This post is part of a series in which I’ve shared my spiritual journey. Part 1 of this series appeared in 2008 and can be found here:
Parts 2 and 3 can be found among my recent posts.
In the previous installment of this story I talked about the final two years of my ministry at a Presbyterian church in East Tennessee, and the reasons I sensed things were winding to a close. (To read that story, see Parts 1-3 as directed above.)
Everything finally came to a head for me one day in December of 1999 when I got a call from an older lady in the church asking me to perform a baptism for her new grand-baby while the child’s parents would be visiting our church over Christmas break. The parents–this lady’s son and daughter-in-law–lived in another city and were not involved in a church, so she was asking if we could baptize their new baby at our church.
There were several problems with this. To begin with, baptism is supposed to be an act of the corporate church, and preferably of the actual congregation the person being baptized will attend. Second, in the case of infant baptism, the parents are supposed to promise to raise their child “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), which presumes being active in a local church. This child’s parents were not involved in church and lived in another city. So obviously there was no way our congregation could be personally and regularly involved in the spiritual nurture of this baby.
In my heart of hearts I never believed in infant baptism to begin with. I had heard all the arguments in favor of it in seminary, but in my opinion they didn’t hold water (no pun intended 😉 ). In truth I had agreed to perform infant baptisms as a pastor because this was the way I was raised, and because I felt I should “bloom where I was planted.” I had accepted this as just part of being Presbyterian, even though in my heart I didn’t believe it was right. So for nine years I had been performing infant baptisms when required to, all the while secretly experiencing pangs of conscience about it.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked by a grandparent to baptize a grandchild whose parents weren’t active in church. As in many churches, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) [a.k.a. the “PCUSA”] the adult children of many older members had ceased to be active in any church. So this kind of request was not uncommon. Sometimes in the past I had allowed social pressure or the fact that the requester was an important member of the church to pressure me into performing such a baptism when really I didn’t feel right about it. At other times, I had found the gumption to decline for the reasons I mentioned above. However, I had continued to perform infant baptisms as long as the parents were active in our church or another church.
That day my conscience finally got the best of me, though. This request from the baby’s grandmother highlighted all the pitfalls I saw with infant baptism. The straw broke the camel’s back and in that moment I felt I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t go through with it.
Having dealt with these kinds of dilemmas before, I knew that rather than giving an immediate answer it was best to buy myself some time. So I told the caller I needed time to think and pray about it, and that I would get back to her. She agreed.
After I got off the phone, and as I was mulling over the situation, it seemed as though the Lord spoke to my heart. “I’m not the one making you do this. You don’t have to do this,” He seemed to say. I guess all those years I’d believed God wanted me to submit to the teachings of my denomination on baptism even though I didn’t believe they were right in God’s eyes. Really that’s kind of twisted thinking. I didn’t believe in infant baptism because I didn’t think it was biblical. In other words, I believed God didn’t approve of infant baptism; and yet I thought God wanted me to perform infant baptisms anyway out of deference to my denomination. I had equated God with my denomination, even though on another level I believed Scripture superseded my denomination. That’s convoluted if you think about it.
But here it was: in this moment it seemed God was saying “You don’t have to do this.” Suddenly a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Some things that had been unclear to me for years suddenly began falling into place.
I knew, though, that this would probably lead to my departure from the PCUSA and from that congregation. For as I understood it, my Presbyterian ordination vows required me to perform infant baptisms.
I quickly found my copy of the Book of Order, the Presbyterian rule book for churches and ministers, and looked up infant baptism. Sure enough it said that parents are to bring their infant children for baptism, and when they do so, the pastor “shall” perform the baptism. No “weasel word” there.
One of the vows a pastor takes in the PCUSA is to do everything the Book of Order instructs him or her to do [yes, they have female pastors in the PCUSA]. Furthermore, the Book of Order says a pastor who does not fulfill his ordination vows must be disciplined by the church.
So it was clear that as a Presbyterian pastor I was required to perform infant baptisms. But even if it hadn’t been required, they were so routine as to be expected by church members. Any pastor who refused to baptize babies wouldn’t last very long in a Presbyterian church. But suddenly I knew my conscience would no longer allow me to do this anymore.
So here at last was the solution to my dilemma, not only about being pastor of that church, but about being in the Presbyterian Church (USA). No longer would I have to go against my conscience. God had released me. In reality, He had never been the one requiring me to go against it in the first place. Rather, it had been more a function of my compulsive need to please others–my Presbyterian parents, those I had grown up with, and others in my denomination–as well as of my fear of change.
All these realizations happened within a short period of time–maybe 15 minutes or half an hour. After that there was no longer a question about what I needed to do. Resolved and at peace, I picked up the phone and called back the lady who had requested the baptism and told her we would not be doing it. I shared my reasons with her, and she accepted it, so that was the end of the matter.
