It’s Time to Unpack the Boxes

Each evening and morning I am reminded that I am in a time of transition: professionally, personally and pastorally. This picture is not of some randomly discovered image found via an internet search for “sad and forgotten stack of moving boxes.” Nope, it’s the wall of boxes on my side of the bed that is slowly becoming our bedroom’s next great junk depository. Filled with books, pictures and other vestiges of my days when I had an actual office, each day this mountain of labeled and organized boxery is a reminder that, over the past 18 months, much of my life has been packed away: waiting, hoping, wondering . . .

  • 18 months since I left my last church.
  • many projects begun and abandoned.
  • a few project begun and completed.
  • many miles travelled to conferences and events.
  • One book published and one more in the way.
  • Four full-time ministry positions applied for not and not received.
  • More hours than I can count filled with worrying and wondering what God has in store for me.

I think it may be time to unpack and stay a while.

Call it a mid-life crisis, privileged GenX angst or just a lack of direction; for this overachiever, Enneagram 3, eldest child who had been employed in some form by the church for over 20 years, the last 18 months have been, at times, emotionally excruciating and at other times, spiritually liberating.

The most difficult part about this process has been moving from being a congregational pastor – leading a group of people in ministry - to being someone who is a pastor at heart, but no longer in profession. While I do love being the unofficial and unexpected chaplain for more groups and people than I can count, it’s not the same as being the pastor of a church or the leader of an organized ministry.

After nearly 20 years of “pastor of x church” being my primary identity, giving that up has been more difficult that I had thought it would be. After recently being notified that I was no longer being considered for yet another a full-time ministry position in my denomination, I was disappointed, but almost immediately overcome with the sense that this was it. God might just be saying to me, “Dude, do you not get it yet? This is no longer your path. Let. It. Go.”

Easy to say tell someone else that God might be saying that to THEM.

Much harder to hear and embrace these words myself.

But here is the deal, as a Christian who believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, I believe that out of death new life does emerge. Death is not the final word, in fact, sometimes the path towards new life winds through an angst-filled maze of dead ends and obstacles. As someone who generally enjoys chaos, I have been surprised by the extent to which I have been allowing these disappointments to cloud my vision and keep me from seeing what might be right in front of me. Like so many before me, and whether we admit it or not, I covet the security of a paycheck and a pension, I enjoy the prestige and influence of the pulpit and I am attracted to the next rung on the professional ladder . . . even if those pursuits are not the things that God may intend for me.

So after 18 months of back-and-forth and angst-infested discernment about seeking and returning to full-time ministry, I am finally feeling okay about saying that I am no longer a congregational pastor and I won’t be for the forseeable future; I have ceased clinging to what was and will now more fully embrace what may be.

There is a classic and cheesy “preacher joke” about a man who is caught in a flood and becomes stranded on his roof. As he sits there in the storm, boat after boat after boat stops to rescue him, but he waves each one off responding, “That’s okay, God will save me.” The man does not survive and when he arrives at the pearly gates and greets God, he asks, “God, why did you not save me from the flood when I was stuck on the roof?” And God responds, “What do you mean, I sent you three boats, didn’t I?”

Now before I give people the sense that I have become a wallowing pool of misery and self-pity, I do know that I have it pretty good. I have an employed and supportive spouse, a little name recognition and a good deal of flexibility that has afforded me the chance to be part of some really creative things. But up until know, I have been treating these things as entertaining distractions, interesting side activities and temporary funding sources . . . but never as a real calling.

“What do you mean, I sent you three boats, didn’t I?”

Fine. I’ll get into the damn boat/s.

Boat #1 – Community: My family and I, for the first time ever are worshipping together — without the distraction of dad being the pastor. It has taken a while to find a place where the whole crew feels at home, but over the past months Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, has become our faith community. Unapologetically progressive, liturgically creative and theologically grounded, once we taught the girls how to use a bulletin and hymnal, we settled right in ;-)

Boat #2 - Profession:  Over the past 18 months, not having a steady paycheck has taken some adjusting to. Not that I was making a ton of money before, but the fact that money appeared in the bank account each month was pretty nice. Now I must deal with negotiating speaking fees, waiting for organizations to cut checks and the constant search for paid speaking and writing opportunities. *Blargh* And yet, the invitations are still coming. I always symbolically look over my shoulder to see if they might be talking to someone else, but yeah, people actually pay me to write and talk about stuff like church, social media and life. Seriously. And while I do not see beach front property in Italy any time in our future, if I get my act together a little better, maybe someday we can get that second bathroom for A.

