Friday, July 27, 2012

Changing Churches

This week, I wrote two important letters.  The first was a letter to my current congregation, Prince of Peace in Gaithersburg, MD where I have been truly blessed to serve for nearly five years as a pastor. I wrote to inform them that I had taken a new call and to start the process of telling them how much they have meant to me.  I wrote it through tears.
Palm Sunday at Prince of Peace
I pressed send to get that letter out and immediately opened a blank document in order to start my welcome letter to Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, where I have been called to be their new Pastor. I wrote that letter with excitement and anticipation.

All week I've been holding opposing emotions in my heart.  Sadness at leaving a church I have loved gives way to thrill about what the new church will hold.  Grief gives way to joy turns back into tears. It's a weird time, but there's nothing particularly unique nor ground-breaking about what I'm going through. Pastors come and pastors go. People leave jobs and positions all the time.  It's called transition.

What is unique is the character of the relationships built through church. For pastors and members alike, leaving a church is hard and anticipating a new church is exciting precisely because what it means to be church is so special.  With a church, you share the most profound moments of your life: births, funerals, weddings, crises, joys.  You share them with people you would not know except for church. And you do it all in the awareness of God's grace at the heart of it all.  What a gift.

In my life, I have left 6 churches (Peace in Robbinsdale Minnesota; Namulenga Catholic Church in Malawi; Bethlehem in Minneapolis; Bethesda in New Haven; Luther Place Memorial in Washington DC; InnerCity Lutheran in Windhoek, Namibia.). I list them because each of them has had great influence on my life and my faith.

I've left all but one under good, normal circumstance.  The exception was Peace in Robbinsdale. It was the church of my childhood but, because it was Missouri Synod Lutheran, it could not be the church of my adulthood.  I left because it didn't welcome all people to the communion table.  Since I left it has been increasingly important to me to be part of a church that affirms women as pastors (ahem!) and gay and lesbian people as fully human - neither of these is possible in the Missouri Synod.

Peace, Robbinsdale taught me about Jesus and made me who I am. For that, I love it.  It remains my parents' church and I feel welcomed when I go to visit. Still, I'm formed by the fact that I left that church and denomination.

It strikes me that people are in process of leaving church (or having their church leave them) all the time.  It's a huge transition and one that people who don't belong to a church perhaps don't understand.  Currently, the Catholic church has been creating so much negative press among my friends and I keep hearing: what is so powerful about a church that you stay even when you don't agree with so much?

If I were staying at Prince of Peace, I'd be planning intentional conversation about the Catholic Church and the big cultural shift taking place.  Many Catholics are fleeing; far more are trying to figure out how to stay faithful in a church that is straying farther and farther from their sense of the gospel.  The character of church relationships are so unique that it's worth examining from time to time what it means to be church together.

But, I'm not staying at Prince of Peace.  Though I've known for a while that this was likely, it still is hard to wrap my head around.  I'm leaving. I keep imagining the future at Prince of Peace and then I remember, my dreams belong elsewhere.  Prince of Peace,Gaithersburg, will be on the list of churches I have left. I have loved it dearly.  I'm sad. I'm excited.  I'm grateful.

Peace and joy - Pastor Sarah

PS - below are pictures of two of my former churches: Luther Place on the day of my ordination and the women's prayer group, Women on the Move, at InnerCity Lutheran in Namibia.

Ten for Ten. Ten reasons it's great to be a pastor, in celebration of my 10 year anniversary of ordination.

I'm in there somewhere. I was ordained at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington DC on November 10, 2007, ten years ago today. ...