A year ago, I embarked on the voyage of being a deacon in our church. At the time, I had only been a member of the church for three years and had only been involved with the UCC for four. But this was the church we had chosen to raise our children in; this was the church where we had made many wonderful connections and friendships since arriving in Wellesley as new parents in pursuit of new paths.
The church welcomed us, embraced us, incorporated us and celebrated us. Both DH and I were invited to join committees, speak before the congregation and help guide and mold the new directions of the church.
When we started attending, the church’s senior minister, Matt Fitzgerald, was also new. Two months before we discovered the Hills Church, Matt arrived from Chicago with his wife and their two young children, a third on the way. In many regards, Matt was the pivotal reason we started attending. Not only was he a contemporary but his views were contemporary and his sermons were incredibly relevant to us.
Over the next few years, my family got to know his family bit-by-bit. Our children became friends and his wife, Kelli, and I got involved in a film club together. We have long felt—perhaps for professional reasons—kept slightly at arm’s length but the point is, Matt has become more than just our minister, he is also a friend.
In addition to serving as a deacon over this past year, Matt also asked me to serve as co-chair for the search committee to call a new, half-time associate minister. Through this process I got to know our church and the UCC intimately well. I learned about the financial health of our church, the myriad committees in our church, the checkered history of our church and the strong leaders that had formed the church we are part of today.
My journey over the past five years has transported me from passive bystander to active participant. I credit Matt with this transformation. Matt has been an inspiration and role-model for both DH and me and many others like us at church. He asks thoughtful, faith-forming questions without spoon-feeding answers; from the pulpit, he recounts tales from a past that sounds like Mark Twain’s or Truman Capote’s while simultaneously weaving in and interpreting difficult scripture; and, perhaps most importantly, Matt has helped translate a book that’s 2000 years out-of-date into modern English; he’s incredibly smart and unquestionably well-read. In many ways, Matt has defined church for us and made it a place we wanted to attend, raise our children in, bring others to, and financially support .
Yesterday, in an e-mail to the 3,000 members of the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church, Matt informed us that he had taken another job.
I felt let down. I felt sad. I felt flooded with a whole litany of emotions, including disappointment and shock. And even though Kelli had delivered this news to me and another friend late-last week, I still don’t know how to process it.
I’m a product of a broken home. My kind is prone to feeling let down and abandoned by those we love and admire. Even if this new job, which will take Matt and his family back to a large urban church in their home-town of Chicago, is the right move for them, I can’t help but grieve the loss it means for us.
Our church’s previous senior minister held the position for 27 years. Far longer than most people stay in a house, let alone a job. But while 27 years may have been too long, Matt’s five years has been far too short.
Here’s my formula for New England: it takes three years to make friends, five years to settle in. But if you’re not a product of the Northeast, these things are hard to accept and harder still to embrace.
Wellesley is by no means an easy town for the unsuspecting, non-New Englander. It’s full of well-educated, well-heeled parishioners with high net-worths and higher-expectations. People who demand capstone ministry but who hide behind daunting fortresses, unwilling to show their brokenness; afraid to truly be ministered.
Serving on a UCC search committee, I know how long and arduous the search-and-call process is. I know that for Matt to have taken a new position, the process would have started many months ago, right around the time he and Kelli were establishing life-long, New England friends. At last week’s monthly deacon meeting, the first one of the new committee season, Matt looked around the room and saw the positive results five years of settling in to his new church had yielded.
There are interesting times ahead. It will be a time when the leaders of our church are tested and the strength of our congregation is tried. Matt has four months to say good-bye and we have many months beyond to discern what new direction our church will grow in.
We already are living in uncertain times, church is one place many of us rely on for stability and foundation, for community and support. If you remove the corner-stone, will the foundation remain unaltered?
While, of course I wish Matt and his family Godspeed in their transition, I also pray for divine guidance and support for the church, friends and community they leave behind.
Have you ever felt let down by someone in a position of authority? How do you process your grief?