What broke me

I’ve been stuck in suspended animation since the end of 2011. In significant ways, everything that has happened since, the personal and professional failures, feel rooted in the events of that year. I feel like I have written and spoken ad nauseum about that time of my life. At the same time, digging into this time feels like the key to my movin forward. So here goes…

I graduated from seminary in 2007. After finishing my MDiv I went back to Pittsburgh to be the mission advancement manager of The Pittsburgh Project. In hindsight, that was the “successful” season of my professional career. The Project’s service camp enrollment was the highest it has ever been. We were poised for growth and expansion. We had a robust staff. My work was being noticed. I was being considered, strongly, to become associate executive director of the organization. All good things…

… except, I had just spent 3 years being trained to see myself as a pastor in a congregation. My seminary at the time was pretty laser focused on preparing its students for traditional pastoral ministry. I had always thought I might return to a non-profit like the Pittsburgh Project… well, exactly like the Pittsburgh Project, but when I got there I discovered that I had been programmed with the thought of myself as a congregational pastor and I couldn’t shake that image. It didn’t help that I had two excellent internships where I got to wear the role of pastor with full support from excellent supervisors. So I wasn’t content with where I was at the Project. I started serving a congregation part time in a Pittsburgh community. I got into the rhythm of preaching every week and moderating a session, but I felt like I could do more if I was there full time. That wasn’t a possibility in that congregation and I wanted to have that experience.

And then we got pregnant. And by “we” I mean my wife. I helped, but she did the hard work. We didn’t think we could, so we were pretty excited. Also somewhat terrified. I started looking for full time pastoral jobs across the country. I was offered jobs at five different congregations, which is pretty exciting for someone seeking their first call. We narrowed it down to two churches; one was a small village congregation in upper New York right on Lake Superior. The other was an urban congregation in Springfield, Ohio, a declining former factory town of about 60,000 people. I’ll admit here that my ego was very much at play in this decision. I felt like the village church would be less of challenge. It seemed like any warm body could go in there as a full time pastoral presence in a town that had only one protestant church, and make that congregation healthy. The Ohio church, on the other hand, well… the chair of the search committee told me straight up that in three years the church would either be something different or it would be dead. Challenge accepted! I guess I also felt like the church was already failing and that if it closed it wouldn’t be my fault per se.

Being the new pastor in a small city is big news. Front page news, to be exact. The headline read something to the effect that the Presbyterian church was hiring their first black pastor. There was nice article with a couple of quotes about change and nice headshots. The honeymoon at Oakland was pretty amazing. My son was born three weeks after I started. My first baptism, that of my boy, was the first the church had had in years. It seemed like every day I was meeting someone else in the community who was expressing a desire to work with me. During that early period I tuned out my doom and gloom clerk of session who was constantly talking about our perilous financial situation. I was confident that we would find ways of righting the ship.

During the summer of that first year my wife went back to work. We never planned for her to be a stay-at-home mom. Her career was important to us. She’s a bilingual social worker, so it was easy for her to find work. My schedule was more flexible, so I figured I could help out some with childcare. Sometimes the boy would hang out in the office in the pack and play. We did pay a woman to watch him in her home. She was a wonderfully nice woman, but she was wildly inconsistent. More days than not, the boy hung out with me. That’s when some of the negativity started. People whisper. Church people whisper in passive aggressive tones. I heard older church ladies complain about my not being available because I was with my son. They would question why my wife wasn’t doing “her job”. The funny thing was that people complained about my not doing enough visits, but that summer I did visits with baby in tow. You know what cheers up sick people? Adorable six month olds! It was never those in need of a visit who complained. That summer was also when I became hyper-aware of how different the folks in the pews looked from the folks in the neighborhood. The pews were filled with white senior citizens while the streets were filled with a diverse group of young families. This struck me as problematic. Even more so, I found it problematic that the growth strategy seemed to be get back the people who have left. Some of those who had “left” did so through death. There was no thought of reaching new people, especially not if those people were different in anyway.

The new school year started and I had made some connections with some other organizations in town who were working with youth. Every effort I made to think through ways of inviting new youth into the church or to develop programming for young people was met with either indifference or outright hostility. To make it worse, the loyal young people we did have in the church were treated very poorly. They were critiqued for what they wore to church. Their behavior when they stayed in worship was analyzed. They were looked down upon when they didn’t stay in worship. It was frustrating. How were we supposed to bring in new young people when we treated the young people we did have like they were a nuisance? And these were good kids! Really good kids! It pisses me off to think about some of the things that were said to and about them…

A few months into the school year and all of the connections I was attempting to make were coming up short. Worse, the church was hemorrhaging money. For a church our size, we had a lot of staff. Plus our building was old with quite a bit of deferred maintenance. We needed to care for some of those neglected projects if we were going to take advantage of the space that we had to offer the community. The November session meeting was the beginning of the “come to Jesus” time. I had been told in seminary that you don’t make changes during your first year in a new call because you are the change. That was bad advice for my circumstance. In hindsight, I should have been turning over tables from the door. The doom and gloom clerk, suddenly seemed like the only realistic person in the room. During that meeting, I told the session that I would develop a process that would engage the entire church in thinking through how we would turn things around. We would celebrate Advent and Christmas and then we would get to work.

