Back in March, I received a call (an official job offer in our church body) from Peace Lutheran Ministries of Saginaw, Michigan, to serve as their Lead Pastor. At the time, I was happily and comfortably serving the wonderful people of Community Lutheran Church in Flat Rock, also in Michigan, as their Administrative (and sole) Pastor. I wasn’t looking to leave. But after four exhausting weeks of prayer, thought, conversation and more prayer, I, together with my wife and children, decided that this call was part of God’s direction on our lives, so we accepted the call to Peace. Although it was good and right, it was also the most difficult decision I have ever had to make, and I thought I would tell you a bit about the process…
To say the people of Community were family would be an understatement. Fresh out of seminary to my first call eight years ago, Community welcomed us in and wrapped loving arms around us. This, in spite of the fact that I was the guy who was tapped to replace the only Administrative Pastor that church had ever known: the man who had founded the congregation over 30 years earlier. I have known men placed in similar positions, and it has been disastrous for them. Although it did not turn out the way any of us at Community planned or hoped, it was far from disastrous, and we did incredible ministry together for these past eight years.
There were challenges, for sure, but the vast majority of the people became our church family. They surrounded us when our son, Daniel, died. They supported me when a small group left our church making false accusations about me. But most of all, they loved Jesus, they loved each other, and they loved my family. They were an awesome church to serve, and I was honored and humbled to be their pastor. And I will never forget the way they worship!
A few things stood out as I considered the call from the people of Peace:
- The people of Peace felt very strongly that God was leading them to me. That mattered a lot, since my prayer through the process leading up to receiving the call had been for God’s will to be done – that Peace would only vote to call me if it was God’s will for me to receive that call.
- Although I loved serving Community, a few things were increasingly bothering me, and I wasn’t sure how to solve them – or if I even could. And as I considered the call to Peace, it became more and more clear to me that, in order for Community to take the next step toward growth, they needed to do it without me – with a new, differently gifted pastor at the helm with fresh ideas and energy. In a few days I went from feeling driven to do ministry to feeling like I was standing in their way.
- At the same time, I felt excitement building about the opportunities at Peace. It is a bigger congregation, and my responsibilities would be much greater – but I would be surrounded by a pastoral team, and the responsibilities would be much more shared. It felt like an exciting opportunity and a new adventure.
- Finally and most importantly, my family was a major consideration. With the kids going into 5th and 9th grades, it was a natural time of transition. And the opportunity for them to attend Lutheran schools, where I could be a part of their weekday life, was really appealing to me. Most importantly, we would be staying in Michigan. With both sets of parents here, my love for the Mitten and our sports teams, the in-state leadership of our church body, and the relocation of our good friends the McCoys from Oklahoma to Michigan, I had zero desire to leave.
When we announced to the people of Community that we were leaving, I know that it broke their hearts . I know that it upset some people, and that others were angry. I lost friends. Many did not understand why we were leaving, and especially why we were leaving them. They also could not understand why our call system meant that, in order for Peace to have a new pastor, they needed to take away their pastor. I’m sure they were scared about the future – they had been blessed with two senior pastors whom they loved – would they be so blessed a third time? And those in leadership were left with the problems I had been unable to fix before I left. I’m sure they felt betrayed, as though I had left them ‘holding the bag.’ Most of them have no idea how hard I worked at or how much I agonized over and prayed about fixing those things. But I understand. I did the leaving; I wasn’t the one left behind.
It’s an incredibly strange and uncomfortable thing, leaving a church you have pastored for eight years. It feels a little like abandoning your family for a new one (which it kind of is). And once you’re gone, you feel as though everyone hates you for it, whether it’s true or not. It was described to me by others as feeling like a divorce. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know it was awful, and I would prefer to never have to do it again. In a word, it felt – and still feels – yucky.
And yet it was also exhilarating and exciting and freeing to start fresh. To learn a new church and its customs. To step into a larger leadership role but with more support around me in that role. To take my vision and ideas and see how they fit in a new context. To move to a new area as a family and be able to send our children to a Lutheran school, something we really didn’t even know was important to us until we had the opportunity. And yes, even to put the robes back on and do traditional worship – a part of me really did miss it, even though I love being a ‘cutting edge’ kind of guy.
And now, here I am. The people at Peace have been so welcoming to us, embracing us as we are. I am blown away by how much the people of God are still the people of God, even across such vastly different ministry contexts. I love where I have been called, from the beautiful and traditional sanctuary to the sleek and modern school. I am so thankful for this opportunity, and I pray God grants me the wisdom, courage and humility to be the visionary servant leader that they need me to be. I pray also that God provides the visionary servant leader to Community that they need, and that with time they will be able to forgive me for leaving.
I have been called to serve a new family. But I received a similar call when I married my wife – and even though I gained a new family by marriage, I never stopped loving my family by birth. In the same way, I love all of my church families: the people I now serve here in Saginaw and those I previously served in Flat Rock. Truth be told, I still love the people I was honored to serve in Affton, Missouri during my time at seminary, as both a Vicar and a Field Worker.
It is an odd thing to be called as a ‘Father’ to one family, and then to take a call to be a ‘Father’ to another. But as I was reminded by a mentor, my ordination vows were to serve Christ’s Church on earth – wherever I am called locally. And I am honored to walk in that calling, wherever God and His people would have me.
Here at Peace, the call is different, but the calling is the same: as the forearm tattoos on one of my new partners in ministry say: “Love God,” “Love People.” If we can all manage that, we will truly Be The Church, wherever we are called. May it be so, Amen.