Ending the “Interim”

lamentations340Working on staff in certain churches,
and with certain people,
can be a soul-bruising experience.

Earlier this year, I resigned my “interim” position as pastor for children, youth and family in a local congregation. They had planned on me being there through 2016, and after I resigned, asked me to stay through the end of 2015, …but I needed to get out of there with my personal integrity and mental health intact.

The relief started the moment I resigned, and I’m writing this post now after several months of reflection to record of my thoughts for myself, as well as, family and friends. I have the annoying habit of trying to learn from things. If this helps you, that’s a bonus.

Working on a church staff can be wonderful, but it can also be soul-bruising.  No wonder 57% of ministers say they would leave church work if they could find something better, and half will within ten years. It’s a statistic I can now personally understand. Fortunately, I had my work with Sunday Software and Rotation.org to fall back on, and in fact, maybe it is BECAUSE I had other ministry irons in the fire –it was easier to walk away.

Sometimes you need to shake your sandals.

My Version of the Story
(Gory details expunged in an attempt at grace, and later I deleted other details. Healing sometimes requires a lack of reminders!)

I was working a 25 hr/week job crammed into 15, and paid as if it were 10.

I was being paid half of what my predecessor had been paid, and with no benefits. I think they assumed that since I had an outside job, I wouldn’t mind making less than the nursery worker.

The first year on the job I had to invent a Sunday School from scratch. New rooms, new teachers, new curriculum. Second year rolled around, and four months into it I was informed that the promised salary review was not going to happen. I resigned the following week, but not entirely over money. Their reneging on the promise of “doing right” was simply the last straw.

If they truly did not have the money, I would have sucked it up and stayed (I had two other jobs). But they had money flowing in, were slowly growing, paid their full-time staff quite well, and had just started their second building campaign in 3 years. Do you see where this is going? At some point “fair pay” and “respect” are the same thing.

Even so, it’s what happened in the six months leading up to my resignation that made their broken salary promise the last straw.

“Straws”

(1) Being lied to, and having my requests for budget data repeatedly ignored.  I put this first because integrity and honesty are really important to me, and on that score, several people let me down. Never experienced that particular issue in any other church.

(2) Real Spiritual Attack.  I know that sounds dramatic, but I finally came to the conclusion that this was what was happening. When you are on staff, there are certain people in the congregation who will come after you in ways you don’t expect, -even people you thought you had a good relationship with prior to coming on staff. (See my description about four of them below.) I confided in a friend what these people did and said, and she called it “a spiritual attack.”  At the time, I thought she was being a bit dramatic, but later I realized, she was absolutely right.

(3) Run-ins with people who were big givers. 

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with the big donor who described himself to several people as “a benevolent dictator” -who thought he was in charge of the building, and others were afraid to stand up to him.

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with a retired big donor who called a special meeting to tell the pastor that I should work for free and should not have been hired, and who’s husband was on the Personnel team. A year later, she got her wish. Did I mention she openly talked about being in therapy?  In retrospect, I should have seen her coming, …for me.

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with a retired lawyer and big donor over what kind of shirts I should wear to celebrate Communion in, and how I should pray during the pastoral prayers. Lovely man actually, but actually called himself one of the congregation’s “defenders of tradition.”

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I should be pilloried as a gender bender by a gun-toting right wing retired big donor who became upset when I had a woman (my daughter) read the part of Adam in a creative Bible reading.

Kids today might call them “bullies.”   Some people think you work for them, not with them. They think their tone doesn’t matter. And as I have often observed in churches, many older members seem to “lose their filter.”  I personally apologized to each of them for the disagreements they were having with me, …without accepting their unfounded blame. (I’m an adult, not a sycophant). FYI: It didn’t much help. People aren’t used to apologies, and to some, it only whets their appetite for more poor behavior.

Where was the pastor in all this? Trying to smooth feathers.  But let’s face it: the pastor wasn’t going to offend well-established older members who were big donors. I could see that.

Being over 50, a bit experienced, and not being in awe of ministers or people with money anymore, I do admit that I have an inability to hide my incredulity. I’m not wound tight, but also, I ADMIT that I sometimes do not get along with people who are wound tight. And when those people come after me for their own purposes, it’s a match made in hell.

Churches talk about being “families,” and that they are. And truth is, some families suck -for some family members.  This is why God invented the Body of Christ, to give us different parts we can retreat to. And sometimes a person needs to remove themselves from in front of another’s foot.

(3) Senior Pastors have their own agendas, priorities and stresses. They do not always have your back. They are not always your friend. They are loathe to offend donors by telling them to chill out. And when you no longer trust your boss, you need to do them and yourself a favor and move on.

(4) Optimism and “the flattery of being asked” can lead you to the wrong decision.  Prior to starting on staff, my family and I had already considered “moving on” for a number of reasons. The job offer kept us there.  We enjoyed many of the people, but were feeling that the worship, sermons and music weren’t meeting our needs. Each of us had experienced interactions with people that were uncomfortable, and the choice of that church had increasingly felt like a placeholder. There are other churches for a reason.

(5) Leaving isn’t easy, no matter why, or how fast it happens, or how you do it. You can feel it coming. And you know something will probably happen to precipitate it.  And even after I quit, it was still weird and my heart was still torn. The pastor asked me to stay for 6 more months! –which is odd given my reasons for leaving, but it just goes to show you how screwed up it was.  I did consider the offer, which is also screwed up. And when I said no, I was even asked to continue in the job as a volunteer!  (That last offer actually confirmed that either they or I was from a different planet.)

Short of a crime being committed,
I believe that staff people should leave quietly, and that’s what I did.

I put on a brave face,
let the pastor come up with the face-saving reason why I was resigning,
choked down the going-away cake,
and literally left by the back door.

Leaving the right way is important.
But you always leave with regrets.

(6) And finally, I have also learned (once again) that family members should be listened to. My wife and daughter felt things getting weird a FULL YEAR before I did.

I HOPE the church and pastor will learn from that experience, but I’m fully aware that our protective mechanisms tend to make us cast blame rather than accept it. And those “PIPS” are still there, God help them.

At the very least, I hope they will find someone with the right temperament and qualifications who will work for peanuts, smile when people insult them, and keep their opinions to themselves. Lots of good people in that congregation deserve that miracle.

TWO years after leaving, they have yet to find that person.

Neil

PS  We are happily attending a neighborhood church. Drums and electric guitar in worship, and loving it. And I immediately stepped into a new ministry job doing something I love with people I already knew and adored.

Sometimes you are in the wrong place, and that’s what happened to me.

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