Full Circle

Today I came home from the Church Fair feeling pretty blue. Not periwinkle, or navy, or turquoise or teal but a nearly black midnight blue.

I gave myself a little time to wallow in it.

Then I got up to walk the dogs with Pure Luck. Daylight is slipping away here in City By the Sea. Each day seems dramatically shorter than the last. The warm sunshine was rapidly replaced by a chilling mist in the sky while I was wallowing, and I decided to wear a scarf.

Putting on the scarf, I began to cry. Perhaps the wallow wasn’t really over quite yet. I bought the scarf at the Fair today. It’s just a simple scarf, really, made from a variegated yarn of pastel shades that blend nicely with my lilac-shaded fleece vest. When Mrs. C brought it to church with her other knitting last night, she told me she thought it might look nice on me, mostly because it was short, but also I think because it matched that vest.

Mrs. C is a person who sometimes keeps me awake at night. She has an uncanny knack for seeing the worst in a situation, but she is so faithful to Small Church, I forgive her for it. No one worked harder preparing knitted items for the fair this year. And for many years, she was just about the only one making anything.

I was pleased to buy the scarf today.

Why am I midnight blue? For some reason, the fair did not attract the traffic this year that it did last year. Maybe we needed balloons on our sign. Perhaps the trouble is that the newspaper listed us in Thursday’s weekend section, but not today. I don’t know. Right down the street, the St. Statue’s had a carnival, with yard sale items out on the lawn, and a moon bounce, and I don’t know what else. Right across the street, the college had a craft fair, and one block the other direction, another craft fair took place at the Catholic girls’ school. Somehow we were overlooked.

It’s hard to be a small church. One bad day can be a disaster. One small failure can crush morale. So much work goes into putting on a church fair; how do you measure success? I could see by the worried faces at the beginning of the day that everyone saw what I saw: it just wasn’t busy enough.

Small church life is precarious. One family can withdraw from activity and leave a hole you can’t quite figure out how to fill. One pillar can die or go into a nursing home, and you discover that building a pillar from the ground up takes a lifetime, not a season.

I spent some time sitting behind the knit table with Fair Chair, a great gal in her mid-thirties, mom of a couple of our Nursery School graduates and a pretty new member of the church. She crocheted a baby blanket for a shower tomorrow morning as we made a mental list of things to adjust for next year’s fair. I did it wondering where I would be next year. She worried about the fact that she was the only invitee to show up at last week’s Stewardship breakfast. We whispered about the possibility that they might have to go to part-time, that I might have to leave.

Today was the day that my own sense that it is time to go smacked into the reality that it is becoming their sense, too. Although I have known the truth for months, it’s only now I see the risk of waiting too long to do the paperwork for my ministerial profile. They may be ready to make a change before I am.

And if it’s the truth that they can’t afford me, rather than just a convenient cover for my feeling of being called elsewhere, isn’t it also true that I’ve failed them? After all, they called me hoping I would grow the church, that my ministry would inspire all the members they had and draw many new ones. The truth is that my ministry inspired some of the members right out the door. The truth is that the new members have made up the loss, but numerical growth has not been dramatic enough to make up the financial difference between income and budget. The truth is that savings have been spent down to cover my pension and my family’s health insurance, while I have learned how to be a pastor at their expense.

And the truth is, I love them. So planning to leave them feels like preparing for a death. At the lunch table, Candlemaker, who is my age, reminisced about her childhood crush on the then-pastor’s son. She wondered why her childhood pastor doesn’t ever come back to visit, and someone said, “When they leave, they are really supposed to LEAVE.” “They can’t even come back to visit?”

I’m feeling blue this afternoon, midnight blue, blue black. I wonder when the stars are coming out to break the darkness. Where does God want me? What are the best words to describe my understanding of ministry, and how do I write such a statement (for the profile) when I am feeling so sad? Who will want to hire someone who was not successful in the world’s terms? I wish I could tell you that last thing is not important to search committees, but I know it is, sadly.

Three years ago this week, I arrived at Small Church for my first day of work. Downstairs they were setting up for the fair. Upstairs I was trying to figure out what in the world I was supposed to do. Down at church this afternoon, they’re breaking down the fair. Here at home I am trying to figure out what in heaven’s name to do. We have come full circle.

20 thoughts on “Full Circle”

  1. What a sad post. In reading it, I’m blue right with you.
    But surely a small church that was on the decline can’t be expected to turn around in three years? Given that it takes a lifetime to build a pillar, surely it must take more than three years to transform into a growing and flourishing parish. I’m not saying that you’re not being called to move on, but just that it’s doesn’t seem like failure to me if the parish is larger and healthier than when you came, even if they’re not where they’d like to be.

