An odd thing would happen, back when I was Reverend Moore, while preparing for Sunday services each week. I enjoyed sermon and adult education prep more than anything else. Just the text, endless commentaries, dreams of how the gospel would get me in trouble this week, and me alone in a chair. Reading, dreaming and running out of my office to bother our daily church volunteer and administrative assistant with an idea was the best part of the week. Hours later they would remind me they had work to do and that they had stopped pretending to listen to me at about “Ched Myers’s socio-literary multidisciplinary approach to biblical hermeneutics.” I loved it. I don’t believe they enjoyed it as much as I did. An idea turned into excitement, into a story, and sometimes, oddly enough, even into something that mattered to someone in the pews. Those days were great. I miss them.
But an idea didn’t always come. Much of the time, I would read the weekly text with great anticipation only left to wonder, “Just what am I supposed to do with that?” More often it would be, “Boring!” And the most common refrain was “The Gospel of John? Again? Gospel of John Jesus sure does love to talk.” I would read the text repeatedly. Read commentaries and lectionary reflections that pretended to be excited but struggled to come to a real point. I would wait for inspiration to come. It often never did. But the crowds would come on Sunday anyway. And like those whose job it was to write lectionary reflections, I had to say something. The need to say something, turned into desperation and into a story, and sometimes, oddly enough, even into something that mattered to someone in the pews. Even worse, the stories that I would tell often became the stories I believed. I would ask myself after the service was over, “What did I just say?” Those days were terrifying. I don’t miss them.
I told stories for a living. Storytelling, I believe, is the principle job of clergy. I told stories from the pulpit. I told stories in Sunday School. I told stories at church council meetings. To couples sitting in my office for premarital counseling, I would tell stories from my engagement, wedding and marriage. They would tell me theirs. And I would try my best to tell how their marriage, their commitment to each other and their own stories could be a part of God’s story life, death and resurrection and that despite all the craziness, it would be a blessing to everyone who experienced it. Others would remember their stories of love and commitment. They would remember that this too is God’s story of love and community. Every moment in the life of the church is an opportunity to see our story as part of God’s history of salvation. To tell it. To live it.
“He who tells the stories rules the world” – Plato (or sometimes as a Native American proverb)
My father served as an usher that day so he had driven to church separately from the rest of the family to arrive early. On the way home, he drove with my brothers. I was riding alone with my mom. I was in the front seat. Youngest of three boys riding in the front seat of the car. Never happened. It was awesome. A deacon who had long served at our church was preaching that morning. She would later tell me that she hated preaching and did not think she was gifted at the task but felt that it was her job to do so about once a year. I didn’t understand why she was preaching that day, so I asked my mom what I thought was a simple question. “Mom, why do people want to become ministers?” She didn’t know how to respond. So she used a phrase that had always bothered her but like our beleaguered pastors, she had to say something. “I guess they feel like they’ve been called.” There it was: an idea. And it mattered.
“Mom, I’ve been called.”
She didn’t understand. She looked at me strangely. There was something foreign about her son.
“Mom, I’ve been called.”
It became my story. I was 7 years old.
I used to walk into the church after it had long been empty and imagine myself as the pastor. There was ample opportunity. I was at the church all the time. Choir, piano lessons, day care, my mom’s exercise classes, church meetings, youth gatherings, there’s a pretty girl in this outreach ministry, Wednesday night dinners… All the time. Plus my mom loved to talk. So we were always the last ones to leave. I would walk to the pulpit and imagine preaching to crowds. I imagined sitting in meetings changing the direction of the church (what little kids day dreams of church planning retreats? Answer: weird ones). From 7 to 25 that’s all I wanted to be. At 25, after 18 years of waiting, after going to business school to better understand the business aspect of church life, after theological education trying to convince everyone else that they were wrong about everything, after 2 years of interning at a local church as the youth minister looking forward to when I could be doing this for real, there I was, standing in the pulpit of my church. I had waited my whole life for this. I couldn’t wait to tell the story. God called me to do this. I was ready. I was going to be great.
