before the phoenix

My hope is placed less on the solid rock than on the phoenix.  It rises from the ashes, and so do we.  A dear friend reminded me of that truth this morning and I see it from my window as the once green leaves lie in a red and yellow pile beneath bare branches.  Seasons come, seasons go, and all will be well again.  (Thank you, Julian of Norwich.)

Most painful this week has been the devastation to the community for which I have given so many years of my life.  For the first time in all of these years, I am not compelled to fix a breach in the fabric of our common life.  I spent every last ounce of reserve energy that I had last spring doing just that, and I am watching the current wave feeling helpless to do anything but offer a silent scream.  I have nothing left to give.

Curiously, and I suspect importantly, the feelings I have are of extreme sadness but today are largely devoid of the guilt and shame that are typically so prominant for me.

At the governing meeting where I shared my retirement annoucement, one supportive leader said, “the most valuable legacy we can give to Katy’s ministry is to be strong going forward.”  (Or something similar.)  In the moment, I felt buoyed by the sentiment and heard truth in the claim.  Today I wonder.

Having seen a different view of the future in the hallway of the memorial service, a damning view of what might remain of our beloved community with the dramafest still offering salvos, I begin to see that moving forward with strength is not only impossible for me, but it will be difficult and not necessarily even possible for the community.  This is a difficult time, and a turn around is not in the near offing.  These are things that I can’t say publicly, truths I would rather not see, and a scenario that I hope will not unfold.

But a whisper of truth came to me midday yesterday.   If all that we had worked to build and share ceased to exist tomorrow, would it change the value that we have experienced?    I can only answer for myself, and the answer is a clear ‘no’.  To be sure, I wish that I could have walked away a moment sooner, but e’en so I can honestly and cheerfully say that it has been good, very.  Although we may not have left lasting monuments, we fostered experiences with the sacred and created heartful memories.  Were it to end tomorrow, I would still be absolutely grateful for this.

So the leaves fall and the decomposition begins.  The season squeezes my heart and holds my hope.  The phoenix will rise from the ashes and the tulip will emerge from the bulb.   My hope is not in the individual bloom but in the power of life to recreate itself from nothingness.  All will be well again… in it’s own way, in it’s own time.  For today, I honor the ashes from whence the phoenix comes.

can I just say…

The problem with life is life.  Or as we say in the program, “living life on life’s terms.”  Quite frankly, its the daily grind that wears us down. I am ready to focus on the next thing, the new thing, the wondrous awakening to which I feel called.  But even before the sun was up, I was reading yet one more bit of challenge from this world that is still mine:  church management.

And here’s the thing:  I never signed up to be a church manager.  I am a poet, a preacher, a prophet.  I am a teacher, a leader, and a visonary.  And despite stereotypes, I’m actually amazingly astute with numbers.   But I am not an administrator.  The bane of my existence in church life has been the administration (read: staff recruitment, training and supervision).

I don’t suspect that I’m unusual, in fact when my colleagues talk about the challenges in their settings they invariably talk about staff relations.  Perhaps it is universal, but I suspect that the staff dynamics in churches are a unique challenge particularly inasmuch as clergy are asked to be managers.  While program-speak may suggest that we “say what we mean but don’t say it mean,” let’s face it, no one wants to be on the other side of the desk when the boss is dissatisfied with job performance.  Especially when the not-pleased supervisor is your pastor.  It’s like a double-whammy.

Over the years I’ve tried several approaches.  The three rules for teaching have been the most helpful: specify, ignore and praise.  Unfortunately, I have often been too light on the specificity and when trying to clarify expectations I have been accused of being, well, bossy.  I have had great experiences with longtime staff, but in recent years have felt the tumult of the revolving door.  It’s hard to be continuously welcoming new staff and building community at the same time.  It’s impossible to do all of this and feel any sense of success.

The penultimate challenge is staffing the church office.  This person needs to have impeccable public relations skills, be on board with the church’s mission, vision and values, be able to navigate the big personalities that are inevitably volunteering at churches, and, of course, be a good match for the pastor.  I’ve had marvelous administrators in the office, mediocre ones and even a short term disaster or two.

