We had just wrapped up our morning worship services and not one person had left the venue yet. In fact, people from the earlier service were coming back for all that was going on in the early afternoon of that day. The ladies of the women’s ministry were in the kitchen making and handing out meatball subs that had been pre-ordered as a fundraiser for one of their upcoming events. Another group of people were grabbing chairs and tables and setting up for the informational meeting with the volunteers of our local chapter of “Justice For Our Neighbors” a ministry that works to help immigrants navigate the citizenship process. Our Church Council members were setting up tables and chairs outside for our monthly meeting (because there was no room inside the venue due to all of the other groups) and even more folks were just hanging out enjoying fellowship with their church family. I stood there in the middle of all of this activity and just watched it all and as the people walked by me, everyone doing something and no one asking me for anything, I realized that I was not necessary for any of the things happening in the life of our church in those moments. I hadn’t planned any of the events happening that day; the church was just being the church. I walked outside and joined the church council meeting where I would announce to them that I was being appointed to a new church.
Saying goodbye to the church that I had started was not an easy thing to do. In fact, I dreaded it so much that I allowed myself to get to the point where I just wished it was all over. I didn’t want to go through the emotional turmoil of having to say goodbye to these people, to this place, and to this ministry. But we don’t get to escape painful moments in life – nor should we. And so my family and I embarked on the difficult process of saying goodbye to our third child—our church plant.
Saying goodbye took several forms. There was the literal saying goodbye where we would gather with friends and partners in ministry to share memories and pray together for the future of the church. There was the work that needed to be done to ensure a smooth transition. I remember sitting with my staff and making a list of all that needed to happen before my departure so that the leadership and the new pastor were in the best position possible to continue without missing a beat. There was the sermon planning work, what is the best way to move into this transition through the ministry of preaching? I ended up doing a 4-week sermon series called “Benediction” where we looked at words of blessing and various benedictions from scripture and their significance. It culminated on my last Sunday with a sermon from Ephesians 3:20-21 where I acknowledged that what had been accomplished through the ministry of that plant was certainly more than I had ever imagined and that I knew it wasn’t over, that God had more in store for that church in this new chapter.
There was a practical part of the departure for me personally. We had put so much in to planting this church over the last 5 ½ years. We had sacrificed so much, worked so hard, centered much of our lives on this ministry. I knew that it would be very hard to separate out from all of that. So, after speaking with my District Superintendent, I decided to have my final Sunday at the plant be a month before my first Sunday at my new church so that I would have time to rest and process mentally, emotionally and spiritually everything that we had been through in those years. The worst thing I could imagine was preaching my final sermon at our plant one Sunday and then preaching my first sermon at my new church the next Sunday. There needed to be some time to process.
The biggest blessing to me, though, came from a family that said goodbye the Sunday before my final week as they were going on vacation. Prior to coming to our church this family had no church background – the mother had not been raised in the church and the dad had some nominal Catholic background—but as a family, faith was not a part of their lives before being invited to our church and professing faith. As they were saying goodbye, the mother in the family looked at me and said, “Thank you for giving us a home.” She didn’t say, “Your sermons are awesome,” but “Thank you for giving us a home.” That’s what we were trying to do. We didn’t want to start a church that was built around us, we wanted to start a church where the community itself became a home for those without one; where those disconnected from Jesus could find connection with Jesus and with other Jesus followers. When she said that I knew God had done exactly what we had prayed for all of those years.
Saying goodbye to our church plant was not easy, but it was a blessing.