Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Happened: August '07 to August '09

(Note: There are many sides to every story and I can only tell ours from mine. I do not pretend that I am blameless or that I do not have anything to learn from the story that follows. I have put this post off for many months, but I share it with you now because I feel like its time. You will notice I have disabled the "reader comments." I do so because I don't believe it is necessary to debate the story as I present it, or to allow free reign for negative things to be said about the church, the pastor, or us. As I see it, our story is what it is.)

Ronnie and I visited Cincinnati for the first time in July 2007. At that time, we were happily serving in a small Baptist church in Fairfield, TX. Although a fundamentalist fellowship at heart, which never ceased to present challenges for both of us (especially me), we found a pocket of grace in the midst of the congregation, making lifelong friends and getting to know a number of Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. Also, we served with a great pastor, with a heart for people and God's mission in the world. For this reason, when another pastor called and wanted us to consider joining his fellowship in the Cincinnati area (doing high school and college student ministry), we weren't interested. Eventually, however, we were persuaded that we should give it a chance.

During our visit, we were presented with a story of a church on a journey. Although tough times had plagued them in the past, including a church split and an exorbitant debt, the people were ready to "take off" and join God in his work. We were told that the so-called "worship wars" were no longer an issue, that liberty in Christ was very real, and the congregation was a church "not about religion." Based upon this, and a number of other factors (including the prayers of friends and family), Ronnie and I decided that this was God's invitation to do something new--to be a part of a church much closer to our vision of what church is meant to be (i.e., freedom in Christ, grace for all, etc.).

So, Ronnie moved to the Cincinnati area at the end of August, while I remained in Fairfield, living with dear friends, to finish up my graduate degree at Truett Seminary. It was a lonely few months, but we made it. And, upon my graduation, I joined Ronnie in December 2007, moving into the home we bought in Hamilton. A friend of ours--a former student of Ronnie's--joined us, too, to become a part of the church's worship ministry.

Unfortunately, neither the leadership of the church nor the church itself turned out to be what we were made to believe they would be. In fact, it was almost the exact opposite. (This is not said with any sense of malice toward the congregation. Not at all! People are where they are in their journey with Jesus. We were simply made to think they were at a different place in their journey--a place more in keeping with our own philosophy of ministry and overall discipleship.) Although we tried for several months to work within the structure and situation with which we were presented, eventually the friction between us and the pastor began to heat up.

More than once, Ronnie was told he needed to set and meet a "quota" for "decisions" and "baptisms" in the youth group. More than once, he was chastised for the so-called diminutive size of his ministry. Although attendance in the church was steadily dropping (and had been dropping even before we arrived), Ronnie was expected to steadily increase his numbers. More than once, his teaching methods and topics of study were criticized, especially when the cost of discipleship and matters of social justice were discussed. And, more than once, Ronnie endured both veiled and not-so-veiled questions about his commitment to evangelism, love for students, overall calling to ministry, and even the security of his job.

(I should say, as well, that all of these conflicts over philosophy, vision, and method were tremendously surprising to us, especially since we made it a point to be brutally honest throughout the interviewing process. Although communication is not fool-proof, by any means, I have serious doubts that we were so greatly misunderstood. I have a hunch that those in the hiring process heard what they wanted to hear from us and didn't carefully consider how our views and ideas would work with their own.)

Over time, the friend who came with us from Texas became so discouraged he moved back. The junior high pastor who served alongside Ronnie felt compelled to resign. When that happened, he was asked to take over the junior high ministry, in addition to his own, with no additional help--in personnel or financial compensation. Although he was willing to give it a chance--to do his best for the sake of the students--by that time, Ronnie felt he had little to no support from the pastor and was, therefore, being set up to fail.

At one point, in the midst of yet another session of criticism and discouragement, he even offered the pastor his resignation, saying, "I'm clearly not meeting your expectations, so why don't I make room for you to find the person who will?" But, he was told that he couldn't leave, "because the church can't handle another staff member leaving."

