Since announcing my resignation a week ago, I’ve received all of the emotions expected in the initial stages of grief: shock, denial, pain, anger… It has been difficult for folks and I appreciate that. It has been moving to hear “you are going to be missed,” over and over again.417335319_6cf888999e

Still, part of me is a bit frustrated. I wish that it wasn’t so much about me.

The church, I want to believe, is bigger than her leaders. It is kind of like that theological idea (ex opere operato) I learned way back in seminary: the efficacy of the sacrament is not dependent upon the virtue of the celebrant. I want to think that the church and her mission are bigger than the leaders (lay or ordained) who are at the helm. After all, if it ever was a real church, it was first and foremost Christ’s church.

Lets be serious. As much as this is theologically true, as much as I concur with this idea as a cognitive construct, the church is dependent upon leaders as much as any other human organization. Some people go to church because of the pastor. Others stay away from church because of the pastor.

Pastors have just as much of an opportunity to drag a church down into the dumps as the local business owner can run his shop into the ground. That supervisor can make the job miserable, and a pastor can make serving in that setting difficult. They shouldn’t but they can. Pastors, too, can raise the vision of the whole gang to a level unanticipated. The coach can get more out of those players than they knew was possible. For good or for ill, pastors are leaders like other leaders who can exert great influence on those they lead.

The rub for me is that for churches, the real leader (we pray) is Christ and yet we get so attached to the pastor. And the pastor, in relationship with lay leaders, try and lead in the direction Christ is directing. We (pastors) are just stand-ins, second rate impostors for the real thing. It is like in the liturgy when what we pastors are doing is trying to hide ourselves and point toward something else, to God, to Christ. I once preached in the Palmyra Church of the Brethren. As I climbed into the pulpit I noticed a sign there which only I, the preacher, could see. It said (sic) “Sir, We Would See Jesus.” At our best, that is what we do. It isn’t about me, my ego, my needs. There were many ministers here before me and there will be more after me. It is about the church.

So have people somehow engaged in mass transference (and, pastors, counter-transference), is that what is going on?

While this probably happens in more ways that I want to think about, I don’t believe that what I am experiencing can be reduced to a psychological phenomena. I think it has to do with the very nature of our faith. Christianity is not a philosophy. It is not an idea which betters your life. It is an intersection of practices and beliefs which result in faith: the embodiment of belief in thoughts and action. It is embodied. The ELCA church in town had on their sign: “Belief is in your head. Faith is Belief in your heart.” This embodiment is why people become for us models of faithfulness. We join together with others who share our hopes and beliefs in ways that strengthens our witness. It is even why some people say “I like my pastor.” It is why, when there is trust present, people say, “that is my pastor.”

Then, when someone says, “I am leaving,” or, “I feel I need different challenges,” it doesn’t compute. What do you mean you are leaving? People do not understand why I feel this way. They take it personally. I wonder why they take it personally. I do not fully understand the depth of their emotion about this. They do not understand that I am moved to make this change, and not because I am bored. It makes no sense to me because I have tried to compartmentalize this into a nice neat ‘spiritual box’ refered to as a ‘call’. That is not only what it is.

“Call” is not a cognitive enterprise. We are such children of the Enlightenment that we try to make our faith reside in our minds. It requires more than that, it is an embodied faith that does not accidentally enlist our heart. It is an emotional response, just like the response that you intentionally tap into when you choose hymns to sing or tell a particular story in your sermon.

One man said to me at the door on Sunday, “you’ve broke a lot of hearts.” Another told me “you disappoint me.” I hated to hear that. I was surprised at the depth of those statements. It is scary for this simple country pastor to realize that people make such an attachment to me as I am related to the role of pastor.

Some ministers complain that our place in the social hierarchy has declined. We never really had much power if that is what we thought it was all about. Faithfulness is relational. Christianity is hard to do well in solitude. That is why we stress the incarnation so much. That is why we can together do so much good in the name of Jesus. That is why, when misguided, we can cause so much pain, in the name of Jesus. Like it or not, there is this strong connection…or there should be in the Body of Christ. Worship, Discipleship, service; it is all relational.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Especially in church.