When I first started this call, I had the dubious task of firing the existing secretary.  It was an ugly business and there were plenty of critics from the pews.  When a longtime member took a corporate parachute and landed in the position, we enjoyed a decade of stability that was precious.  Imperfect, but nonetheless lifegiving.  One of the remarkable gifts of that tenure, in hindsight, was the stability.  That the person filling the desk was also a compassionate, detailed and dedicated soul was gift.  In the intervening years we’ve had folks who had different talents, some quite marvelous, but none that offered that precious gift that we crave in life: stability.

Currently we are in between, a place of limbo where we’ve been since the last of the old guard left.  A bit more than a year ago we hired someone who’s personality was a godsend.  Within a couple of months, her tender spirit recoiled against the negative energy that brews just under the surface in our community now and she reduced her hours.  We brought in a new staff to pick up the hours, a woman with excellent skills but limited availability.  In the past two weeks, one on either side of my announced retirement, they’ve both left.  Even as I try to make a graceful exit, I find myself embroiled in both exit interviews and the never ending search.

As I face this Monday morning with a new resignation in hand, I realize that I am reading chaos where I could be seeing opportunity.  The succession of underpaid parttime staff is endemic, the only relevant question is in my response.  It’s Monday and I want to throw a tantrum, but it’s also Monday and I want to enjoy the remarkable blue hue of the autumn sky.  The choice is mine.

being right at the wrong time

Just once I want to name that I knew it would be catastrophic if it ever happened, and when it did, it was.  I think that by naming it, I can grieve it and let it go.  But too I am afraid that even in the rearview mirror, naming is power and it will come back for a second wave, or as is the case, a third and fourth.

For here is the truth, communities (and churches are communities) are vulnerable to drama.   Inasmuch as particular people create drama, they become toxic for the community.  Most dangerous of all are the people who are perceived as beyond (or above) drama, for all of us are capable and in any life some drama will fall.  When the person perceived as being above drama bears it in bright hue, the community pauses and breathes it in most deeply.  In these moments, the community is literally spellbound and totally beholden to the drama that pours forth.

Such was the case as my hero left our community with a quixotic note to fifty of her closest friends.  “I can no longer work here… theological and other issues.”  In a community of a couple hundred, the fifty felt chosen and the others quickly gathered around.  Word was soon out that there was a story to be heard only a phone call away and inasmuch as phone wires still exist they were abuzz.  My hero and her minions told dozens of community members stories about me that bore little to no resemblance to my experience. But no matter, the audience was rapt.

For my part, I was frozen in horror.  This was a nightmare beyond my imagining.  This was my hero, speaking such slander.  “She’s my friend,” I wailed.  But my lamentations were simply that.  “Why?” I pleaded both to my hero and the wind.  The answers, if spoken, were carried high above me and heard not by me.  My hero was not only leaving me, she was trashing my reputation and pouring poison in the community well.  Her intent was clear, I would have neither her nor the community that together we’d worked to build.  Her destruction was targeted and expertly executed.   The destruction was and is inescapable and all I could do was stare wide eyed and open mouthed. Likely I will spend the rest of my life sorting the shards and learning what is and isn’t mine in all of this.

Six months in the rearview mirror isn’t long enough to know the full affect.  What is true is that both the community and I were deeply wounded by the dramafest.  Attendance is down, perhaps as much as 20%.  Giving is down too, so far it looks like about 10%.  These are not unrecoverable, but certainly call for turnaround help that I simply cannot offer.  For my part, I can be proud that I held on to the steering wheel and kept us moving forward through the storm.  But I was wounded, profoundly, and able to steer only until we could arrived safely to a nearest shore.   Now a new leader must be found for the next leg of the journey.

I resent the losses, the pain, the aborted journey.   I know that resentments are not healthy and I pray to quickly let go of this one.  But today it is real and strong and powerful, this hurt, and I do no one favors by pretending otherwise.

