I sat on the phone with a dear friend and colleague, listening to their lament. “Damn” I said, because that’s what ministers sometimes say to each other when we talk about hard things. The church they were serving was headed toward closure and my friend was dismayed because this community was beloved to them. “How am I going to do this?” they asked, that single question holding universes of meaning. How will I guide them well? How will I say goodbye to a community I love? How will I hold up the mirror so that they see what I see about their future?
Weeks, maybe months pass and I am on the phone with another friend. They are doing incredible justice work in their community. Their church has been bold enough to say yes to God’s calling to lend their power to the poor and bridge racial divides long etched into the community. Yet, there is a slow trickle of beloved members leaving–they think being vocal about Jesus’s call to love our neighbor means the church has become “too political.” They are not mad or mean, but they are leaving. It has broken my dear colleague’s heart. Each person that is leaving is someone my friend has loved dearly and served alongside for years. They have buried their dead, married their children and ushered into the baptismal waters many of them and know them by name, the way God knows the hairs on our head.
They asked “I feel like I need to do something, to reach out to these families, but I don’t know how. Is this like an exit interview? I don’t want to be beat up but I feel like they can’t leave without someone saying ‘hey I notice you’ve left and you matter.’”
To each of my friends I say the same thing “this is terrible and I am so sorry that you are going through this.” When you dare to love big, you do not carry your losses lightly, loose and jangling in your pocket. They sit like a cold stone in your stomach.
We are part of the larger work of the Kindom of God. Yes, our church is a manifestation of the local, communal work of God in the world, but we are not the only work. As much as I would love to think that every person that leaves a church goes to another church and makes a new home one where they can come to bless that church with the gifts that their former church will miss, I fear (and have observed) that many do not. They simply slip from being the four Sundays a month members of our church to people who go to Starbucks, visit family a few hours away or sleep in. They may find another church to attend, but you hear through the grapevine in town that they only attend occasionally. This feels like its own loss, the church has these beloved’s gifts but they have lost the richness of spiritual growth that happens in the gritty and beautiful practice of Christian community.
And so I said to each of my colleagues, “Our endings are for the Kindom. We are called to specific churches but we are called to the higher calling of our ordination. In the traditional sense we are ordained representatives of Christ in the world. When we think about caring for people in the ending of their relationship with our churches we have to think about how to minister to them in such a way that they know the Kindom is for them, that God welcomes them joyfully despite whatever differences we may have. It is not a win for the Kindom if they stay at home and aren’t a part of another community that is shaping hearts for the Kindom. For better or worse we are the people that shape their future relationship with the church.”
In a tradition where life and death play such a meaningful role in how we make sense of our life with God, we need to remember that deaths are invitations to life. Even when the deaths bear the sharp sting of something deeply personal. Our endings are for leaving the door of the Kindom open for those who might walk out the door of our churches. Our endings when oriented towards the work of the Kindom don’t eliminate the personal sting, but rather re-orient our response to be grounded in grace. Our endings weighed with grief and hard decisions are as much for the Kindom as our joyful beginnings, if not more so because we are teaching about the love of Christ that can endure hard things.
When the door of the Kindom is left wide open, knocking on its hinges and grace is the guiding spirit of relationship I have seen beloveds return to church. I have heard “I was wrong about the reason I left and I am back, we love what God does here.” Our endings are for the Kindom because they are beginnings in disguise.
Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for my twice a month newsletter (because we’re not spammy) and get original content you can’t find here on the blog. Reflections on faith and living, book recommendations and other good, nerdy fun. Sign up HERE.