1988. My first pastorate in San Jacinto, California. The church statistics in the Annual Conference Journal said there were 166 members. It felt like a daunting step from seminary and my student pastorate into my first church. When I arrived I discovered the difference between stats and reality. The previous pastors had not done an audit of membership for years. I discovered 35 of those “members” were already in glory, having died over the previous decades. No one had wanted to remove them from the role, I think for fear it canceled heavenly entrance! Other members had long moved out of the community. With the first audit, we maybe had close to 100 who considered themselves members and of those about 60 came to worship week after week. I was 29 and 75% of those who attended were over 75 years old, and the other 25% were in the fifties and sixties. Seriously!
They just knew because I was young and Karen and I had two small children, other younger families would flock to the church. True, I was young but knew this much: no younger families would be coming without us changing.
So, I titled one of my early newsletter articles “Change.” I wrote about the changes we might need to make for younger families to feel welcome:
- Be ready to care for them, embrace them, love them, serve them in Sunday school and the nursery.
- Adjust our expectations of children; families no longer believed children should be seen and not heard.
- Expect the cries of babies, laughs of children, signs of life, as elements of worship.
- Be ready to make changes in our worship style and music style to include newcomers.
Five-foot tall, 85-years-old Laura Geiser saw red reading it. That Sunday, she met me an hour before worship was scheduled to begin as I walked through the Fireside room toward the sanctuary and said, “Pastor! When I read that article, I wanted to punch your lights out!” I chuckled, although she was a strong person, she did not pose a real threat. “Wow, Laura,” I warmly said, “Do you have a second? Let’s sit down. I’d love to hear you out.” So, we did. Delaying whatever needed to happen before church, we sat there and I listened, while she passionately shared. It helped immensely. She calmed down and didn’t punch me out.
Change brings loss, and loss brings grief, nearly every time.
At 85 Laura knew all about change and loss, but she had read into my article much I had not written. And her assumptions about what I was saying and her expectations of much worse than I had written had fueled her anger.
We hugged and remained good allies. She was a wise one, and an advocate for the work I got to do among them.
What if I had reacted instead of responded? What if I had gotten defensive? What if instead of listening, helping waylay the false assumptions and expectations, I had fueled those unwittingly by being bombast and angry back? It is easy to imagine the outcome.
Last weekend I led workshops for representatives from nine congregations facing pastoral transitions. This is a huge change for a congregation and for the pastors involved. Grief is an automatic component of it, as any change is like a little death. So, we looked at how to grieve and say goodbye well, which is the first step in making such transitions.
Many of us rather than grieve, seek to flee from the pain. We all have great ways to avoid feeling the feelings we have. We might get angry, like Laura first did, for that is a great cover for fear and grief. Or we might numb it through any number of ways. Sometimes people put blame on others, God even, rather than feel their own feelings.
The late Peter Marshall, an eloquent speaker and for several years the chaplain of the United States Senate, used to love to tell the story of “The Keeper of the Spring.”1 It can find many applications, but I often see it connected to grief. In it he told the story of a quiet forest dweller who lived high above an Austrian village along the eastern slopes of the Alps.
The old gentle man had been hired many years earlier by a young town council to clear away the debris from the pools of water that fed the lovely spring flowing through their town. With faithful, silent regularity he patrolled the hills, removed the leaves and branches, and wiped away the silt from the fresh flow of water. By and by, the village became a popular attraction for vacationers. Graceful swans floated along the crystal clear spring, farmlands were naturally irrigated, and the view from restaurants was picturesque.
Years passed. One evening the town council met for its semiannual meeting. As they reviewed the budget, one man’s eye caught the salary figure being paid the obscure keeper of the spring. Said the keeper of the purse, “Who is the old man? Why do we keep him on year after year? For all we know he is doing us no good. He isn’t necessary any longer!” By a unanimous vote, they dispensed with the old man’s services.
For several weeks nothing changed. By early autumn the trees began to shed their leaves. Small branches snapped off and fell into the pools, hindering the rushing flow of water. One afternoon someone noticed a slight yellowish-brown tint in the spring. A couple days later the water was much darker.
Within another week, a slimy film covered sections of the water along the banks and a foul odor was detected. The millwheels moved slower, some finally ground to a halt. Swans left as did the tourists. Clammy fingers of disease and sickness reached deeply into the village.
Embarrassed, the council called a special meeting. Realizing their gross error in judgment, they hired back the old keeper of the spring . . . and within a few weeks, the river began to clear up.1Catherine Marshall, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1951), 147, 148.
Like the clearing of debris from those pools that fed the spring, so grief when allowed to flow, when we let ourselves actually feel the feelings we have, cleanses the heart. But when we stop grief up, fight the tears, get angry instead of just feeling the sadness we have, we become stopped up with pain.
As you encounter change, as you experience loss, own your pain and feel it and let the tears flow. They are cleansing. They help. And you won’t be as tempted to “punch someone’s lights out.”