Boat #3 – Pastoring: Unquestionably, the origin of my deepest grief about no longer be a congregational pastor is walking away from the privilege that it is to be allowed into people’s lives in such a tender and important way: the births, the despair, the joy, the death and the every day. Not gonna lie, but no longer getting to know people in a way that only congregational pastors do, will be a huge hole to fill in my identity and practice. Not really sure how this one will work out, but I am trusting that by getting into Boats #1 and #2, God will free me up to re-envision my future pastoral connections.

So what does this all mean exactly?

Please don’t ask hard questions, for I am not totally sure.

I do know that am not going to try to build some ministry conglomerate, but rather I am going to better utilize some of the gifts and passions that I trust God has given me: observing life, engaging faith and making connections. I suspect that about 50% of my time and energy will be spent in church circles and the other 50% will be in other areas of the world that even I do not yet know. As I make this transition, some people will undoubtedly accuse me of selling out, there will be times when “the self-promoting jack-ass*” might be uttered and still others will quietly shake their heads and say, “Oh that Bruce, what is he up to know?”

I apologize in advance, but I will need you too to shift with me.

There will be writing.

There will be reviewing.

There will be speaking.

There will be videoing.

There will be no more pastoring.

But . . . there will be an unpacking of the boxes.

*And speaking of self-promotion, if you would like to keep up with what’s going on with me, the best thing to do is to subscribe to this blog and add your name to my mailing list.

15 comments

  • Carol Dolezal-Ng  

    Blessings for this part of the journey, Bruce! And blessings to the entire family as they keep you company as always in Boat #1!

  • Robert Braxton  

    ceased clinging to what was
    not moving but shifting some
    We were just pricing “universal design” (aging in place) bathrooms and the house on the beach in Italy might be a bit less expensive (we both are age 68).
    Your story here sounds a tiny bit like retiring — we are in our 16th month by now.
    the boxes (I like to write – boxes)

  • Kristin  

    I hope you find many joys and a few sorrows as you unpack those boxes.

  • Elaine Dowling  

    Good thing. Every Presbyterian should know how to use a bulletin and a Hymnal. It ranks up there with having sat on a Committee and reading the Book of Order and Confessions.

  • Tamara Puffer  

    Thank-you so much for your words! I was not a pastor very long before sustaining a traumatic brain injuury (TBI) in 1996 and having to go on disability. I thought it was a temporary thing but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be. I do miss the pastor stuff though. As you wrote, it is a privilege to be invited into people’s lives in such “tender and important ways.” I miss this greatly. I do volunteer at my church as a “parish visiter” and this helps some. Isaiah 43:18-21 has been so important to me these 16 years. God is, and will continue, making a way in this wilderness called life. It isn’t easy, though but that’s okay.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      So sorry to hear about the injury, but grateful for your words of encouragement.

  • Syd Weedon  

    Maybe the message is “This is not your path right now” rather than “this is no longer your path.” Creative people need to wander around a bit. Maybe God is giving you some breathing room for your creativity.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thanks. I hope that’s what I am opening myself up to. Trusting. Trusting. Trusting.

  • LEH  

    Sounds like your life is a living and breathing Advent.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Was actually inspired to write this after Advent Sunday, so not far from the truth.

  • religionforlife  

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us. In regards to what people might think, I expressed that concern to someone I trust in my congregation. She winked and told me that whatever I thought people might be thinking or saying, it was far worse! Of course, that made me feel better! Carry on anyway and trust whatever it is you trust. Discernment times can be wrenching. Know this at least from some of us that you have been good for the PC(USA) and for selfish reasons I hope our denomination will be blessed by your gifts and passion in the future. Be well.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Wrenching is a good word for it. I am not really going anywhere, just shifting a bit. And thank YOU for sharing parts of your life that are far more raw and real.

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