So I leave church, the ministry, and this job partly as a natural outgrowth of midlife spiritual yearnings, but also unmistakably as a survivor still limping from the bruising battle of church drama.  I can feel the defeat of losing the war, I did, or pride at fighting valiantly, also true.  Mostly today I am simply weary from the struggle.

 

a place at the table

Yesterday I was with colleagues when I felt the wave of anger crash against me.  I suppose my reflection on the tiger’s tail was prescient and at least helped provide a context.  The anger that splattered wasn’t the flash fried kind that leaves simply a wake but rather the hot tar kind that burns as it oozes.  I awoke this morning feeling the sadness that follows.

I want this to be a nice story, a pretty story.  I want to feel zen and peaceful as I move through this chapter.  I resent the intrusion of these ugly feelings. But here they are.  My choice is to receive them with grace or reject them, but either way they are mine.

Helpful in yesterday’s conversation was a piece of naming.  I could name that I didn’t feel welcome at the table, specifically at the table of Christianity, of our denomination and now even at our local church.

While the truth of my retirement is a positive recognition of a need for this mid-life professional shift, the truth is also inclusive of much unresolved pain.  I feel pushed out by a church which has no room for me and my family.  This is an odd and unwelcome feeling giving the grace extended by my local church as I came out, left my heterosexual marriage, fell in love with a woman and remarried in Iowa.  This local church, at least, has been steadfast.  And yet.

Sally looked kindly into my eyes and said, “I hear your hurt.  There should have been a place saved for you with your name.”   In that moment, I felt something shift internally.  The clawing anger poked into the pool of buried pain.  Yes, my little girl screamed, yes.  I have given you (the church) my best self, my best years, my best hopes and dreams.  And you (the church) have used and abused and dismissed me.  Melodramatic, of course, but my little girl thrives in melodrama.

Interestingly, as I (together with the little girl me) hold the pain of that rejection and betrayal, another colleague makes another connection.  “You wanted to be welcomed at the table, but do you want to sit there?”

It is a profoundly important question and the answer has remarkable clarity.  No, I do not want to sit at the table.  Did I ever?  As far back as I can remember, my yes’ were couched in conditions.  From the outset, I was keenly aware that I was entering a field that did not accept me as I was.  What I was less honest about was that I did not accept the church in it’s current form.  I journeyed from the far right to the far left in search of a table where I could comfortably preside, but presiding was necessary in order to feel safe.  Is there, was there, will there be a table at which I would choose to sit and dine?

 

tiger’s tail

Holding the tiger’s tail is a fool’s errand but one with which I am familiar.  Several years back when I was reflecting on the role of alcohol in my life, the idiom came to symbolize my struggle.  Although I could feign control in the moment, I was increasingly aware that the tail upon which I was exerting control was connected to a beast for whom I was no match.

The tail is actually a fascinating body part, all the more so because we humans have only the missing piece – a tail bone with nothing attached.  As I gently stroke the tail on a cat, I am aware of the power of this appendanage that flexes all the way down the backbone.  Cats use their tails to comfort, to nudge, to affirm, to dissuade.   As I consider the feel of the tail, I am persuaded that it is at once both a part of the feline and also markedly distinct.  The skeletal system closer to the heat of my hand, the teeth and eyes unseen, the soft tissue missing.  What I am holding in the tail is from the cat, to be sure, but it is not the cat.

As I moved through the announcement of my retirement last week, I was aware that I was sharing but one piece of the proverbial elephant.  My retirement is about being 50 with an empty nest and a need to explore new paths, this is true.  But this decision is about so much more.  This decision is about the hurts of the past years that have snowballed down the mountain.  This decision is about fundamental questions of ethics in my profession which include basics like whether there is a legitimate place for religious expression in a post-modern world.  This decision is about the tangled boundaries of professional and family life that began to trip innocents.  While my letter, blog, and even public speak reference my own developmental needs (true), the spoken was simply the tail of an enormous elephant.

Or maybe it is a tiger.

