The Other Side of the Pulpit

 

Life behind the pulpit has not gone as expected. I know God does the unexpected, but I cannot think God wanted my first call to erode my self-esteem and damage my desire to live into my call to the point that I wonder if I will ever have the nerve to get behind the pulpit again.

That first call appeared to be a great fit, and I was excited to accept it. The job description matched the congregation's needs to my gifts and skills. I was the Associate Pastor of a mid-sized congregation in the Southern United States. Giving up his good job near my seminary, my husband and I relocated so that I could take my first call. We purchased our first home and began to settle down, appreciating the chance to put down some roots. It was a welcome respite considering I’d had eleven different addresses in the twelve years since beginning college. I was ready for a taste of stability.

However, all was not as it seemed with my first call. The situation presented to me in the call process was not what I found after arrival. Two years into the call things began to crumble as my frustration grew. I was not allowed to do what I understood was my job, and I kept receiving less and less responsibility and input opportunities while working harder and harder. I did what I could to work through the difficulties, but unfortunately the situation became a lose-lose situation for me. I did not want to leave; yet, I did not want to stay. It was no longer a healthy place for me to serve. The call came to an end just before my third anniversary with the congregation.

My husband and I found ourselves in an unexpected place. Our house and his job kept us in the area. My denomination is so small that there were no viable calls nearby. The available options were: switch denominations, uproot the family to take a new call, or seek a job in another field.

However, as I was pregnant, the option to be a stay-at-home mom was added to the list, and it is our best option for now. Though I am sure I will love the opportunity to stay home with our child, it was not our original plan. I struggle to appreciate the prospect of staying home with my child because every time I think about it I am reminded that I am no longer under call, which was not my choice. It is painful to receive congratulations on "being able" to stay at home. We grapple with the question of if we can financially afford for me to stay at home while we discern God's call.

Amid career choices, an undervalued house, and starting a family, the most difficult thing I am struggling with on this side of the pulpit is that we no longer have a church home. Having been raised in the church, not having a church family is foreign to us. Even while visiting different churches each Sunday as part of a class assignment in seminary, the school community served as my church family. The excitement of visiting different churches in seminary has not carried over into our new weekly routine. There is no place grounding us as we wander. It is not a class assignment. It is our reality. Our weekly choice to go anywhere is enormous.

How do I live on this side of the pulpit? Who am I as a layperson? What does it mean to not have a church family? Which denomination or church reflects who we are theologically? Why are traditions and practices done in certain ways, and how do we learn what they mean? Where can we worship God communally? When will we find opportunities to feed our faith?

I have developed a newfound respect for visitors, as I know I have taken them for granted in the past. Being a visitor is not easy. It takes effort to visit a congregation. As a visitor I am keenly aware of what is happening and whether it is understandable or not. Does signage make it clear where to park and enter, where the worship space is, and where the education and nursery rooms are? Is the information in the bulletin, newsletter, website, and brochures up-to-date? Are worship practices, vocabulary, and traditions explained for visitors and members alike? Do people talk with us, and is it done in a hospitable, welcoming manner?

Maybe someday I will find a good answer to my most dreaded chit-chat question asked of visitors, "So, what do you do?" Answering truthfully, "I'm a pastor, but I'm not serving in a church right now" is still a very painful and difficult answer. Plus, the confidentiality clause I was forced to sign when leaving my call prohibits me from giving good answers or explanations. I like Carol Howard Merritt's suggestion of a better question to ask visitors, "So, what keeps you busy these days?"[1]

These are our circumstances until God calls me back into a parish. We will go out again this Sunday to visit somewhere new. That is, if we get up in time and can decide where to visit this week. Do we have the strength to put ourselves out there again? I know I should go visit somewhere, but the temptation to stay home is strong and the bed is soft and warm.

Being on the other side of the pulpit is a difficult place to be. I am still not comfortable with it. I doubt I ever will be. I hope we find a church family where we can be part of the community again. I hope we can find a church family to help us raise our child in the faith and help us find our own faith renewed. I hope we can feel the desire to worship God in community listening for God's calling voice directing our next step in the journey. Until that time, our search continues.

 

 

Comments

Prayers for you.

Thank you for sharing your story. You and your husband sound so lonely and my heart goes out to you. Your bittersweet choice to stay home with your baby was especially poignant to me. May the Spirit guide you through this wilderness time.

I'm the writer of Faith, Interrupted from last month's Fidelia's Sisters. I so completely resonate with the struggle to be on the other side of the pulpit. I was ripped from being a pastor because of illness, but I miss it everyday. And it's painful on Sundays not to be the pastor, and as I try not to critique the church I attend about the same things you mention. I understand being forced into a different way of life. I'm so sorry. And I understand having to leave the first call in such a rude way, with a house on our hands. Because my husband couldn't find work we knew we had to leave the area. We ended up losing the house. Such is the life of a young pastor, eh?

I am appalled that you can't tell people the reason you left or the place where you served. Salt in the wound!

I hope you'll take time with a therapist who will let you vent. I think you need it.

I can completely understand why this story is confidential. As you well know, it's your story to tell. Though we are a community of sisters that listen to some vulnerable stories, there are stories that we can't publish on the internet for all to read. Some need to be more personal and more private. Thanks for your candor and blessings in your evolving call. I know God will lead you to the right place.

I left a call for maybe some similar reasons, though I was perhaps more interested in trying out the stay-at-home-mom route. Visiting churches for four months was truly exhausting. Answering truthfully either meant being ignored (She's a pastor, she'll figure out everything) or feeling like I was somehow threatening to the clergy in place. I knew we'd found a place to be when I actually wanted to tell the pastor that I am a clergy person staying home for a while with my child. It doesn't stop the days when I miss it terribly, but that moment of acceptance gave me hope for finding a next step. I hope and pray that your search ends soon.

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