Three and a half years later, my father flew into town to help me draft a letter to the district committee on ordained ministry and to my district superintendent in the United Methodist Church regarding my desire to end the ordination process for ministry in the church. It outlined my desire to leave my career as a minister, my reasons for doing so, and just what I might do next. For the next 8 months, I remained the pastor at my church until the time for a new pastor to be appointed. For 5 of those months, nobody knew that I was leaving. 2 months ago, along with my wife, I got on an airplane bound for India. I’ve been running ever since.
Why did I run?
I would love for the answer for that to be a story that I could weave into the story of life, death and resurrection. I would love for my leaving to have been a defiant act in the face of some injustice in the church and to run off as a voice in the wilderness. I would love for it to have been meaningful. But all I have is the truth.
I loved my church and the people there more than I can say. For quite some time, I really loved being the pastor and for the entire time, I loved being their pastor. I hope they don’t read this and think otherwise. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made it a year. But by the end…
I was miserable.
I hated my job.
I dreaded coming into work each day.
I avoided work.
I made tons of excuses.
I procrastinated on everything.
I retreated into the things that I enjoyed (preaching and Sunday School) and avoided much else.
The church wasn’t what I thought it would be.
I wasn’t who I thought I would be.
I was constantly a disappointment to myself and began to resent my choices, my actions and everything else about me.
I struggled with my faith.
I cried out to God. God was silent.
I thought that God speaking to me so clearly when I was a child then being silent when I struggled in the middle of following that calling was cruel. I still think so.
I was alone.
I didn’t hear from anyone in the annual conference for the first 4 months on the job. I thought this was an anomaly. It became the norm.
I had 3 district superintendents in 4 years. Every one of them was hard working, talented, faithful and committed to the church. Every one of them was also so overworked and spread so thin, that I do not think it was possible for them to pay enough attention to their ministers – especially the ones in small churches that attempted to be self-reliant. One was especially helpful and made a real attempt to get to know me and other ministers. He was reassigned within a year. The others, I don’t know. They worked hard, but I have a difficult time believing that I, or my church, was ever what they were working for.
There was very little professional or spiritual support offered to me by leadership. I didn’t seek any out either.
Far too late, I was sent to see a counselor after I confessed some personal issues to the district committee on ordination. The counselor only really wanted to talk about ways to raise money for the church to bridge our approximately $150,000 annual deficit with about an annual offering of $100,000. Her suggestion (repeated suggestions): bake sales and car washes. I stopped going. I didn’t seek out a new counselor.
I had been in the ordination process for over half a decade through different conferences in the UMC. What was started in one conference was promised would be continued in the other. It wasn’t. I had to restart the process entirely. I grew frustrated.
The ordination process was and is ridiculous with far more emphasis on checking thing off lists and saying the correct canned answers and not enough emphasis on getting to know prospective candidates. The culture of large suburban mega churches, who now finance most of the conference budget and from where our leaders emerge, has become the culture of our conference offices. A large emphasis on completing tasks. Little emphasis on knowing the people around us. I struggled. I did not actively try to push myself through. I didn’t trust the people around me. I didn’t reach out for help. As time went on, I don’t think I really wanted it anyway.
My church had massive financial, personnel, and managerial problems of which I was never informed prior to beginning my appointment because the conference office didn’t care to know and previous reported numbers had be falsified. Of our staff of 3, 1 was on the verge of quitting, 1 had already turned in a letter of resignation but had agreed to stay to see how the new minister worked out and 1 had been fired and was suing the church. Multiple members, some who had been there as long as 60 years confessed that they were ready to leave the church, but would wait to see the new minister. I heard accusations of deceit, manipulation and possible fraud from church members before my time to serve even began. The church had rapidly lost membership and donations and had been dipping into its permanent endowment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually (signed off by the district superintendent). Despite business and theology degrees, I was entirely unprepared as to how to address problems of this magnitude – especially when I learned my district superintendent had gone on a 3 months sabbatical starting the day of my appointment. Sending someone with no experience, with little support, who was not from the area, and who wasn’t even ordained into this situation bordered on negligent and showed how how little the conference thought of my congregation. I tried my best to address all the problems. I left the church with a balanced budget, a stable staff, growing membership, growing attendance and growing community involvement and support. But I left broken as well.
