I don’t make decisions easily. This I know. One of the things that I find helpful in guiding me in this process is seeking the input of others. While contemplating leaving full-time vocational ministry, there were a few important people that I needed input from.
First, my boss and some of my colleagues, second, my family, and third my close friends. With these people I shared my journey and my thinking behind taking a break from being a pastor and exploring something new. After talking through this with each of these groups, all gave me their unanimous support. Perhaps what I was after was a combination of their permission, support, and blessing.
With the encouragement of my senior minister, I took a five-day retreat to assimilate the feedback and then make my decision. I spent these days in the tranquil and expansive setting of Carmel Guest Farm. One afternoon I went for a long walk/run. I left and explored an adjacent valley. While running, I had the sense that I wanted to hear from God directly – to have His approval for this change.
After running for some time, I found myself entering a holiday estate, and soon spotted a sign for a chapel. I continued to run, determined to find the chapel. Somehow I got it into my mind that I was going to find the chapel, sit inside and hopefully have a profound numinous experience, receiving the divine permission I so desperately wanted. This may have been overly quixotic, but I was optimistic nonetheless.
After several kilometers, I eventually discovered the chapel. With a high sense of expectation I walked to the stone building, and opened the door, only to discover it was locked. To say I was angry would be an understatement. I was furious.
My expectations felt so tangible that I could feel the anger bubbling up under the surface. I found a bench a couple meters from the chapel, sat down, and allowed my frustration to explode.
Within a few moments I had the most distinct and life-changing God moment. I had a direct sense of God telling me that it was ok that for this season the church was locked. He told me that I wouldn’t be sitting – working – inside the church, and that was ok with him.
In seconds, my anger and disappointment was transformed into streams of tears. In the most unexpected way, I had had the numinous experience I so desperately sought.
What’s more, I had a sense of the Divine voice telling me to look up and see how much is out there. I physically lifted my head from its place of safety, cradled on my knees, to be met with the most expansive views. I could probably have seen almost 20km of coastline. It was like I could hear God saying to me: “Look how much is out there. It’s OK that you’re not in the Church for this season.”
Deep relief. How badly I needed to hear those words. Life-giving words. Interestingly, I also realised afterwards that there were no ocean-facing windows in the church. Strangely, it seemed so closed off to the beauty that lay before it.
As much as this brought the deep encouragement I needed to leave church, leaving will still be difficult. One thing that we were never taught in seminary was how to leave a place; to go from a community that has been home for years.
Added to that, the fiercely relational lens through which I see the world is under-girded with a strong foundation of relationships. Pascal Mercier said: “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”
I’m encouraged to know that well-formed relationships persist, and my leaving is less of a jumping on a ship and never to return, but rather a child leaving home for the first time, returning often for advice, food, and – in my boss’ words – bringing back piles of laundry!
Priest and author Henri Nouwen has brought me great encouragement with his depth of writing, and he wrote this about leaving:
“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy, but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies… the pain of the leaving can tear us apart. Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
I’m glad that this year, I’m going to be taking that risk.