Once upon a time a little girl asked her mother to take her to Sunday School.
Years later she would wonder about the incongruance of the request. They were not a church family, there was no particular Sunday School she was asking to visit. The little girl simply knew that she wanted to be in a Sunday School, any Sunday School.
She had visited Sunday School with friends, she knew about the little tables, the stories, the colorful worksheets, the stale cookies. She also knew about the teachers, the adults who volunteered their time and their hearts to join the children on Sunday mornings in classrooms all across the land. She knew, most importantly, that Sunday School was a place where wonder was embraced. In Sunday School, stories were shared about why the green stem emerged from the seed buried in the paper cup.
As I step aside from church, I pause to remember the little girl’s story, my story. In so many ways I’ve spent my life chasing a mirage. Inasmuch as the little girl was reaching for the community of church, a family of nurturing to gird up her hungry heart, the church has been both bane and blessing. As I survey the landscape with the gift of my rearview mirrors, I can see the church delivering big and failing miserably with pretty much equal measure. Most vexing is the unpredictability.
In my most recent transition, that of leaving professional ministry, I have been grieving the emotional double punch that leaving the payroll means forfeiting the community. This institutional structure, which I understand and largely support, has a crippling effect on community, at least for the pastor. Sometimes church communities thrive independent of the minister, with the minister filling the role of either hired servant or guide. This is particularly effective in settings where the judicatory relationships are strong and clergy are assigned to parishes (and moved frequently), where parsonages make clear the transient nature of the relationship, and where clergy find community with colleagues rather than the local church. In settings where clergy are members of the congregation, however, where the clergy buy homes in the community, and stay for a couple of decades, the role of the pastor in the context of community becomes more complicated. More often than not, the complications begin long before a departure makes them evident.
As I read the scrapbook of beautiful memories shared at my departure from church, I was deeply touched by one page that read: “Four Baptisms, Four Confirmations, and One Wedding”. The page was created by a family with whom I’d the privilege to share these precious milestones and the bond we share is thereby deep. Having shared enough years to touch these milestones, however, means that they also shared mine. This particular family shared mine with amazing grace, but not everyone wants to share the milestones of their professional staff, especially the messy ones.
At each of the milestones in my life, I watched community members peel off; new ones joined as the pruned branches making way for new life, but the scars bear witness to the losses. As I glance at the milestones in the mirror, I see the images of those whom I have loved and lost. I miss the Sunday School teachers from my childhood, my college roommate who sang Amy Grant’s “El Shaddai” with me, my daughter’s namesake from my first church, and my children’s surrogate grandparents in the church where they were baptized. And I am missing all those lost in the process of leaving this church today.
While there is a plentiful crowd in the rearview mirror, as I start this next post-church leg of the journey there are precious few in the seat beside me. I wonder what to say to the little girl who went to the neighborhood Sunday School in search of companions on the spiritual quest. It’s tempting to close my heart, stomp my feet, and refuse to love again. It’s tempting to tell the little girl that Sunday School is a place where her heart will be broken, but the sad truth is that hearts are simply fragile and Sunday School no more treacherous than any other community endeavor.
While seasons rife with drama tempt me to warn the little girl that she’s in pursuit of a mirage, I know this is only partial truth. What is perhaps more helpful is that even the most beautiful days come to an end; that the promise of “this too shall pass” is balanced with the prophecy that “this too shall pass”. When Sunday School teachers rotate out of the cycle at the end of the unit doesn’t mean that don’t love us. When families find a new church that better fits their needs it doesn’t mean that our friendship failed. When the life that emerged from the seed in the paper cup comes to an end, it doesn’t devalue the miracle. And when it is time to leave the community that I have loved, it doesn’t mean that what we shared wasn’t spectacular. It was.
But I don’t need to explain this to the little girl. She knows about the short life cycle for the seed in the cup and she knows how to lament for loves lost. In fact it was probably her pushing me out the door last night to meet a new group of friends with whom to share the wonder of the sacred. And I am pretty sure it was she who laughed with me today as another new friend and I shared matters of the heart. Humored by the hubris of the grown up me and grateful for the childlike wonder that still dances unbidden, I realize that I have a new day to practice embracing impermanence.
At least for today, though, I think I’ll find my cookies outside of Sunday School.