Note: I originally wrote this post in January 2019. 18 months later we made the decision to leave this church. It feels like now it’s time to let this post see the light of day.
We were ten years at our first church out of college.
After those ten years we recognized that we had poured ourselves into the church to the point of exhaustion. I was leading the worship ministry; my wife was leading behind the scenes doing meals, funerals, kitchen stuff – the practical glue that holds a small church together. We had two kids and a third on the way. I had a full-time job outside of the church. It was just too much.
We went around and around trying to figure out how to lighten the ministry load without throwing it off altogether. When I tried to shed tasks my pastor would tell me that he sympathized, but that the church just needed me, that I was almost indispensable, and that they would be in a bad place if I quit.
We watched our handful of real friends at church move out of town or to other churches. When we finally decided the only way to get out was to, well, get out, I found that the pastor who I thought was my friend really cared more about the ministry than about me. The day he called to ask how it was going and I told him that I was leaving the church, he said he wanted to sit down and talk about it… but he didn’t have time in his schedule until two weeks later. Maybe he was just cutting his losses.
We landed at another church, a bigger one this time, where it’d be harder for us to become indispensable. Our new church had a full-time worship pastor. He listened to my tale of burnout and was protective of my schedule. We developed what felt like a friendship – at least, we’d meet for lunches semi-regularly where we talked about life and ministry for 2 – 3 hours at a go. (Is that what passes for friendship when you’re an adult?)
18 months ago the creative and philosophical differences between the worship pastor and me got great enough that, no matter how much we discussed them, I just couldn’t stay on board. So, I documented my issues, sent my regrets, and bowed out as gracefully as I knew how. And once again, a pastor who I thought was my friend cut his losses, told me we should do lunch sometime, and then never talked to me again. (Note: six months after originally writing this, that pastor did get in touch and we met for an hour so he could get clarification on some things I said. It was a weird and awkward meeting. We haven’t talked again.)
Three months after I left the worship ministry, that worship pastor left our church to serve in another ministry and I got asked to be the interim worship ministry leader. I’ve been doing that a year now, with probably at least another year to go before we get someone back on staff to lead it up. Nobody’s yet told me that I’m indispensable, but if I were to bail, the next guy in line who’d pick up the slack would end up just that much closer to burning out, too.
We’ve been ten years now at our current church.
It feels like a familiar path. My wife is back to organizing the kitchen, doing luncheons for funerals, quietly helping hold things together. I’m leading the worship ministry. One by one the handful of people we counted as friends have moved out of town or to other churches. And I’m sensing the exhaustion start to creep back in.
At this point I start to wonder – what am I doing wrong? Or, more painfully, what’s wrong with me? Is this just some sort of built-in ten year cycle, and it’s time to go find a different church? Does that mean that ten years from now I’ll be 50, an empty nester, and starting to look for yet another church? I don’t think I really want that.
But then what’s the lesson? Never befriend pastors? Never agree to lead a ministry? Follow your friends to their new churches? Resign myself to the idea of serving because I can and assuming that this sort of lonely weariness is just what God has for me?
It’s a hard decision to even start considering, with kids involved in student ministries and investment in the current people and church efforts and the difficulty of finding and fitting in someplace else. But how much longer should we wait? It’s been ten years.