When Church Lets You Down

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and interpreting difficult scripture; and, perhaps most importantly, Matt has helped translate a book that’s 2000 years out-of-date into modern English; he’s incredibly smart and unquestionably well-read.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?

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17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Heather Kelly
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 09:09:30

    OH, dear. That’s a bummer. <–see how I intelligently got right to the crux of the matter? LOL.

    While I love the head minister at our church, and think he's awesome, he does not embody the church for me, If he left, I would still see our church in the same way. However, in my growing up church, had my minister left, I'm not sure I would have stuck around for long. I know what that feels like.

    I feel as though your church has been in a constant state of transition, and right now it must feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under you.

    But you also have this great opportunity for helping to create the next foundation for your church–and to feel even more rooted in your church, which is very cool.

    And, you have a great part-time pastor coming on board, right? Which you were a big part of–that must feel comforting.

    That being said, you know where I'll be on Sunday. You're so welcome to be there as well. 🙂

    Thinking about you.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 15, 2012 @ 13:33:33

      Thanks, H. I’ve been wanting to get together with you since I found out but I’ve been having trouble processing the information (writing about it helped immensely). I knew you’d be sympathetic, since we are at sister churches and so intertwined with the goings-on of one another’s parishes. How about tea on Tuesday?

      Your comments give m good cause for reflection. My initial reaction, since we’re Episcopalians anyway, was to leave the church but you’re right, Matt’s been a terrific leader for a great parish and the latter won’t change (or at least not drastically) once he’s gone.

      While I have no desire to be on the search committee for a new minister, I am glad I’ll be in a position to have some involvement with it and can only hope we will be better prepared to provide finalists with all the information they’ll need before making a major life-change, as Matt had.

      I’m going to stay close to our pulpit while the church needs its deacons most but I’d be grateful if you whispered a prayer of grace in our direction.

      Reply

  2. mari
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 09:47:12

    Well. At least he didn’t leave for the same reason my mother’s pastor left: he had had an affair with another woman who showed up at my mom’s church one day and made it public. I guess it was a huge mess. This happened a couple years ago and they are still pastorless (Presbyterian).

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 15, 2012 @ 13:35:07

      Dear Lord! That must have been a Sunday right out of the scriptures! I’m sorry to hear that, I can only imagine many parishioners were deeply affected by her announcement and that the church will require a fair amount of healing. I wonder if the new minister will be a woman?

      Reply

  3. Wendy Lawrence
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 10:33:31

    I’m really sorry–I know how attached I get to the people at my place of worship and I definitely understand your pain. I’m in the middle of the opposite–my family and I are moving out of state and I will say goodbye to the temple that I have absolutely loved while we’ve been here and the two rabbis who have guided us so well. I really feel like we are moving away from family and am definitely scared about finding another place whose values fit so closely with mine and whose leadership embodies what I feel and think. I wish you good luck finding someone new. Maybe this will be a blessing in disguise–maybe Matt was meant to take you on the first part of your journey and maybe there is someone else who can push you in a different direction. 🙂

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 15, 2012 @ 13:40:51

      Thanks, Wendy. It’s hard not to get involved, when we put so much stock in our places of worship and how they mold our children. On the up side, church/temple shopping can be a draining but rewarding process. You may go into it with a fresh perspective after investing so much in your current temple and you may come out of it with a lot of new insights and ideas.

      Moving is never easy but it’s always exciting. I’ll be sending prayers your way for landing in the right new home. where are you moving to? Maybe we know someone there or can put you in touch with good resources (maybe even a World Moms Blogger).

      Reply

  4. Christine Vara
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 11:06:56

    This post was quite timely for me. This past weekend, my husband and I traveled with our family to NC, where we will be moving to this summer. We’ve lived there before, on and off due to military relocations, and attended a large, active church that we felt very connected with and involved in. However, a new church as built in that time that was actually closer, but we never felt as though we had a connection with the pastor or the parishoners and so we continued to travel out of our local area to where things were familiar. I recall, over the years, experiencing the same dissappointment you are now feeling. Sometimes we were blessed with a new pastor that far exceeded our expectations and then dissappointed when he moved on. However, as we prepare to move back, we’ve decided to give the new, smaller church a visit because of a recent change in the leadership. Boy were we pleasantly surprised. During the service I felt called to get involved. I felt that as a parent to five young children that perhaps I could help to impact some positive changes there. Currently the church is attended by a large number of retirees and when we left the area 3 years ago, the church really didn’t have any programs to support the youth. But the new pastor comes from a college environment and I truly believe that I am being called to devote my time and talent to help this growing parish to embrace the youth and to encourage their participation in the services. Now I just can’t wait to move back and do my part to help ensure that this particular church serves the entire community. I wish you the best as you mourn and heal through this unexpected departure. Perhaps you will find that the path that God has carved out for your church will lead to wonderful blessings for all.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 15, 2012 @ 13:49:19

      Christine, that’s really exciting news and I’m thrilled for the positive impact and direction you’ll make on and take the church in! Keep in mind, good things take time and investment. Matt was just beginning to see the products of that work in our church but when you have young children to consider and family to be away from, sometimes time is also an enemy.

      My spiritual and church-lives have been deeply enriched by my involvement with the women in the generation above me at our church. Not long ago, they were where I am now, raising their children in the church and helping mold the direction of their faith journeys. It may feel sad, at times, to have a small youth program or Sunday school but think how good you’ll feel as you watch it grow and see how you your children will be impacted and raised with mufti-generational guidance too (and since I imagine you’ll be far from your own families, won’t church grandparents make wonderful surrogates?).