After church yesterday, week 1 complete, with a wash of ‘firsts’ behind me, I was struck that an elephant is much more passive than the weight I feel bearing down.  The energy in all that lies unspoken is much more aggressive and animated than an average elephant though perhaps not as massive.  Grief isn’t known so much for it’s size as it’s ferocious power and I suspect that what is bearing down now looks more catlike than pachyderm.

When I came to realize that my control of alchohol was holding a tiger by the tail, I could make the first step:  I am an alcoholic and my life is out of control.  Perhaps recognizing the familiar flex of the tail, the power of the vertebrae felt unmistakably in the extremity, I am ready to speak the deeper truth of this turn in my life.   As the days turn into weeks and months, and I gently release my grip on the tail and step away, the tiger will take on my clarity.

For today, I am simply noting that this place of holding feels tenuous.

 

public words

The word is out but tomorrow is yet one more ‘first-last’.  After sixteen years of standing in front of the congregation offering reassurance and embodying stability, tomorrow morning I will be standing in front speaking of my announced departure.

Retirement is a the most appropriate word for the context but if falls short to describe what this shift means both for me and for the community.  Although I am making a professional shift, retiring from this profession while opening myself to what comes next, this shift is about more than a job, more even than a profession, more than a way of life.  It is about community, a primary source of community in my life for sixteen years.  For better and worse, retirement from the profession and/or resignation from the job requires a relinquishment of the community.  A severing of the ties.  There is little (no) wiggle room in the denominational rules about this because it is hard for a church community to bond with a new pastor if the old one is hanging around in the wings.

This is the hardest part.   This is the part that I won’t speak tomorrow, this pending loss.  It won’t be realized until later and there seems no use to visit this pain now.  But I know it and hold it.  Perhaps I’ve known it for a while, perhaps it is why I have felt myself for many months, even years, gently pulling back.  I have been crabby for months now, feeling every slight and struggle in technicolor; perhaps this too has been a symptom that I am making ready for this pending shift.  My dear one says that the loss will be mammoth, I think she speaks the truth. Yet I have rarely in my life had such clarity as I do about the need to make this move, so I make ready for the grief that already surrounds this shift.

Tomorrow I will not share these complicated strands.  Tomorrow I will simply say:

“For sixteen years, I have been privileged to serve this incredible community that we now know as Peace United Church of Christ.  I am grateful for the trust and care that you have shared and honored by the ministry we have shared.  I have come to realize that it is time in my life to close this professional chapter and I have shared with our Governing Body my intention to retire from professional ministry and Peace UCC at the end of this program year (in May).  This morning I’d like to introduce you to our leaders.  These two will be playing primary roles in planning our transition and we are truly blessed to have these leaders.  I’ll let them share a bit more of the process.”  (turn over microphone)

Tomorrow I will model speaking my truth in the simplest, kindest fashion while practicing the new work of turning over the leadership to those who stand in wait.  I will speak of gratitude and hold quiet the waves of grief that I feel lapping at the shore.  There will be many days ahead to give voice to this companion truth.

Morning After

The word is out.  I know because I’ve spent my journaling time responding to the first wave of (kind) emails and messages.  Caught in the daily interruptions, I miss what I need to be doing this morning which is to journal about an encounter yesterday.  It was a gordian knot, a pristine example of what has become unnavigable for me in this season of life.

I had a missed call from my Ex and returned it between meetings yesterday.  Emotionally I was already in overdrive having shared the news personally with each staff member, prepared the mailing and processed with a colleague.  Admittedly I had little to share.

Ostensibly the call was compassionate.  “I was going to offer to take you to lunch.”  What did he know and how?  The rumor mill was already abuzz ahead of the official notice.  Fail.

If the conversation had ended there, there would be no gordian knot.  And if I had time to write, the knot would be a story not a lump in my throat.  But neither happened.

The morning after is already on the run.  And so it begins…

It is public.

Today an email blast made public a private journey.

My career as a minister is coming to a close, a retirement date has been announced and all appropriate parties notified.  In seven months, or less, this chapter of my life will be closed.

This blog is dedicated to the chronicling the journey away from church in search of the sacred.