(Now that I think back on it, I may have been out of order in making that decision alone, because in the PCUSA the administration of the sacraments comes under the authority of the elder board. So I probably should have notified them of the request, shared my feelings about it, and let them vote on it. If they had approved it, then I could’ve chosen to decline to perform the baptism for the sake of conscience, and they could’ve brought another pastor in to do it if they so desired. But none of this occurred to me or the lady who called at that time, so the matter was settled then and there.)
After all this I began praying about what to do. The writing seemed to be on the wall, but to actually go through with it and resign–that was another matter entirely. And yet it seemed inevitable. I had crossed over into a new place and I knew there was no going back. Yet a tremendous weight had been lifted off me, and I was finally at peace.
The December meeting of the elder board had already occurred, so I knew the soonest I could bring this up with the elders would be the January meeting which, as I recall, was to be on January 17th–almost an entire month away. Could I wait that long? When the time came, would I still feel the same way?
I decided not to discuss my impending decision with anyone in the church, because I knew if I did it would likely get out, and that might cause gossip as well as all kinds of chaos and unwanted consequences. So I kept my ruminations to myself.
I made it through Christmas and into the new year still pondering everything and with no one in the church any the wiser. But with each passing day my feeling that it was time for me to leave grew stronger.
As the 17th drew near I began to compose my letter of resignation. I had it complete and ready to present when I learned the Executive Presbyter of our presbytery (a regional governing body in the Presbyterian church) would be attending our session meeting. I can’t recall now why he wanted to come. I think it was just because he occasionally met with churches to see how they were doing, and it just so happened that his meeting with our church was to occur at that time. The timing was purely “coincidental” because no one knew of my intention to resign and so he couldn’t have been coming for that reason. Nevertheless I saw it as providential, knowing it would probably be good for the Executive Presbyter (EP) to be there when the elders were having to deal with my resignation.
The time for the meeting came, and everyone was in place, including the presbytery exec. At the place on the docket normally set aside for my monthly report, I read my resignation letter. I think everyone was in shock, including the Executive Presbyter, as I hadn’t told him this was coming either. Everyone seemed dumbfounded.
I imagine it came as somewhat of a shock because in the last two or three months I’d been talking about starting a contemporary service on Sunday evenings. But in elder meetings it had become increasingly clear there wasn’t a lot of genuine support for the idea. They were OK with me starting a service like that but it didn’t seem as though many of them were interested in supporting it themselves.
In my previous post I talked about how the church organist was very opposed to these changes, and how she had a lot of friends among the elders. At elder meetings it was pretty clear that none of her friends–which was almost all the elders–were going to openly oppose her. I began to feel as though the likelihood of the church actively moving in a more contemporary direction was dead in the water.
So this was the background as we had the session meeting that night. After I read my resignation letter the presbytery exec took the bull by the horns and suggested the session consider allowing me to take a month’s paid sabbatical to pray over my decision and perhaps reconsider. The EP had me leave the room so the session could vote on it. When he brought me back in he said they had unanimously approved a month’s paid sabbatical for the month of February so I could take time to consider my decision. Some session members commented they greatly appreciated my ministry there and hoped I would reconsider.
Needless to say the rest of January was somewhat awkward. In addition to my regular pastoral duties I used the time to schedule how and where I was going to spend the sabbatical.
When February came I took the month off from the church. I wound up spending most of the first three weeks at home just in prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual reading that was pertinent to the question at hand. Toward the end of the month a friend in the church arranged for me to have an overnight stay at a secluded retreat center located at the fork of two nearby rivers. The same friend also used his connections to arrange for me to spend a week at a condo in Hilton Head, SC. I did that the last week of the sabbatical. I had also won a free night’s stay at a hotel in Townsend, TN as well as a free meal at a restaurant there. So after I returned from Hilton Head I decided to spend the last night of my sabbatical in Townsend. All in all I had about 8 paid days and nights I was able to stay in places away from the town where I lived in order to get away and prayerfully think.
I have relatives in South Carolina so on the way to and from Hilton Head I took the opportunity to visit with some of them. That wound up being a very profound week for me. I was seeking God for guidance, and several noteworthy things happened that week.
During the first weeks of my sabbatical the Lord showed me a verse I had never noticed before. It was Matthew 15:13: “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'”
On the drive to Hilton Head I stopped in Greenville, SC and spent the night with one of my uncles. Without telling me what to do, he gave me lots of great advice and loaned me a set of teaching tapes of his pastor’s sermons.
After leaving my uncle’s house for Hilton Head the next day I put one of the tapes in my cassette player and began to listen. On that very tape the pastor taught from Matthew 15:13: “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'” As you can imagine, this got my attention.
During my week in Hilton Head I spent a lot of time in prayer, worship, and Bible reading, and took lots of walks on the beach. I also got through part of a book a pastor friend had loaned me. The book was The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. I wasn’t able to finish it during my stay, but I did peek ahead into the remainder of the book. As I did so, my eyes fell on this verse: Matthew 15:13 “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'” Now, you better believe I was paying attention to that!
In the course of just a week or two I had come across the same passage three times–a passage I had never been aware of before. It seemed the Lord was trying to tell me something.
