I called my husband from the Quick Stop in Lincoln after I caught my breath. I told him the short version of what happened, and his main concern in that moment was that I get home safely. In his usual way, he listened, comforted, and loved me. I headed back west on Interstate #80, talking out loud to God, crying a bit more, but calming down.
By the time I got home, I knew what I was going to do. It wasn’t reactionary. After two hours on the road I was much calmer. Still stunned and incredulous, but calm. All I could think of was the Bishop saying, “Know that you will still be under my authority.” It was clear to me that she wasn’t trustworthy to have authority over my life.
By the time Larry got home from work, he had made his own decision.
In 2003-4, he and I had served a large member church together in Pennsylvania after their pastor of 18 years had been abruptly removed for sexual misconduct. We didn’t get two full-time salaries, nor did we get any support from the Conference. They simply sent us there and said, “YOU deal with it.” There’d been a lot of anger, miscommunication on the part of the Conference, and the church congregation felt abandoned in more ways than one. A lot of people had sided with the pastor and blamed the victim. Some quietly were disillusioned by his multiple “encounters” with a parishioner, but were afraid to say so. What the Conference didn’t realize was that the congregation was a victim too, and needed some intervention. We were thrown to the wolves.
That year we met with a conflict mediator while at a conference event, and he told us that a very large percentage of “afterpastors” (pastors who serve churches after a pastor is removed for sexual misconduct) leave church ministry. We were sure that we wouldn’t be a statistic.
In 2006, just two years later, Larry officially retired from the UMC at the age of 55 and went to nursing school to become a hospice nurse.
When I returned from Lincoln and Larry came home, we had both made decisions. I was going to write a letter to the Bishop, but in that letter, I would hand in my ordination papers. I didn’t want to be under the authority of any more bishops who didn’t care about their pastors or their well-being. Larry announced that he, too, would write a letter, and hand in his ordination as well. He wrote that he didn’t want to be associated with a system that treated people the way I’d been treated.
It was a very painful thing to do, despite my confidence that it was what I had to do in order to stop being in so much pain. I’d grown up in parsonages. Aside from being at school, the only houses I lived in for 44 years were houses owned by a church. Before I finished my time at my most recent church, Larry and I bought a house. Our first house. For the first time I could decorate it the way I wanted to. I could pick the furniture, the carpeting, the colors of the walls. I didn’t have to get anyone’s approval to do anything to my house. And most importantly, we’d decided to stay in the same town so Sarah could be in the same school for the last three years of school. She’d been in four schools by the 6th grade.
Initially, I felt very alone, despite Larry’s support. He was already established as a nurse in his new job, gaining enormous respect for his gifts. I am grateful for the people at the hospice office where I became Bereavement Coordinator and then Chaplain. It was still a small office, then, and simply going to work everyday with people made real by their exposure daily to the dying, was a gift of grace. My new boss was compassionate and listened to my story. Working with people who were facing death was about as real as you can get. I gained strength from very precious people and felt supported by my coworkers. I didn’t have to work alone anymore.
What was unexpected and painful was the lack of support I received from colleagues in the ministry. I came to understand, of course, that they were still in that system that structured their lives and therefore had difficulty seeing its faults. It was very lonely to walk away from the only world I knew. The Church had been my world for 44 years. I knew the language, the rules (so I thought), and the community. I was proud of the UM history and traditions. I felt a part of something much bigger than I. I was a United Methodist pastor. I was connected. The role of pastor gave me an identity. It also gave me dignity, in a way, as answering a call and working for God was impressive, still, to a lot of people. It gave me a chance to know what I was good at, what gifts I had. I knew I was a good preacher. I was a good listener. I worked well with the dying and those in crisis. The call to ministry brought me out of myself back in 1989, empowered me, and gave me purpose. It brought me out of myself.
Who was I without that identity? Who was I if I wasn’t a pastor, and worse, if I wasn’t a United Methodist? My colleagues’ lack of support made it worse. It also made me feel like I’d done something horrible. But I remembered how I’d seen people who left, when I was still in it.
We tried to go to church. We all agreed that we couldn’t go to a United Methodist Church. It was too painful, and we “knew too much.” We tried the Episcopalians, the Lutherans and the Presbyterians. That first Christmas Eve after we handed in our orders, we went to an 11:00 p.m. service at the Lutheran (ELCA) church. As a pastor, I’d loved the candlelight services. I loved the music, the darkness, the peace, the light of the candles, the smell of pine. As they lit our candles that Christmas Eve and started to sing, “Silent Night,” I started to cry. I couldn’t stop. Sarah saw me cry, which made her cry. It was bittersweet.
We visited those three denominations for two years before we all admitted to each other that we didn’t feel like we belonged there. In any of them. Preaching has always been very, very important to me. It was always my goal as a pastor to lead people into the Story, and connect our real lives with the Gospel and/or the text of the Bible. We didn’t hear any preaching that stirred our hearts, which is what I wanted worship to do. And so we stopped going.
Thankfully, I am a part of Al-anon, a group for those whose lives have been affected by alcoholism. I didn’t know how much my grandfather’s alcoholism had affected my mother’s life, which then affected my own. There were many others in my life whose alcoholism affected my life. In Al-anon, I met with people who didn’t care that I left the church, and who helped me see what a difference our Higher Power makes in the transformation of lives. It is community. The group is made up of people I’d not necessarily have met or associated with in any other context. We’re all different, but when we tell our stories, we’ve all been in similar relationships and experienced similar things.
My church friends were not the ones who supported me in those first few years; but a group of people, some recovering addicts or alcoholics themselves, who knew that life is hard, and it is literally unmanageable without a Higher Power and a community of people who understand pain and healing. I am grateful they welcomed me. I’m also grateful for my first “out of church” friends at the hospice where I went to work. I was a mess at first, and they were supportive. Hospice workers are unique people. Intensely compassionate people. They’re not afraid of death, but know it’s a fact of life. The fact that we’re all going to die someday makes us even. I felt safe for the first time in a long time.
Some of my colleagues came around after a while, and some of them just haven’t stayed in touch. It’s been 8 years, and even in the most difficult days of grief, I never doubted that God had led me to that decision to leave. That it was time. It was what I needed to heal, to grow and to continue learning. I also learned that my leaving did not discount my very real call to ministry for 19 years. I believe God used me in ways I may never know, and in ways that some kind folks expressed to me as well. I did the best I could. I made mistakes, I didn’t always express myself well, but I did the best I could.
It’s take me 8 years to come to some sort of peace about it, to let go of the anger and pain. But even in the most painful places I served in ministry, I knew some remarkable people whom I grew to love. There was grace in the midst of it all, and for that I am grateful.
Thanks for reading… till next time; Peace. Grace.