This past Sunday I went to a weekly church service for the first time in a long time. Several years ago I left a church in which I had been very active – board chair, elder, various other roles – for years. My departure was painful for me. There’s no need to rehash my reasons for leaving. When people ask me about why I don’t attend any more, I simply tell them it is no longer a good fit for me. My ego is not so big that I need my personal grievances to become theirs. Just because it’s not my community doesn’t mean I need to run it down to people who may need it to be theirs.
STAGE 5: ACCEPTANCE
It was a tumultuous time for the congregation, and several other congregants also left during roughly the same period. For a few years afterward, I led a house church composed of other people who’d left, a few people who’d stayed, and some people who’d never been there. We interacted with other churches in the denomination and community, including the church most of us had left. Eventually the time for the house church ran its course, and it wound down and we dissolved it amicably. For me and others who attended, it was a time of grieving and healing – which, I believe, go hand in hand when we grieve well.
A friend who had attended both my former congregation and the house church invited me a few times to a church she had found. It was only a few years old. She liked the theology and the music. I checked out their web-site, and my first impression is that they are also involved in spreading the Gospel through service. That last bit is important to me; were I ever to consider “joining” a congregation again (I still think of myself as joined to the larger church as part of the Body of Christ), Gospel-centered service is in my top criteria.
I’ll check out a few more Sundays and other events to get a feel for the possible “fit” of this congregation. There’s another one that’s been piquing my interest lately, and I’ll want to visit it for a while also. I’m in no hurry to make a decision, but a decision is inevitable.
The same friend has on numerous occasions reminded me of something I once said in a board meeting lo those many years ago: “I don’t know how to be a Christian without a community.”
LOST IN THE CROWD
Leadership positions are rewarding, but they can also be exhausting. This Sunday’s visit was the first time in almost ten years I had been in a worship service (this particular community called it a “gathering” in the apostolic tradition) where I wasn’t leading, facilitating in some way, or otherwise known to the congregation. Nobody was interrupting my worship experience by blurring the boundaries between “time to let you worship” and “time to complain about where Mrs. Smith set up the bake sale table.”
Except for my friend, I was completely anonymous. And I’m not sure how I felt about it.
I expected to feel relieved to experience the service in peace, but I also felt more than a little … let’s call it humbled, though it wasn’t quite so benign. These people were able to more than competently pull off an entire Sunday without needing anything from me. That was exactly what I thought I wanted to experience, but I was conflicted. What was going on?
IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME
Despite fantastic music and a terrific message, attending the Sunday gathering left me feeling … unsettled. All afternoon I reflected on why this might be so.
I’m not sure I figured it out, but a lot of old thoughts and emotions about my last church resurfaced. Whatever feelings of unease I brought into this new setting were undoubtedly related to my past experiences, but my problems with the old place couldn’t fairly be projected onto this new one.
So what to do? I needed to squarely face my own contributions to the prior experience, so as not to repeat them anywhere new.
Now I hadn’t acted with malice or carelessness. I really believe there’s nothing I need or needed to “confess” about my failings, yet there were some failings. And I think they’re pinned to leadership. More specifically, my suitability for the type of leadership I accepted.
I say “accepted” because it wasn’t anything I sought. In a small enough congregation, being reliable and competent and experiencing a few small successes is all that’s needed to get nominated to any number of positions. And it’s flattering when people ask you to lead. If they ask enough times, you may even start to think you’re qualified.
But “accepted” is not passive. My initial hesitations were well-grounded, so I should have known enough to decline. Leadership comes in many flavors. Strategic leadership is not the same as project leadership. And if I’m honest with myself, I have some strong project leadership skills, but strategic leadership is not where I shine. There’s plenty of blame to go around when a congregation fractures, and I believe that’s the piece I need to own, the humble pie I need to swallow.
For a while I told myself I wouldn’t be sucked into leadership in any congregation I joined; that doing so was a sure road to dissatisfaction and stress.
It hadn’t occurred to me until now that maybe no one would ask. If that bruises my ego, Jesus and I need to walk it off.
LITTLE JESUS FISH IN A BIG POND
Turns out experiencing a whole Sunday service that didn’t need me was humbling in a good way. It’s not necessarily comfortable, but it’s not the chafe of the ill-fitting strategic suit I’d mistakenly tried on.
Maybe, wherever I end up, they won’t need – or even ask! – me to lead anything. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of opportunities to serve. There will be times I’ll feel called to step up. And I’ll try to live out one of the best lessons I’ve picked up from mission trips: need is about the served, not the servant.
Ego is a tricky thing – especially when it disguises itself as service. The next leg of my faith journey seems to be a detour down Humble Highway.
Think I’ll take my time.