      You might even be able to weave Shot@Life into their new curriculum ;o)

      Reply

  5. mary anne w
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 12:31:31

    I’m a product of a broken home. My kind is prone to feeling let down and abandoned by those we love and admire.

    this was a timely thought for me, because of something I’ve been contemplating lately on a more secular level, about certain relationships in my life. I do find myself prone to the latter part of your statement, but had not thought to connect that to the early divorce of my parents and the role that might play in those feelings. I don’t often think of that fact when engaging in self-reflection.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Feb 15, 2012 @ 13:54:25

      MAW, I’m sorry to hear that but I hope that viewing things through a new lens (with this thought in mind) will help bring clarity and understanding to your situation(s). I often battle with my feelings of abandonment. This news from our minister felt like that but it’s certainly not about me and, as many have pointed out, just one piece of my church is changing, not the WHOLE church.

      Good luck as you reflect more intensely on your situations and be forgiving of shortcomings you/we all might have, formed long ago, in a time well beyond our control.

      Reply

  6. slightlywonky
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 20:03:09

    Oh noooo!!!!! I am soooo sorry to hear this news. What a loss for you (and the whole community). Maybe Matt will serve as the model for what you seek in your next minister??? I hope that your new search will end with someone whom you are excited and happy to have join your church. This new person won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t feel happy (or happier!) with the unique things that he/she will bring. You will need time to grieve, though…so don’t be hard on yourself for feeling sad about this news for some time. This is a big loss, as Matt and his family are such an important part of your world. Try to savor the time that you have with them before they go. What if you spent the next months writing down what they have meant to you? You can decide if you compile this and give it to them as a parting gift…or, if you keep it private and just use it as a reminder of how important their kindness and thoughtfulness have been to you. Maybe that’s sappy, but these big feelings in life are about what really matters most: people…love…generosity of spirit…community…

    BIG BEAR HUG 🙂

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Mar 06, 2012 @ 21:57:35

      Wow, I appreciate your sage advice and thoughtful ideas. In many ways, I wish Matt and family were going to be around long enough to really get to know and grow with but I also feel very blessed and happy for the time we’ve had with them. The past month has proven that the church is more than just the strength of its ministers, many parishioners have reached out and been in conversations with me and others about how they are processing the information and how hopeful they are about our church’s future. I am sure we will identify a great new minister but it will be hard to let go of the terrific one we now have. Thanks for the hug, I need it.

      Reply

  7. Suzu
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 09:14:39

    I second the big bear hug. Your comment about being the product of a broken home just broke my heart. The emotions tied up in having your minister ALSO be your friend are very, very complex. It’s almost as if you hold them to a higher level — which really isn’t fair. But these friends/ministers do touch you in deeper ways than if they were just one or the other. I’m glad he and Kelli mean so much to you and your family — your feelings of loss show just how much they do.

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Mar 06, 2012 @ 22:00:28

      Thanks, Suzu, I’ll take all the Bear Hugs I can get. Though I’ve had friends who are also ministers, I’ve never been friends with MY minister before and that’s the hardest part. I also marvel at Matt’s wisdom and calm demeanor, which often strike me as well beyond his years. He has evolved the church in many positive ways in his 5 years here. I hope we can keep his positive momentum and energy going once he departs.

      Reply

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  9. Cal Hill
    Aug 02, 2013 @ 03:16:12

    26 yrs ago we left Wellesley Hills and our active mbrshp in the Hills UCC. and began life ‘a new’ here in New Hampshire. Before leaving the Hills church; I served on the Prudential comm and during my last yr on Prudential was responsible for church personnel.
    When we left the Hills church I had moved on to the Diaconate.

    Well, with our {2} kids we ‘shopped’ church’s,here on the Seacoast, particularily church education and youth programs. Would you believe, we have never moved our Wellesley Hills UCC membership.

    You were ‘right on’ defining the time it usually takes to feel welcome ‘ & accepted here in New England. I was born in Boston raised in Newton and spent 13 yrs in 2 homes in Wellesley, We thoroughly enjoyed our association at the Hill’s church, but have never felt welcome or comfortable in a UCC congregation here in New Hampshire.

    I am now retired and my wife will soon be joining me {in retirement} after 18 yrs at Exeter Academy. We’re looking forward to moving to Charleston, SC, where we will be joining a church,probably Presbyterian.

    I hope you’re still involved at the Hills UCC. There are some grand & caring folks who make up the special fabric of the Hill’s church Congregation….PEACE….

    Reply

    • growingmuses
      Aug 10, 2013 @ 19:40:05

      Cal, Thanks for your kind words. Yes, the Hills Church is a place full of caring and warm people but sometimes the more you know about a place, the harder it is to find spiritual rejuvenation there. I must admit, my affinity for and involvement with WHCC is waning. I am touched that you still feel such an attachment and sorry to hear, after all these years, that you never found a church home you liked as much. I assure you that many of the good people you knew 26 years ago: like the Swahnberg/Novatnys, Canavans, Parkers, Epsteins, Whitakers and Dishmans, are all still there and leading the church forward into it’s next chapter. And I wish you all the best as your next church hunt begins, in your new home. Thanks for reading.

      Reply

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