Eighteen months ago I stepped down from the church I planted and led as pastor for 30 years. Since then numerous people have asked me how I am doing. Here’s my response: I’m doing well and I believe I made the right decision, but it still hurts.
Our elders and I planned and carried out the transition over the period of about three years. I knew leaving the place, the people, and the wonderful privilege of doing what I was doing—all of which I loved so much–would be a loss to me. I just didn’t know then how big a loss it would be.
I read something yesterday that gave me some insight into my loss. The authors suggested that being a pastor is a role in which many place their entire identity in the job; and when they let go they feel they have lost their identity. I suspect that partially explains the loss I felt but it’s about much more than my identity.
Early in the last 12 months of my ministry I read a book entitled A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. It’s about the tragic experience of the deaths of his wife, mother, and daughter in a car accident. My loss in leaving Discovery Christian Church pales in comparison to his loss, but his book was a great help. Inside the front cover I wrote “reread chapter 6—good for any loss.”
In the preface to the first edition of his book Sittser wisely observes “Sooner or later all people suffer loss, in little doses or big ones, suddenly or over time, privately or in public settings. Loss is as much a normal part of life as birth.”
Is there anyone who will read this post who has not experienced loss? I distinctly remember the loss I felt both the night I graduated from high school and the afternoon I graduated from college. I remember the loss I felt when I left Bridgetown Church of Christ as youth minister and when I left Delaware Valley Church of Christ as minister. When I think back on those times of loss I still feel some sadness even though I had something new just ahead.
During our almost 42 years of our marriage Jan and I have had three dogs we loved and love who were all an important part of our family, two of which have died. Readers who have had beloved pets know the pain of losing one.
One of the greatest losses we experience is the death of a loved one. At the age of 65 I have lost numerous relatives including both my parents as well many friends who meant much to me. During my years as a local church pastor I led many funeral and memorial services and shared the grief of those left behind. One thing I often said to a surviving spouse that I hope became helpful was “You’ll never get over this. With the passing of time you will adjust, but you will never get over your loss.”
In the preface of his book Sittser suggests it is not “the experience of loss that becomes the defining moment of our lives” but “how we respond to loss that matters.” Like I used to tell surviving spouses, Sittser says his “book is not intended to help anyone get over” their loss. His “aim is not to provide quick and painless solutions, but to point the way to a lifelong journey of growth.”
It hasn’t been easy, but I think I have grown through every loss I have experienced so far. And I know I will experience more losses in the years ahead. How I respond has been and will continue to be what matters. But even though I have grown through my losses, including my stepping down from Discovery, it still hurts.
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Photo courtesy of the boy’s mother, my daughter.