I wrote quite a bit about our discernment process at the time. You can read that on my other blog.  It was a five month process where we met as an entire church every other week to discuss six different options for moving forward. We talked about my going to part time, sharing our space, merging with another church, starting another ministry within our own, thinking through a parish model with other congregations, and closing the church well. They were hard conversations. Perhaps the best part of the process was that the church was getting together for prayer and food. Nearly every meeting ended with someone expressing why that week’s idea wouldn’t work for us. It was an incredibly disheartening process.

I should say that it was a this point that I got on twitter. I started connecting with other like minded pastors who became an incredible support for me. I got connected with my UNCO community. They were an amazing sounding board for me. They cheered me on through the process.

I should also say that my wife was getting increasingly disgusted with the church. She could see that I was getting beaten up in the process. I would come home from session meetings and pour myself a glass of scotch and sit in silence. I would come home from our discernment meetings and take a nap. She and the boy definitely weren’t getting the best of me.

I do hope that you’ll read my posts on the other blog. I don’t want to rewrite everything I wrote there. When the discernment process ended the church chose the seventh option, the option to do nothing. I felt like I had to give them that option. It was, after all their church, not mine. I railed against it. I told them it was the least faithful option. I told them we would have to go through the process again. I told them they would be flushing their own work and time down the toilet. It didn’t matter. After the congregational meeting where they decided to do nothing, a visitor who sat in on the meeting came up to me with a concerned look on her face. “Derrick, I heard something really disturbing. I was sitting behind two ladies. I heard them say they voted to do nothing because someone would die and leave the church money and everything would be fine”. There you have it, folks. Our sustainability plan was to kill off a few folks in hopes that they would leave their life savings to the church for sentimental reasons.

There was another thing that made the last few months hostile. My thirtieth birthday was January 12th 2010. It was the day of the massive earthquake that killed thousands in Haiti. From that day on, I heard a small voice telling me to go to Haiti. I got a chance offered to me at the beginning 2011. One of my ministry colleagues went down there regularly and invited me to come with her. I first offered that if anyone wanted to come with us, I would welcome their presence. I then asked if they would be willing to support me financially as I went. Finally I asked if they would donate toothpaste, crayons, or anything I could take with me to help out the orphanage I was going down there to serve. Nothing. They did nothing. In fact, they were pretty angry that I went. Haiti changed me. It was my first experience of poverty on that level. It’s hard to tolerate the bullshit we complain about when you see both the conditions that some people live in and the ways that our government affects the lives of people in other countries. The Sunday I was back in worship after going to Haiti, I preached what was, and maybe still is, one of my favorite sermons entitled “Citizens of a heavenly kingdom”. It was not well received. I talked about our primary allegiance being to the Kingdom of God and that we should be critical of the ways that American power is used to hurt others in the world. Did I mention that this was on July 3rd and most of our hymns were of the patriotic variety? Maybe the timing wasn’t great. I stand by the message though.

After months of going back and forth, I decided that I could not be a part of whatever the next steps would be for the congregation. Whatever goodwill I had was completely spent. There was the exhaustion from the discernment process, my Haiti trip, my July 3rd sermon, plus Amendment 10-A passed that May which allowed for the ordination of LGBT ministers. I spent much of the summer defending that. We lost several prominent (read: “wealthy”) members of the congregation over that. My race, age, and politics were used against me. Certain members of the congregation would leave notes for me in the pulpit contradicting a position of mine in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. It was taking a toll on me.

On Easter of that year, I had a panic attack. It took awhile for me to realize that that is what it was. I couldn’t breathe. My chest tightened. I lost my balance. This was before worship began and continued into the start of the service. I was carrying the pressure that this might be this church’s last Easter service on me and it was devastating. I should have known then that my mental health was too heavily invested in what was happening with the church. I should have begun my exit then and there.

I remember a few things about the Sunday I resigned. My friend Mary Charlotte preached a great sermon. One member of the church cried and embraced me. “What’s going to happen to us now,” she asked. Devastating. Several folks didn’t make eye contact with me again after that point. Later that day, The Steelers got blown out by the Ravens in the season opener. I grilled portabella mushrooms. And my wife wasn’t feeling well. Two days later we would find out that she was pregnant. I’ve never had good timing.

I say this in all humility, I preached some great sermons the final two months I was at Oakland. I called it being a professional. The truth is that I loved these folks, I deeply loved them and I still wanted them to know that they were worthy of God’s best. Attendance plummeted. Our financial worries were exacerbated. I was balancing that anxiety with that of trying to find a new job to care for my growing family. I had several interviews where there was zero follow up. I got rejection letters for positions for which I did not apply. I turned down two positions on the West Coast because of distance.

My last Sunday at Oakland was Christ the King Sunday, the week before the start of Advent. They had a little reception for me afterwards, but I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. Two years earlier I had come in with such hopes. I felt like I let them down. I felt like I was bailing because I wasn’t going down with the ship. One of the members who had been my biggest supporter called me a rat jumping off the boat.

