-Pastor Melissa Fain-
This month is a 10 year anniversary. Some anniversaries are good and worth celebrating. This one is not. These are the anniversaries ministers attempt to bury whether they were in the right or wrong. This is when a church lets a minister go.
Here are the ground rules:
What I expected, vs what I got.
When the church and myself were in the middle of search and call, I had three requirements. Below are my three questions, how they answered them, and what they gave me.
I walked into deep brokenness, from recent and past trauma. No new minister should have that job. Period. If they had been completely honest, I wouldn’t have taken the job. Instead, they lied, and after I was already there, it got worse.
How this church deals with her trauma.
Back in the 1970’s this church became broken when a minister split the church over traditional versus praise worship. The minister took the praise group and started a new church. Before this event, ministers would serve at the church for many years. After this event, almost all only lasted a couple of years. Always, when the minister would introduce change, they would suddenly resign only a few months later.
This information was buried. I had to dig for it when I was trying to understand what happened and why it happened.
It turns out, there were two churches meeting in the same building. There were the congregants, who were often good and supportive of many of these clergy. Then there were the Elders, the power that maintained the church to keep change from taking root. I can still remember congregants talking fondly about former ministers, and then being puzzled because they suddenly left. The elders would quietly vote to dismiss the minister and ask for their resignation. The minister would comply, because in the church it’s harder to be hired if you are fired. (You’d probably be surprised to hear there are far more ministers who just chose to say they were resigning to avoid being fired. Forcing resignation is a very effective method to force a minister out.)
What happened to me
They wanted my resignation pretty early on. I know this, because the key players all reacted in certain ways. There was one in particular that couldn’t hide her feelings even if she tried.
In late February/early March I announced I was pregnant with my, now, daughter. The look on her face was not joy, but devastation. When we tried out a television during VBS week, so the congregation could see how non-threatening it all was, she stood up in church and yelled, “This is the worst thing to ever happen!” When I said I was dropping the television idea, the Elders actually looked disappointed. (Not because they wanted it, but because that was what they were going to use to bury me.)
When my dad totaled his bike, and I didn’t know if he was okay or not, certain elders once again looked put out, instead of worried on my behalf.
It wasn’t difficult to read.
Finally, I had taken two weeks after my daughter was born, and announced I was ready to come back. Was I really ready to come back? No, but I felt extremely uncomfortable taking any more time. One of the elders asked if I needed more time, if I were sure. I said I was, and that night he invited me to his house to tell me they wanted my resignation.
They knew what they were doing, and they made sure they did it right. They already had a meeting telling me certain members didn’t get along with me; that they had problems. I asked them not to be the intermediaries for these people, but to ask them to talk to me directly. I didn’t realize this meeting wasn’t to help me, but to have "that meeting" before they asked for my resignation. They needed to check it off the list, so they could say they did it.
I had chosen to have my daughter at the rural, lower income hospital, because it was closer to the church. (By the way, it was really eye opening to have my first child in a hospital that gave a damn, because they had money, and my second child in a rural hospital that just didn’t have the same level of resources. As a minister I appreciate what I learned from that experience.) When my daughter was born, the Elders dropped the phone tree chain, so only my secretary came to visit.
When one of the Elders went into the hospital because his appendix ruptured, they tried to keep me out of the loop. I found out and visited. They tried to use it against me, but (once again) the secretary came to my side, and asked this elder point blank if I had visited him in the hospital. He sheepishly said, “yes.”
I chose to fight the resignation, not because I thought I could keep my job, but because I wanted everything exposed. If I were wrong, I wanted to be brought forward in my failure. If they were wrong, I wanted the region to see it and act accordingly. Unlike many ministers, I’m willing to utterly destroy myself for what is right, and I did.
I have not had a full time church job since that job. I refuse. I’m not going to play into a broken system. And point blank. It sucks. I have enormous student loan debt from a graduate level theology program that I can’t pay off. I've been a waitress, a retail worker, a sub... because we need money.
What I have been doing, and haven’t stopped doing, is following my call. I have been a minister since my ordination day, and I haven’t stopped. I have to live with the truth that people want to be cheerleaders for that call, but not join it. I need physical help. The most disheartening truth is that I have to realize I’m one of the few who are willing to do what I do for no pay.
So every October my daughter’s birthday rolls around, and so does that anniversary.
Every year I’m reminded of what one of the Elders said to me at his house, asking for my resignation two weeks after having a baby, “After all you’ve been through, you’ll bounce back.” For 9 years those words haunted me. I thought: Either I will bounce back, and they will be justified in everything that happened. Or, I won’t bounce back and he won’t care because he said it to make himself feel better.
I failed to realize what those words were actually saying: “I know you were broken in your past, and we are about to break you again. Now I’m going to make a suggestion that you’ll be okay because you’ve been broken before, and it will help me sleep at night.”
They knew they were in the wrong, and I’ll leave you with two stories as proof.
At the elder’s house he told a story. I wanted to keep preaching, until I left, and he said no. Years ago, they had asked for a minister’s resignation. (I discovered he wanted to go through redevelopment with the congregation. An immediate death for any minister at this church) The elder told this story of the minister going up to him during his sermon and publicly forgiving him for what he had done. No, they didn’t want me doing that. That wasn’t good at all. That suggested the elder was wrong.
Later, after I decided to bring this all out in the open, this elder’s wife called. I answered and she lit into me. “How dare you fight this! You’re just supposed to resign and move on! This has upset my husband, and you should be ashamed!" I hung up on her. My husband, who was within 6ft of me at the time, couldn’t believe what he had just overheard. That rant was clearly not part of the plan, because she called back and left a voicemail. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I was out of line. My husband told me not to tell you that.”
Simply put- we shouldn't have been together. If the church was just honest in the interview process I wouldn't have taken the job. All that pain and suffering could have been avoided. But, what's done is done.
I will continue to fight to fix the Church. I have nothing to lose, because I lost it a decade ago. Since that experience, I’ve heard so many other stories about Church brokenness. I am not an anomaly, and that’s a problem. I need physical help. That’s now what makes October so difficult for me. All those cheerleaders, and no real players around.