Night falls. Sleep fails. It’s 3:00 a.m. My anxiety rises. My mind races. I’m wide awake again. Fatigue cannot describe the soul exhaustion I have felt for 18 months. The knots in my back tense with every toss and turn. Can I find a way forward, a way through the pandemic? Is there a way out of these ongoing plagues of COVID challenges?
The “F” word creeps across my heart’s door like the angel of death: Failure. Did I fail the church? Did the church fail me? The questions turn darker. Am I a failure?
Death comes in many forms, and my spirit is spread like butter across too much bread. My soul has thinned, becoming frail, anorexic. People say I look tired. People say I’m not the same. People say many things to pastors these days, but all I hear is failure. My failure to rise to the historic challenges of COVID. My failure to keep the course for the sake of the church. My failure to practice self-care, to keep from burnout, to believe that all will be well.
Failing is worse than falling. At least when you fall you are in motion. Failure is a prison cell, a padded room of insanity that confines the mind, keeping the inner world stuck in a cycle of disappointments. Two years ago, pastors like me could see the future, prophesy a way forward for their people. But then the plague hits and normal pastors became intentional interims managing crisis after crisis. The crisis of COVID killed my longevity and maybe that of others as well. I wanted to stay longer, to rebuild, to renew, to resurrect ministries and innovate ministries. I was even granted a Lilly sabbatical grant that would ideally create sustainability for me over two years. I hoped the mere idea of resting would lift the burden of exhaustion.
But then the darkness creeps over again, and death kept knocking at my door. Another night in the prison of my bed, covers confining me like a strait jacket, I realize I finally have come to the end. I know what I must do. I thought I had more time, but now I know for sure I must leave my church. I stare at the dark ceiling above when grief begins to consume me like wildfire. I weep. The flood gates open, and rivers burst from my eyes, streaming down my burning cheeks. My heart is breaking with the reality of what I must do. My body convulses, gasping for breath.
But then, another dark angel pounces on my chest and licks the salty tears from my face. Lucy, my black Labrador, brings me up for air. The room around me stirs awake. Fred, my old mutt, rolls out of bed and stretches like he does after a long walk around the neighborhood.
I turn to my husband, who pulls off his Darth Vader sleep machine. He pulls me in close and whispers in my ear:. “You know how you keep telling the church, ‘All will be made well?’ Well, you can’t make all be well.”
The wisdom received in the wee hours of the morning gives me a life raft. The truth is I am not a failure. I did not fail the people I love. My strange cloud of witnesses provides another way through my pain, through my grief. Gratitude.
“Gratitude is a ferry for the soul that carries us across the waves of grief.”
Gratitude is a ferry for the soul that carries us across the waves of grief. Gratitude helps us move from this life to the next life. Gratitude is the vessel transitioning us from death toward resurrection. My heart was breaking with grief, but gratitude allowed it to break open instead of shattering.
Grief can too easily fill us with shame and guilt. Guilt is when we feel wrong for what we have done. Shame is believing we are the wrong things we have done. For too long, I felt as though I was a failure. Bad grief can shatter our hearts in guilt and shame, but good grief can open our hearts toward grace. For salvation comes out of gratitude not guilt, out of love not shame.
Good grief, do I love my church, the people to whom I now must say farewell. Five years ago, I ended a long business meeting by saying, “A church so afraid of dying is a church no longer living.” Well, that can be about pastors too. A pastor so afraid of dying can keep the church from living.
I was afraid that my leaving, my death of sorts, would kill my congregation or worse kill my calling. A part of me, the not-so healthy piece of my personality, likes the idea of the church needing me to continue on, but this lie was put to death the night I chose to leave. For pastors, to let their church go is to trust that the congregation they poured their sweat and blood, soul and body into will continue on without them. Leaving church for pastors is an act of dying, putting to rest our egos in order to create space for new life. The next life for both the church and the pastor.
“A pastor so afraid of dying can keep the church from living.”
I wrestled the Spirit of God night after night, working plan after plan that could keep the reins of my current congregation. Innovative sabbatical plans, a week off here and there, rearranging staff responsibilities, sharing the pulpit. Great moves on the chess board. But the game changed with COVID. Instead of chess, the church needed me to play Jenga. No matter how slowly and strategically I moved, the blocks kept falling. This is when I knew my time was coming to an end.
People ask me why I am leaving. The answer is not because of burnout, soul exhaustion, anxiety, depression, disappointment or even the new position I have taken. The answer is simple. It’s time. Churches too often approach the pastor leaving as a sign of what went wrong. Yes, church isn’t perfect and neither are pastors. Yes, COVID was and still is challenging churches. But it’s not why I decided to leave.
Leaving is a lot like dying. We think that when death comes it means something went wrong. But in reality, a good death means something went right. Yes, there are tragic deaths, terrible situations of pastors leaving churches, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t be the norm.
I’ve had a number of church members apologize to me, believing that they could have done more to keep me, saying they were sorry they failed me. I empathize with their response because I felt the same way. I felt like I failed them. But the truth is no one failed. My season at Buechel Park occurred as it should when participating in any Christ-filled community of love. People come and go. People are born and people die. Knowing this truth doesn’t eliminate grief, but it can illuminate gratitude.
“My ego wants to crawl out of the coffin and run the whole funeral service.”
When pastors leave their churches well and with gratitude, it’s like participating in your own funeral. Awkwardly fun. Wonderfully weird. To be frank, I’m fighting against the wisdom of my husband to “make all things well.” I want to fix all the problems I never had energy to solve. I want to satiate the anxiety and anger people are feeling from my leaving. My ego wants to crawl out of the coffin and run the whole funeral service.
But leaving well simply means loving well. If you are a pastor on your way out, leave with arms wide open, hearts wide open. If you are a church saying goodbye to your pastor, exchange, “We are sorry” with, “We are grateful for you.” Climb into the raft of gratitude and ride the waves of grief together.
How congregations say goodbye to their pastor will determine how they greet their new pastor. Also, how pastors leave will determine how they receive their next congregations. And good grief, do I look forward to the day when I get to serve the next body of Christ — rested, renewed and ready to revision the ministry and mission of the church.
Erica Whitaker serves as pastor of Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. She recently announced her resignation from that post and next month will become associate director of the Institute for Black Church Studies at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. She is currently working on a Ph.D. through the International Baptist Theological Studies Centre at the Free University of Amsterdam. She also serves on the board of Baptist News Global.
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