What He was saying was not hard to figure out. God was telling me there were things in my life which He had not “planted,” and He was going to take everything not from Him and “pull it up by the roots” if I would allow Him to. In particular this seemed to relate to my involvement in the PCUSA as well as my ministry.
On the road to becoming a PCUSA pastor there had been several points along the way at which I had encountered major things I didn’t agree with related to their teachings and practices, infant baptism and women’s ordination being only two examples. At any of these points I could’ve chosen to follow my conscience and been open with the denomination and my seminary about the issues I had with them. But out of fear I had kept my mouth shut instead. I was afraid of the disruptions that would occur in my life if the denomination chose not to ordain me, or if I chose to leave it.
But keeping these matters to myself had caused its own set of difficulties, both for me and for the churches I served. It caused my loyalty to my denomination to be divided and also hindered my ability to serve effectively because in my heart I was not 100% committed to the church, the beliefs I was espousing, or the people I was serving. In truth I was playing a role–being one person on the inside, and someone else I thought the church wanted me to be on the outside. You can only live like that for so long.
So there was plenty in my life that needed to be pulled up by the roots. God was about to take everything back to square one and start again from scratch.
It seemed the message from Matthew 15:13 was confirmation that it was time to end my ministry at the church I was pastoring. The fact that I saw this passage every time I turned around left little doubt in my mind that this was a message from God and an answer to my prayers. I felt a real peace and sense of release.
At the March meeting of the elders I was supposed to report back and give my final answer about my resignation. So when the time came I told them–through tears–that I was indeed going to resign. The tears were not so much sadness as they were a certain amount of regret and a release of intense emotion that had been building up for weeks. The elders accepted my resignation (reluctantly I believe) and we agreed together on a plan to end my tenure as their pastor.
They wanted plenty of time to prepare for my departure, so we agreed on April 30 as my last day. That happened to be a Sunday. It was some 7 weeks off so it would allow plenty of time for closure, and would allow my last day to be a Sunday. A farewell dinner was planned after church that day.
After the session meeting I sent a letter to the congregation explaining that I was leaving and why, and detailing the plans surrounding my departure.
As you can imagine, my last few weeks at the church were bittersweet. In almost every way it felt good to be going, as I had been in turmoil for some months. But I knew I was going to miss the people, and also that I would miss pastoring in some ways. It had been my way of life and my identity for nine years (more than that if you count my prior years of training), and I didn’t exactly know what was going to happen next.
You see, I didn’t have a clear plan about what I was going to do once I was no longer a pastor. I just knew I didn’t want to be a pastor anymore, and felt that God had given his blessing to that. I felt as though he had released me from that responsibility so I could go back to square one and learn a lot of basic things I needed to learn about life and being a Christian.
On one of my last Sundays at the church, a dear older lady who attended our church from time to time came up to me after the service and said “Morgan, I feel like what you’ve experienced here is that you’re trying to put new wine into old wineskins. That’s why you’ve had some struggles this last year or two.” She was referring to a verse of Scripture: Mark 2:22 “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”
This seemed like a word from the Lord because I had been thinking the same thing myself. In Scripture wine often represents the Holy Spirit, and new wine represents new things the Holy Spirit is doing. The old wineskins represent the old way of way of doing things or the old paradigm. New wineskins represent a new paradigm or a new way of doing things Or the wineskins can represent a church or ministry.
Putting new wine into old wineskins speaks of trying to do something new in an established setting that isn’t open to new ways. Wineskins in Bible times were made out of leather, which is flexible when new, but becomes stiff through use over time. The new wine is more potent and so runs the risk of bursting the stiff older leather. The new wine is more suited to the flexible new leather of the new wineskins.
Churches and ministries can be the same way. When a ministry first starts there is lots of excitement and flexibility about how to do things because traditions haven’t been established yet. Over time, though, patterns begin to set in and become entrenched. Then when someone comes along and tries to introduce a new way of doing things, they meet resistance because “we’ve never done it that way before” (sometimes jokingly called “the seven last words of the church” lol). Church experts will tell you it’s usually easier to start a new church than it is to change an existing one.
And that is exactly what I’d been trying to do–change a long-established church (the church was over 40 years old at that time). The dear lady who spoke to me that morning helped me see my experience at the church in light of the bigger picture. This too seemed a confirmation of the decision I’d made and brought additional peace.
By the time April 30, 2000 arrived, I was content with my decision and ready to leave. The congregation threw a very nice farewell luncheon for me after church and gave me a nice watch as a parting gift.
When May 1 rolled around I had no idea what kind of work I was going to do. But I had enough money in savings to last me a few months, so I didn’t panic. Around that time I also received a check for $400 from the IRS (how often does that happen??). Turns out I had overpaid them on a previous year’s taxes and they were just getting around to paying me back. I thought the timing was very interesting. It seemed to be a sign from the Lord that He had my back.
The next post will be the last in this series. In it I will summarize my life over the last 13 years and share some observations about things I’ve learned. Stay tuned.
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