When I arrived, the community around the church either didn’t even know we were open, or resented us for not working more closely with them on community issues. We were described to me by one community leader as “the bad church.”
The church elected to close a long running soup kitchen before I arrived due to financial concerns and community appeals. It was a long drawn out fight in the church that ended before my arrival. It seemed our previous minister practically staked his ministry and credibility on it remaining open. He lost. I tried my best at healing and reconciliation. The churches that provided volunteers and funding for our program were primarily suburban churches. When I met with them in the hopes that we could find another venue to continue the ministry, I encountered angry people blaming me and the church for not caring about the urban poor. I met pastors who were a little more diplomatic, but essentially felt the same – I didn’t care about the poor and my church didn’t either. I drove home dismayed and confused back to the city. They drove home feeling justified back to the suburbs. Nothing came of the meetings. The local newspaper showed up to our last Saturday meal. It was Christmas Day. The newspaper interviewed me and printed my statements wildly out of context. They called it, “The Last Supper”. I didn’t go to seminary to close soup kitchens. Everything was wrong.
I began referring to myself as “a fake minister” because I wasn’t ordained. Partly in jest because that’s how I was treated by the conference, but also as a kind of confession because my ordination was taking so long and that’s how I felt myself.
Members who whispered about me when I wasn’t present were incredibly supportive to my face only to have those whispers repeated back to me by their church “rivals” in order to gain some hoped for political favors or support. It happened all the time. I tried to stay out of it. But when you’re the “it”, you’re in it no matter what. It hurt.
The tough choices that I had to make regarding our church’s financial future inflicted heavy costs. I wasn’t healthy or faithful enough to appropriately handle the situation with the pastoral concern that was required. It cost me. It cost the church. A few people stopped coming due to the decisions we made, due to my actions, and due to my mistakes. I wanted to reach out to them. I couldn’t do it.
I trusted in people who betrayed that trust. I paid for it with my credibility, my sanity, and with my wallet. Attempts to extend grace, forgiveness and hospitality were returned with anger. And a few times with lawsuits and threats of violence.
I was broken. Miserable. Depressed. Alone. Ashamed. And tired. God was I tired.
Even reading scripture and preparing for sermons and Sunday Schools became a chore. An idea repeatedly failed to materialize and lectionary texts from the Gospel of John seemed to appear more often than in previous years. “Gospel of John Jesus sure does love to talk.” I forced it most of the time.
I wasn’t able to serve the church in all the ways it needed anymore – if I ever was at all.
I wasn’t faithful.
I was failing at many of my core responsibilities. I often struggled to even try to do so.
I thought my sins beyond forgiveness.
I couldn’t bring myself to forgive the church or the conference.
So I ran.
Starting in August, I traveled to India with a short stop in China. Now I’m in Nepal. Next maybe Bangladesh, maybe Turkey. Then off to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, San Diego (wedding), Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, maybe the Philippines, maybe keep going, maybe find a real job, maybe back into religious work of some kind, maybe the church if my story changes or if the church believes its own lessons of forgiveness. Long term travel has long been a dream of my wife and I, and now we’re just brave enough (or foolish enough) to go for it.
I’ll be seeing sights. Talking to people. Hearing stories. Telling a few. Stopping to see some religious and development work along the way and awkwardly walking in every random methodist church I can find. I’m not looking for enlightenment, but hopefully I’ll have an idea or two.
I’ll be writing along the way here at runningwithjonah. You’ll find weekly lectionary reflections when I’m somewhere around a wifi connection. I’ll be posting about travel and my greatest passions – political economy and religion. Everything this year will be an attempt to answer the question for myself, “Why did I run?” You won’t find a saint. Nor will you find someone who’s an expert in the matters at hand. You’ll just find someone who’s called who’s on the run. But I’m sure as hell not gonna stop telling stories.
So join me for theology on the run. You won’t agree with me. And I’m looking for a fight.