Loving and Leaving a Church (Barbara Melosh) -- A Review

LOVING AND LEAVING A CHURCH: A Pastor’s Journey. By Barbara Melosh. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. 206 pages

                When a church calls a minister (or a minister is appointed to a congregation), the new minister and the church usually share one thing in common. Both parties believe that something wonderful is about to happen. The new minister believes she or he has something to offer the congregation that will help it grow and achieve its potential. The congregation, especially congregations that have experienced decline, live in hope that this time things will click, and resurgence of life will occur. Congregations often look to the new minister to be their savior, and the new minister may be inclined to buy into that hope. More often than not, these hopes and dreams don’t come to fruition. Many small and struggling congregations don’t have a lot of energy. They’re living in the hope that the new pastor can breathe life into the congregation without requiring too much of them or asking for too many changes to be made. The pastor on the other hand, may come into the situation believing that ministry is something that all share in and can see multiple areas needing to be changed. Before too long congregation and pastor are either at loggerheads or the pastor moves on to something new. It might be a new congregation or a new vocation. This description might be familiar to many clergy and congregations. We may see ourselves in this description.

                In Loving and Leaving a Church, Barbara Melosh takes the reader into territory that might be familiar to many clergy. I know I see parts of my story in her story. Melosh speaks to the challenges of ministry in an age of declining numbers of persons open to the church, and especially to traditional mainline churches. Melosh is a second career Lutheran pastor, having spent the bulk of her vocational life in academics. While in her early 50s, she decided to make a vocational change, and pursue ordination. This book is the story of her experience as the settled pastor of her first and only parish. She was called to serve a blue color Lutheran congregation in Baltimore. In order to tell the story, the name of the church—she chose the name Saints and Sinners Lutheran Church—and the people who inhabit it are changed, but according to the author the stories are true.

                We move in the book from her call and ordination, at which time she was reminded in the ordination vows that she was, as yet, unequipped for the ministry to which she was being called. It is a good reminder that we do not start out knowing everything there is to know about ministry. We may think we have all the answers, but as Melosh reminds us as she tells story, much of what takes place in ministry must be learned along the way. Congregations are different. People are different. We must learn how to respond to challenges that may not arise in class. According to her story, she began her ministry on Palm Sunday, and dove into Holy Week, learning the rhythms and lack thereof of this particular congregation. She quickly encountered diffidence and resistance to her ideas. She discovered that many of the members were grieving the departure of the young male pastor, with wife and children, for greener pastures. Now, they were being led by a middle-aged woman. Melosh came into the situation envisioning things that could be undertaken that would turn things around. But, this was a church that had been experiencing decline for decades (does that sound familiar). They had tried things. