looks like. Do you see yourself still working with youth in 1, 5, or 10 years? Are you still committed to outreach / new member / stewardship work, even if you are stuck with a lot of the work? How would these responsibilities square with session and presbytery responsibilities? Where does your church need you most and where do your gifts lie?

    Summer is a good time to explore things. I think you could be a good session member, but I also take our offices pretty seriously. I never cycled through deacon/ elder/ minister like most of my friends did. Similarly, my wife clearly is best suited for session-type responsibilities, and probably not for the diaconate. I think part of why you are appreciated is that you are willing to serve (the job of a deacon) outside the limelight, and to struggle in those areas that are especially challenging.

  9. John Erthein on Sat, 17th May 2008 9:21 pm
  10. Dear Mark,

    I don’t know the whole situation between you and the congregation (or you and your pastor) but you’ve always struck me as expressing yourself more civilly than most people with blogs, whether on the left or the right. I don’t know why there should be a problem. At least I’ve never noticed one, for what it’s worth.



  11. Mark on Mon, 19th May 2008 2:24 pm
  12. I feel compelled to clear up something.

    My pastor and I are getting along fine, as far as I can tell. We’re not in 100% agreement on the whole blogging thing and it has caused both of us some travail, but really – things are fine. We even have a Project Open Door meeting tonight.

  13. Jim Loughlin on Fri, 30th May 2008 2:02 pm
  14. Mark –

    I understand what you are going through work-wise. I went down the same path (layoffs, de-list, bankruptcy, layoffs, sale, layoffs, sale again, more layoffs, etc.) in the telecom meltdown. Not a fun 6 years (I survived by the grace of God – I also found another job by the grace of God). Anyway, from personal experience, it may be better that you are not currently being asked to work on additional efforts for now. The corporate meltdown thing is very draining and emotionally taxing – even when I thought it was not (my wife knew better!). I am not definitely saying that less for you is better at this time, but consider the possibility that it is. You may be faced with a job search which can have significant ramifications, not the least of which is your time and energy. I hope all goes well with you in your work and church endeavors and remember that God is in control (I knowit sounds trite, but it really is significant).

    […] sounds like Bruce has more or less the same view of blogging that I do.  Compare this to what I wrote a while back (after a very different emotional experience than Bruce’s): As I have written, some of my […]

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