  2. Songbird,
    A sad post, but also a beautifully written one.
    First off, hugs and prayers.
    Second, your church is facing the same problems everyone else is. It’s just that smaller churches are the canary in the coal mine of American Christianity. Newer members are not going to replace the older members as they die in terms of the rate of financial giving. Boomers and Xrs are less financially secure and (I believe) still learning about giving sacrificially.
    It never hurts to update a ministry profile, but I would be careful about drawing too many conclusions from a bad day at the fair (of course, the $ is another issue entirely).
    Lots of love from here–

  3. Are you sure you aren’t pastor at the church I attend?? Ummm. . .
    no, can’t be – you are a female – our’s at present it a male..
    Oh how I hear and feel your pain. Your hit the nail on the head with small churches and WE have the same problems you do. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  4. Hard. Well-written, but hard. My church was in pretty rotten straits itself, a little while ago. We still are borderline, budgetwise, but we’re managing to pay our diocesan assessment tithe, and things are tentatively looking better, not worse, down the road.
    Do you have a vestry or similar board organization that you can work with on this? It feels like you’re slightly stranded, admin wise, and it just seems like there ought to be a senior warden or someone like that with whom you can discuss this with the insurance of confidentiality, etc.
    Also, though it’s a long shot, are there any programs out there that are oriented towards congregational development that might help you? I know of that was housed in Maine at one point, but as it was founded by my rector’s husband, it’s not any more. It’s also primarily oriented towards Episcopal congregations, but I suspect there’s plenty of crossover in development techniques. They do have a mailing list that I’ve found interesting.
    I’m going on and on, I know, but bottom line: the development of this congregation shouldn’t be your responsibility alone. And if you must leave, then you must.

  5. Damn. Apologies for my bad HTML habit — that should have been “a congregational development organization that was housed in Maine,” etc.

  6. Oh sweetie, this is so sad. I am praying for you, that your deep desire and passion and giftendness might once again intersect with the world’s deep need. (To paraphrase some famous guy.)
    But please, please, leave the future of Small Church in the Hands where it belongs. They’re big enough to hold it.
    Much love…

  7. I talk too much. But I realized that I’d missed the paragraph somehow where you asked if you’d somehow failed them, and wanted to say that emphatically, no, it’s not. It may be that you’ve brought them as many steps forward as you were meant to. It’s never one person who brings a congregation all the way anyhow, though I think you know that.
    As far as not visiting again, that’s harsh. I thoroughly understand the need to stay away for a certain period of time. Sometimes it’s a little under a year, sometimes more like three. But to make the separation permanent is to construct the priest or pastor as a larger-than-human (read “divine”) figure like an angel, or like the biblical shepherd, and I know that the latter is the role that many pastors and ministers want to have (and DO have), but there are ways in which you can take it too far — and that harms both the congregation and the priest in the long run.
    I’m sorry if I’m running on at the mouth — for some reason, saying these things seems terribly important to me. I hope they help.

  8. Oh, Songbird, I’m so sorry.
    You are too hard on yourself, though. No doubt Small Church’s financial situation was pretty dire when you were called there. Years of decline brought it to that place. You are fighting macroeconomics and one person (even a pastor as gifted for ministry as you are) can’t overcome that.
    You were successful with what you had to work with there and God will call you to usefullness in the Kingdom elsewhere in God’s own time
    Meanwhile (((hugs)))!

  9. Songbird:
    1) thank you for coaching me through my ring issues.
    2) you are not alone. Many of us have been there. Small Church (yours and others’) can be soul-sucking, no matter much you love your people. There is more out there, and maybe that’s where you are supposed to be. This is my prayer.

  10. Oh, Songbird. I’m so sorry. Though I must add my voice to those who insist that Small Church’s struggles are not your fault, no matter how dearly you wished to fix them. I will wait to hear more. But in the meantime — hugs. And hoping that your midnight blue lightens to periwinkle.

  11. Songbird, I’m so sorry that this time of transition feels so painful. But it sounds like, underneath it all – and despite the sadness – you’re feeling strong in your conviction that it’s time to move on. I think your regret and wistfulness about that fact are exactly what will make you a treasure to the next church that is lucky enough to have you!

  12. Wow. Here I was thinking that I was the only one going through this (not really, but you know how easy it is to feel alone in ministry). Thanks for the post, and sharing your sadness. I also love my people, but wonder if I’m running up against the limits of what we can do. I sympathize with the hard time you are going through, but it does make me feel better to read words that feel as though they were taken right out of my head. Peace.

  13. Oh Songbird…this so resonates with my experience in tiny (30 for Christmas!) village church before ordination. When we left, we effectively removed the entire family service congregation…and when the vicar retired shortly afterwards, we knew she would not be replaced. The church is still open, but shares clergy with 5 other communities, one of which is much larger…it hurts for them, but it was inevitable.
    Please don’t beat yourself up about it (easy to write,I know)…you’re giving Small Church so much love and care, and nobody could ask more of you. Also, remember that what feels like death is a necessary stage en route to resurrection.
    Hugs xx

  14. I’m sorry, Songbird! I left two small churches after 13 years because they could no longer afford me. It was very difficult because I felt like I was abandoning them after all we’d been through together. But God’s grace came through: God reminded me that all I am expected to be is faithful to God. Moses wasn’t a failure because he didn’t get to enter the Promised Land. He’s remembered as one of the greatest leaders of Judiasm and Christianity. The Holy Spirit went before you to prepare Small Church for your ministry and the Spirit will go before you to prepare another.
    If you are interested in a church development program that my present Small Church is beginning this month, e-mail me and I’ll get you more information. It’s about systems and it makes good sense to me.
    Praying for you!

  15. Oy…late again! I’m so sorry your day was blue and that the awareness for all of you is so sad. You’re in my thoughts and prayers.

  16. Thanks for this Songbird. It intersects so much of where my thoughts have been falling intermittently after 4.5 years (and good years, don’t get me wrong) here. WE don’t have the $$ problems to your extent yet but I am not sure what the future looks like. And then the town itself is struggling–part of me wonders when to plan a leaving so it doesn’t look like jumping ship. To do it wrong can be so much more damaging…

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