Let me say, as well, that during the year and a half we served at the church, the pastor's attitude and behavior went through a serious transformation. At first, there was a spirit of warmth, camaraderie, and support. But, as the months went by, the church numbers dwindled and the financial burden increased, and the pastor became--at least in his behavior toward the staff--reclusive, angry, detached, and defensive. If this caused problems for their office environment, imagine what it did for the spiritual environment. It is not an exaggeration to say that, eventually, our time spent at the physical church building (not with the people, to whom we felt a God-given obligation to love and serve!), became a spiritually toxic experience. With every passing staff meeting, with every Sunday sermon, I felt like we were drifting into an abyss.

Now, I should say that we went through a period of a few months where I wondered if the problem was with us. We truly sought God and searched the depths of our own hearts to see if we were missing something. Yes, we were tired and frustrated with the situation. Yes, some things Ronnie could do better and try harder at. But, overall, we determined that our hearts were right with God and in the right posture toward his church. In the end, I am convinced that we were not the primary "problem."

Toward the end of our tenure there, even the addition of another staff member, a sort of "last ditch" effort to reinvigorate the church and energize the pastor's vision, could not make the situation improve. In fact, it quickly worsened. Now, we were hearing things about the pastor and various deacons wanting Ronnie "out"--not believing he was fulfilling his duties to the church. There were all kinds of rumors being spread about Ronnie, almost all of which were related to our perspective on Christians and alcohol (another blog post for another time). I was receiving nasty emails and posts on my blog from supposed church members calling into question the legitimacy of my salvation and telling us to leave. All in all, despite what I believe to be our best efforts, our relationship with the pastor and the church was at a breaking point.

Finally, during an especially bad staff meeting, where the pastor was again placing the responsibility for the church's failing attendance and budget at the feet of the staff--verbally berating them and demanding obedience to his newest plan to "fix" things--Ronnie decided he couldn't take it anymore. He resigned on the spot and walked out. That Wednesday night was our last day of employment at the church.

We shed many, many tears over our departure and truly agonized over the way it affected the students, who had been ignorant of the "behind-the-scenes" problems. It was not their fault at all and yet they were the ones who suffered the most. I have no easy answer for that, nor can I explain away the pain and hurt we caused many of them. It hurt them badly and yet, I feel like we had no other choice.

Looking back, I suppose there were other ways to handle our exit. Sure, we could have given the customary two weeks notice. But, as we've mulled it over since then, we've determined that doing so would have allowed the pastor to maintain a facade of health and happiness. We would have been forced to give a "nice" little speech to the church about God calling us someplace else. And, this would have been duplicitous in the extreme. The reality was Ronnie (and I) couldn't bear to serve with him for another day. Period. Although Ronnie loved the students and their families, although he felt called of God to shepherd them, he could no longer do so as long as the pastor remained in his post.

Over the course of the next few days, other staff threatened their resignations, as well. But, in the end, the pastor resigned instead, leaving behind a battered and broken staff in the midst of a confused and angry congregation.

There were short-lived discussions of Ronnie returning to the church, but those fizzled out quickly once we realized the strength of the opposition to him among some deacons and the lack of trust he had with much of the church leadership. You can't shepherd among people who don't want to follow you. It certainly didn't help that the pastor had been speaking badly of him to the leadership for some time. We found out that there had been discussions of him being fired for several months before his resignation. Needless to say, in addition to the hurt, pain, and sadness about the entire experience, the sense of betrayal we were left with was deep and strong--remaining to this day.

Throughout our last six months at the church, I was pregnant with William. And I would by lying if I said that thinking of his arrival had no effect on our decision to leave. While some would say that we should have stayed at the church, if for no other reason than financial security for William's sake, we determined we didn't want his earliest exposure to church to be within such a toxic situation. Like his namesakes, William Wallace and William Wilberforce, we chose freedom for him, instead of enslavement (to a paycheck).

I'm sure there will be varying opinions about the choices we've made. I'm sure many will call us stupid, naive, foolish, arrogant, etc. But, to put it bluntly, we don't care. Though we're struggling financially and may lose our home to foreclosure, though we have felt spiritually adrift and even abandoned at times, though we've been deeply lonely without a stable community of faith, we have found liberation from the situation and the pastor's domineering leadership to be a sweet and welcomed relief. When there is peace in nothing else, there is peace in that.