A group of 35 people had joined our church about four months ago. They were all part of another church, which had closed its doors. At its demise, they joined us — as a group. Now they were leaving. A few here. A few there. It wasn’t a dramatic exodus, but it was disheartening.
It didn’t happen because we did anything wrong. We were just different than their previous church. It was the same Gospel, but a different emphasis. The head of the church was the same Jesus, but the under-shepherd (that’s me) had a different philosophy of ministry.
I had tried to make their introduction to our church as smooth and personal as possible. I visited the home of every person and got to know them. I called a number of pastors I respected, and asked how to best handle this situation. We included them in the life of the church as quickly as possible, and after a couple months, we got them involved in ministry. We adapted our worship only enough to include them, but not enough to make it seem that we were “a different church.” Well, at least that’s what we tried to do. Somehow it didn’t work. They began to leave, and with them some of the old-timers left as well.
Maybe the departure of the new people left a sinking feeling in those who had been with us for some time; that feeling that says, “there must be something wrong with the church, if all these new people are leaving.” Others, I am sure, felt the pressure of being in leadership, and having to handle the messy job of working with people who were coming, and going — people who did things differently than ourselves and thought differently.
During the time in which these new people were making their exodus, our elders (all two of them) left. One elder came to me in the middle of the week, and let me know, “last Sunday was our last Sunday.” He said, “you let your wife run the church.” This hurt Bev quite a bit, especially since was she feeling like so few things were going the way she would like. This hurt me quite a bit too. He had been a very close friend, even before I was a pastor, and our kids had grown up together.
The other elder just stopped showing up. Even after much chasing, and counseling, and prayer, and care, this elder seemed to have something against me. I never did find out what it was.
I don’t remember who left when, I just remember each event like punches in prize fight — punches I never saw coming. The worst punch came somewhere in the middle of the fight. One Sunday morning after the service, one of our council members handed me a letter in a sealed envelope. He didn’t say much about it, or give even a hint of its contents, but my heart sank as soon as he handed it to me. Of course, in those months it seemed that every event was a catastrophe. Surprises were not enjoyed during this time. They were feared.
When I got home, I did’t want to open the letter. My wife tried to encourage me that it was probably nothing serious, in fact it might even be something good. But, it was exactly what I expected.
It was a polite letter. It was very personally, and professionally written. It was the best letter of this kind I had ever seen. But, it came at the worst moment possible.
He was a council member. She was heading up world missions issues in the church. Together they were the largest tithing family in our small congregation, which was always stretched to make ends meet. They were politely resigning, and moving on to another fellowship. They gave me two week’s notice, just as one would do in a work situation. They did not point any fingers of blame. They were just leaving.
That night I told my wife I was leaving — not leaving her, not leaving the church. I just had to go somewhere. Coos Bay was about 17 hours away, but we drove there anyway. That’s where Dave lived.
Bev came with me. We left our son with some friends. I never did talk to Dave at length about our difficulties. I shared my problems a little, but mostly we talked about things which pastors talk about, when they get together. It was just enough to get away, and sit with someone who I knew I could trust. It was enough to see someone, who was a survivor of his own wars. We stayed a couple days with Dave, and went back home.
During this season, 30 of the 35 people who had suddenly joined the church just a few months before, had left us. We lost our elders. One of our council members and his wife left. There were more besides, but I cannot remember who left, or when they left. It is all just a blur — a blur of punches.
There were times when I would go into a back room and cry between leading worship and preaching. I would tell Bev that I just couldn’t show up for another Sunday — but I always did. I remember sitting at my desk during the week, with my face in my hands for long periods of time.
I went to one of my superiors, to say that we wouldn’t be able to pay the extension tithe for a while, but that we would catch up later. He told me to get a second job. He didn’t understand. I already wasn’t getting paid, so getting a second job wouldn’t give the church enough money to pay its own bills. At home, we were surviving financially. Personally, I was hurting. It was my confidence, my pride in my work, it was my heart, and the church I pastored which was in need — not my pocketbook.
What did I learn in this season? I learned that somehow the small church survives.
A year and a half later, we were catching up on the back-dues of our extension tithe. I was getting paid again. The people had a good attitude about the church, and new people were joining us again.
Dave had told me many years before, that one should never leave a church when things are going badly. If you are being called to serve the Lord in a new location, leave the church in good condition.
So, I stayed through the tough times. We’re still here five, or six years later.
Somehow the church survives. I guess all you need is the grace of God — and maybe a Dave. But, somehow it survives.
If you have been encouraged by this column, if you have any questions or responses, or if there is a subject you would like to see addressed; You may write to Phil Wyman at Church on the Coast – 4740 Dalea Pl. Oceanside, CA 92057. e-mail address – PKWyman@AOL.com