Ι have been at my current church for over seventeen years. During that time, I’ve only had one call to serve another church, and that was fifteen years ago. While I have had a few phone interviews with call commitees, it’s been a long time since I had a call to consider. Most of my current congregation have joined since that time, so they hadn’t thought much about the possibility that I might go to serve somewhere else. When I received a call to a church in Erie, PA, it kicked off a month of prayer, discussions and meetings that will shape our ministry in the years to come.
I knew that I was on the short list of a couple of congregations earlier in the fall and was interviewed by phone in October. The call didn’t actually come until November 3. I received a phone call that Sunday afternoon from the chairman of the call committee in Erie that the congregation had met and voted to call me as pastor. The call documents would arrive in the mail later that week. I told my family and my elders, but not my present congregation as I awaited the additional information (compensation, church self-assessment and future plans). I did however begin to try and figure out when in the world I would be able to squeeze in a trip to Erie. I was already traveling to Philadelphia to help my dad move out of his home and Thanksgiving was fast approaching when i would have my whole family in town.
The call documents arrived in the mail on Tuesday. No surprises, really. The salary was a little more, but with higher taxes in that area, it was a wash. The history of the church was interesting, but more on that later. I planned a trip on the one Friday and Saturday my wife and I could get away and prepared to tell the congregation on Sunday morning after each worship service.
Sunday was interesting to say the least. Some (the elders and their families) knew the announcement was coming, but for most is was completely unexpected and a shock. Some who heard it believed I had already decided to leave while others began planning ways to try to convince me to stay. On Monday morning, I sent a letter to each family explaining the call and asking them for input.
Most of the initial responses were emotional. Many were about the weather. Then as the week progressed, I began to get some very well thought out emails and notes. Towards the end of week two, I heard that there were some in the congregation who thought it would be a good idea for me to move on. Finally, many wanted to sit down and talk with me about the call and my present ministry. I have to say that everyone who wrote and spoke with me expressed tremendous respect for the office of the ministry and the divine call. Many had been through the process at other churches, as pastors left and as new pastors were sought.
The responses that really got my attention were the ones stating that the church couldn’t and wouldn’t survive without me. Phrases like “you’re the glue that holds the church together” and “your departure would bring about the demise of the congregation” really bothered me. As I often remind my self, the church was here before me and it will be here after me. I was forced to confront the truth that many were a part of the church because of me. I know that this is true for many churches. As much as I want people to be connected to Christ, the reality is a connection either with or through me. This would continue to haunt me in the weeks to come and eventually help me with my decision.
Our trip to visit the church was a whirlwind tour. We left early on a Friday morning, connected in Philadelphia and arrived in Erie in the late morning. We rented a car and toured the church neighborhood, spent a few hours driving around Presque Isle, and visited a cemetery that overlooked a beatiful gorge where a friend’s father was buried. We ate supper that night with the chairman of the call committe and another couple. The next morning, we met with the call commitee and leadership of the congregation, got to see the inside of the church, ate lunch and flew home.
Now what? I had decided early on that I would take a month to make my decision. I wanted to ride the roller coaster of emotions and reactions. I wanted the congregation to think about the future. I wanted some time to reflect on my own ministry. November was a very good month for all of that.