My family came to southwest Ohio to start a new congregation, what became Friendship Lutheran Church, on August 22, 1990.
Thousands of door-to-door calls, some 740 Sunday sermons, and 52 Baptisms later, people ask me how I feel. How does it feel to be leaving?
They also ask why. Why have my wife Ann and I decided to pick up stakes to go to a very different church in a small town? And closely related to this question is another one: Was this a sudden decision?
My blogging colleague Mark Roberts, a Presbyterian pastor, recently left the congregation he served for sixteen years and has been eloquently blogging on his transtion to his new job at Laity Lodge in Texas. You can see some of Mark's reflections here. I told Ann the other day that I didn't think I'd be doing anything like that on my blog.
Yet, over the past few days, I've felt compelled to answer questions like the ones above. And I find myself reflecting on the past seventeen years.
Today, I'll deal with the questions of why and whether this is a sudden decision.
Our decision to pull up stakes and move to Logan, Ohio, where I will become pastor of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church on November 1, wasn't sudden.
Ann and I began discussing the possibility of my making myself available for "call" to another congregation in late-2005. I completed what my denomination refers to as "mobility papers"--I'm not making that term up, that's really what they call the eighteen page document all pastors considering a move fill out--in June, 2006.
We felt no sense of urgency about leaving Friendship. What gave rise to our initial discussions had nothing to do with disenchantment with Friendship at all. We loved and love Friendship. Even as we contemplated the possibility of leaving, I still had enthusiasm for the congregation and its ministry. I still had a sense for the direction in which I thought it should go. So, why leave?
In a nutshell, Ann and I came to believe that for Friendship to go to the next level as a congregation, it would require new pastoral leadership.
Friends tell me that it's inapt, but I compare myself to the sofa you bought years ago. You loved the thing. When you brought it home, the room, as the interior decorators say, "popped." Besides all that, it was functional. It provided good service for years.
But when you painted the living room walls a different color and changed your decorative motif, you moved the beloved sofa to the family room. Later still, it went to the basement for the kids to use when they played video games. You still valued the sofa and it had even, remarkably, maintained its color and firmness. It was still a great sofa. But it no longer made the room "pop" for you.
I'm that old sofa. When the church moved from a school gym after twelve-and-a-half years and into the building with which God blessed us, I moved with it. I was a comforting presence. But sometimes, a new room needs a new sofa. And by new room, I'm not referring to our new building per se, but simply to the changed and changing circumstances that come to any church, family, business, or community over time.
I was approached about interviewing with the "call committee" of one congregation in December, 2006. But Ann and I both were familiar with the church and were certain that it wouldn't have been a good fit for me or for us. We wouldn't go just anywhere. I turned the interview down.
When first approached about interviewing with the call committee at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, in early June, 2007, I had no reaction. I really knew nothing about the congregation or the community. But I decided to go for an initial conversation with the call committee and see where it led. (By this time, I should add, Friendship was in the midst of a great resurgence in attendance and in giving, something that almost never happens in churches during the summer season!)
(At the same time, I was approached about being on the staff of a new start non-denominational congregation that promises to be a megachurch in no time. I was even told that I could create my own job portfolio if I came onboard. It was flattering. But, while I believe that all who confess Jesus Christ are part of His Church, I will always be a Lutheran Christian. It's just who I am.)
That first interview at Saint Matthew happened on July 10. The committee members were personable, obviously committed to their church, proud of its traditions, and anxious to try new things to reach out to their community.
To my surprise, I found myself being pulled with increasing urgency in Saint Matthew's direction. We had loved small town, rural life in northwestern Ohio, which we'd enjoyed in my first call from 1984 to 1990, and though southeastern Ohio is a different place, the "feel" of Saint Matthew and of Logan appealed to me. Increasingly, I felt that this was the place I was supposed to be.
But I didn't want to make a decision based on a wave of personal enthusiasm. Ann hadn't yet met the folks from the Saint Matthew call committee. I prayed, "Lord, I don't even know if the call committee and congregation at Logan want me to be their pastor yet. But you know I'm feeling tugged in that direction. I'll know what You want when Ann tells me that she wants to make this move."
On August 11, Ann and I traveled to Logan for a follow-up discussion with the call committee at Saint Matthew. There were, we thought, insumrountable issues which would prevent the call committee from being able to recommend that the congregation call me to become Saint Matthew's pastor. On the way over though, Ann said, "If the congregation does call you, Mark, we should definitely go." Based on my earlier prayers, that seemed like a green light from God. I was interested in seeing what happened in our meeting.
When we arrived for what we thought would be a one-hour get-together and ended up spending three-and-a-half hours with the committee, I could see that Ann, as had happened with me already, was falling in love with these people. Just like Ann, they were real, no phoniness about them at all.
By the end of our meeting, we clearly sensed that this committee wanted us to be at Saint Matthew. In spite of the pain of saying goodbye to Friendship and to the community we've called home since 1990, we wanted to be at Saint Matthew. And, through Ann's words on our drive to Logan, God appeared to want us to be at Saint Matthew, too.
Because we kept our lips zipped publicly until September 2 and before that, had only told a few friends and Friendship's lay leadership about the strong possibility that we would be leaving for Saint Matthew, it may have seemed like a sudden, impulsive decision to some. But God had been preparing us for this move for at least two years. We had prayerfully considered this specific call for three months by the time we went public with it.
But how does it feel to be leaving here after seventeen years? I hope to address that tomorrow.