Ending the “Interim”

lamentations340Working on staff in certain churches,
and with certain people,
can be a soul-bruising experience.

Earlier this year (2015), I resigned my “interim” position as pastor for children, youth and family in a local congregation. They had planned on me being there through 2016. And strangely, after I resigned, they asked me to stay through the end of 2015! But I needed to get out of there with my personal integrity and mental health intact.

The relief started the moment I resigned, and I’m writing this post now after several months of reflection to record my thoughts for myself, as well as, family and friends. I have the annoying habit of trying to learn from things. If this helps you, that’s a bonus.

Working on a church staff can be wonderful, but it can also be soul-bruising.  No wonder 57% of ministers say they would leave church work if they could find something better, and half will within ten years. It’s a statistic I can now personally understand. Fortunately, I had my work with Sunday Software and Rotation.org to fall back on, and in fact, maybe it is BECAUSE I had other ministry irons in the fire –it was easier to walk away from a bad situation that was getting worse.

Sometimes you need to shake the dust from your sandals.

My Version of the Story
(Since originally posting this, I’ve expunged the gory details in an attempt at grace. Healing sometimes requires a lack of reminders.)

I was working a 25 hr/week job
crammed into 15 officially paid hours,
and paid a minimum wage.

I was being paid half of what my predecessor had been paid, and with no benefits. I think they assumed that since I had an outside job, I wouldn’t mind making less than the nursery worker. I agreed to it as a favor to the pastor, and they agreed that “next year” they would get serious about compensation.

The first year on the job I had to invent a Sunday School from scratch for a new building they had moved into. New rooms, new teachers, new curriculum. new committees. Everything. We also started a children’s fellowship and family fellowship that same year. All these improvements were well-received.

Second year rolled around, and four months into it I was informed that the promised salary review was not going to happen. I resigned the following week, but not entirely over money. Their reneging on the promise of “doing right” was simply the last straw in a series of unfortunate events.

If they truly did not have the money, I would have sucked it up and stayed. But they had money flowing in, were slowly growing, paid their full-time staff quite well, and had just started their second building campaign in 3 years -taking in a million dollars.

Their broken salary promise was simply the last straw.

“Straws”

(1) Being lied to, and having my requests for budget data repeatedly questioned or ignored.  I put this first because integrity and honesty are really important to me, and on that score, several people let me down. Every expense was approved in committee and submitted with receipts. We came in UNDER budget, but the finance people treated us like children. Never experienced that particular issue in any other church. My predecessor had created a big budget deficit, and I was asked to stay quiet about some money donated to the children’s program which was “appropriated” for other purposes.

(2) Real Spiritual Attack.  I know that sounds dramatic, but I finally came to the conclusion that it was happening. When you are on staff, there are certain members who will come after you in ways you don’t expect, -even people you thought you had a good relationship with prior to coming on staff. (See my description about four of them below.) I confided in a friend what these people did and said, and she called it “a spiritual attack.”  At the time, I thought she was being a bit dramatic, but later I realized, she was absolutely right.

(3) Run-ins with people who were big givers. 

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with the big donor who described himself to several people as “a benevolent dictator” -who thought he was in charge of the building, and others were afraid to contradict him. I was not.

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with a retired big donor who called a special meeting to tell the pastor that I should work for free, and who’s husband was on the Personnel AND Finance team. A year later, she got her wish. Did I mention she openly talked about being in therapy?  In retrospect, I should have seen her coming, …for me.

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I would have a run-in with a retired lawyer and big donor over what kind of shirts I should wear to celebrate Communion in, and how I should pray during the pastoral prayers. Lovely man actually, but actually called himself one of the congregation’s “defenders of tradition.” I tried to be nice.

⇒Perhaps it was inevitable that I should be pilloried as a gender bender by a retired, gun-toting, right wing, big donor who became upset when I had a woman (my daughter) read the part of Adam in a creative Bible reading. She came unglued.

Kids today might call them “bullies.”

Some people think you work for them, not with them.
They think their tone doesn’t matter.
Many don’t have filters.

I personally apologized to each of them for the disagreements they were having with me, …without accepting blame. (I’m an adult, not a sycophant). But it didn’t much help. Bullies are usually EMBOLDENED by no-fault apologies.

Where was the pastor in all this? Trying to smooth feathers.  But let’s face it: the pastor wasn’t going to offend well-established older members who were big donors. Once I saw that, I saw the handwriting on the wall.

Being over 50, just a bit experienced, and not being in awe of ministers or people with money anymore, I do admit that I have an inability to hide my incredulity.™  I’m not wound tight, but also, I ADMIT that I sometimes do not get along with people who are wound tight. And when those people come after me for their own purposes, it’s a match made in hell.

Churches talk about being “families.”. And truth is, some families suck, especially if the family has bullies.

(3) Senior Pastors do not always have your back. They have their own agendas, priorities and stresses. They are loathe to offend donors. And when you no longer trust your boss, you need to do them and yourself a favor –and move on.

(4) Optimism and “the flattery of being asked” can lead you to the wrong decision.  Prior to starting on staff, my family and I had already considered “moving on” to another church for a number of reasons, mostly related to the long drive. We enjoyed many of the people, but were also feeling that the worship, sermons, and music weren’t meeting our needs. Furthermore, each of us had experienced interactions with people that left us feeling uncomfortable. So when the job offer came, we decided to stick it out.

(5) Leaving isn’t easy, no matter why, or how fast it happens, or how you do it. You can feel it coming. And you know something will probably happen to precipitate it.  And even after I quit, it was still weird and my heart was still torn.

Even after I told them why I was quitting (broken promises, way underpaid, being treated like a child, bullying members, unsupportive and indecisive pastor) the pastor asked me to stay for 6 more months!  And when I said no, I was then asked to continue in the job as a volunteer!  In a word, “sick.”

Short of a crime being committed,
I believe that staff people should leave quietly, and that’s what I did.

I put on a brave face,
let the pastor come up with the face-saving reason why I was resigning,
choked down the going-away cake,
and literally left by the back door.

(6) And finally, I have also learned (once again) that family members should be listened to. My wife and daughter felt things getting weird a FULL YEAR before I did.

I hope they will find someone with the right temperament and qualifications who will work for peanuts, smile when people insult them, and keep their opinions to themselves. Lots of good people in that congregation deserve that miracle.

Update: It’s now years after leaving and they have yet to fill my position. But they are breaking ground for a new sanctuary. Enough said.

Neil

PS  We are happily attending a neighborhood church. Drums and guitar in worship, and loving it. And I immediately stepped into a new ministry job doing something I love with people I already knew and adored.

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