I failed.

Intellectually, I can tell you I did all that I could. I can tell you that there was a part of the bargain that the church didn’t live up to. I can tell you that first calls are always hard and that I was young and on and on and on. I can do all of that in my head. In my heart, I felt like a failure. The message in my head wasn’t getting to my heart and I cracked. I sunk into a deep depression. Depression, I have discovered, isn’t so much about happy or sad. It is about vitality. I had none. I couldn’t feel joy. I couldn’t feel the love that surrounded me. I couldn’t enjoy much in life. I felt that everyone looked at me as a failure.

Oakland closed nearly a year to the date that I resigned. The news of its closing retriggered my depression, as did driving past the boarded up building. The summation of my time there is that the people had reached a point where they feared change more than they feared death. They wanted the place they knew to be there so that, when their number got called, someone would be there to bury them and mourn their passing. That isn’t bad. It’s just fundamentally different from how I was defining church.

I should have taken some time between Oakland and my next church job. I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t recovered. I needed to work. I should have gone to Barnes and Noble then! I did foolish, self destructive things that could have hurt my church more than they ultimately did. Thank God for the pastor who came in after me. Don’t get me wrong, I did some good things at that church, but I was in bad shape.

I feel like I could go on and on. Maybe I’ll do something more with this at some point. I write this for pastors. We need to care for ourselves better. We need to know our limits. We need to manage both our expectations and those of the people that we serve. I write this for churches. Your pastors are human, frail and vulnerable, trying to balance the logistics of keeping a community of people afloat with a sense of Divine calling. I write this for the depressed. Know your triggers. Get help. Back away when you must. I write this for those who love the depressed. We don’t always know what we’re feeling in the moment nor do we have the ability to control it. Love us anyway. I write this for all of us. We need each other.

10 thoughts on “What broke me

  1. Thanks Derrick! I really appreciate this. I’m in my first church as Pastor and it’s a struggling older congregation in Pittsburgh. They’re paying a lot of lip service to the idea of change, but I’m really having a hard time seeing an actual commitment to doing what it would take to see the church thrive. There was the expectation when I started a year ago that having a young pastor would inevitably lead to having young people coming back to the church. I’ve felt the weight of these expectations (both my own and the congregation’s) and am trying to find ways to engage people with the reality of what it takes to create change. It’s been especially difficult for me as I am only part time at the church. A pastor told me recently that he had never seen a struggling church grow with a part time pastor. That really took the wind out of my sails. Anyway, I think the difficulty for me is finding the balance between self-care and self-motivation. Any resources you’ve used in this journey that you recommend?

  2. I’m so grateful to you for sharing your experience, Derrick. I, too, closed a church my first call (8 years ago) and while I’ve made peace with it, the “what if’s” never go away–at least not yet. Thank you for your honesty, courage and faithfulness. Your words are a vital witness to the church that we need to talk about this subject much more than we do. Prayers for you and your family.

  3. Derrick, there was so much at play in the situation you describe. In some ways I am wondering where the presbytery was in all this… and I can answer that question by looking at my own presbytery, which has decided not to invest any longer in an EP, which means all the leadership is twice as overworked, and therefore not in a position to think creatively or strategically. I am sorry you went through this. But you did not fail. You came through a perfect storm of a number of factors completely out of your control, including the fact that our seminaries are not training us for this kind of work. And you came through it with deep wisdom about what might be needed “next time.”

    Thank you for your candor. Peace to you.

  4. I appreciate your story, Derrick. I served on the Pastor Search Committee for my church and learned a lot about the interim time: the importance of having a good interim pastor doing the work of helping a congregation assess it’s situation, open some cupboards & air some closets. Had your congregation been given this professional treatment before you were hired, you wouldn’t have walked into such a disaster, or at least, you would have had a fuller sense of disclosure about what you were walking into. As it is, as a young pastor, you couldn’t have known what to look for.

    The Presbytery’s COM should have performed the role of ensuring a good interim period. COM’s provide a representative on pastor search committees for just that reason. That is what Presbytery is there for. That’s why we pay them their per capita. As it was, without the congregation getting a soul searching to clarify their sense of mission (or lack there of) you were set up to fail.

    I have to wonder about Seminaries turning out professional “church executives.” I don’t think that model is Biblical or sustainable in the 21st century. The young (man) who graduates seminary, and over a 40 year career finds a youth leadership position, followed by an assistant pastorship followed by a Sr. pastor job, then honorably retires with his BOP income to do good retirement volunteer work is just not going to happen much going forward. More likely, the seminarian is working part or full time at some corporate job while working through a nonprofit that doesn’t pay the bills but changes the world. Meanwhile “being a pastor” in that corporate environment is every bit as vital to God’s plan to reach people with His love as the nonprofit activity. Jesus went where people were. If it’s not the pews, it’s the copy machine.

    I’d encourage you to keep looking for where God is at work. Go there and see how you can join him. Just keep going. Oh, and love that woman whose putting up with you. She’s your best gift.

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