As the song of response concluded, we took a deep breath, fighting back the tears that had been coming off and on for a while. August 18th was my family’s last Sunday at our church of over six years. One-fifth of our lives, nearly all of our married life, and all of our children’s young days have been spent in this church. As Kate and I always do during the final song, we put our arms around each other as we sung along – only this time it was so difficult that we just tried to take it all in. We received the benediction and wondered, “How do you say goodbye to this?”
How do you say goodbye to the church that has meant so much to you, that has so deeply altered the trajectory of your life? To the church that intercepted you when you were relying on yourself and your career abilities, that taught you what it means truly to surrender your life to the Lordship of Jesus, that nurtured your family life through some of its deepest valleys?
How do you say goodbye to the 200, 300, 400 people who have cared for your soul through months of difficulty in getting pregnant, in crying with you and praying for you and encouraging you through that time of invisible pain and doubt? To the church that taught you the perspective that enabled you, some years later, to minister to others in the same situation? To the church that rejoiced when you finally had your first (and later second) child, only to cry and pray and encourage you once again through seemingly endless months of sleepless nights, colic, and getting paged out of worship for endless Sundays to soothe your child(ren)? To the church where your children now love to be, even if it is mainly for the bagels that they are not actually supposed to eat?
How do you say goodbye to the place that gave you an opportunity to teach the Bible for the first time? To the friends with whom you’ve led Bible studies of other brothers and sisters going through depression or health problems or marital problems? To the pastors and elders who helped you learn, however inadequately, to minister to others in those deep valleys?
How do you say goodbye to the pastors who identified spiritual gifts you did not know you had and patiently encouraged you to use them? To the men who had the courage to spur you to think about a ministry calling, even if it meant leaving behind the far more comfortable, stable, financially lucrative business world? To the men who gave you chances to preach, who invested greatly in your ministry preparation, who one-by-one met with you during a period of intense doubt mid-course in seminary to say, “We believe in your calling”? To the men who recognized a further calling to enter the academic realm and went to bat for you time and time again to pursue it?
How do you say goodbye to the women who shared maternity clothes and “How do I keep my new baby alive” books, who spent time in nursery commiserating over how newborns are harder but also better than anyone ever told you? Who were vulnerable and uplifting when you needed it?
How do you say goodbye to the church where you have wept over three tragic deaths of its members and seen your pastors and elders stand firm in brokenness, proclaim the glory of Christ even in the deepest sorrows, and lead our church as shepherds, saying, “God is still good. God is still in control. God still loves us. Even in this.”
How do you say goodbye to a place that showed you what a real church should be like: upholding the truth in love; preaching the atonement of Christ Sunday after Sunday; loving and supporting one another with meals, financial help, accountability, laughter, and tears; developing the spiritual gifts of its members rather than building a personality cult around the senior pastor; giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to send out missionaries; sending out new churches over and over again rather than getting bigger and bigger; and keeping it simple, so that Christ might be glorified in our midst rather than our reputation or programs? To a church that is full of weaknesses but which Christ is building up and using in mighty ways?
How do you say goodbye to the place you worshipped, where you cut your teeth in ministry, where you worked as a staff member – and which is now surrounding you in a powerful way as you act on the decision to blow up everything, to uproot yourself, to ask your wife to quit her great job, to leave behind your preschool and neighborhood and playgrounds, to move away from your family, and to pursue something that, against seemingly all odds, your church family actually “gets,” however insane it seems most of the time.
How do you say goodbye to your friends, your mentors, your shepherds?
How do you leave home?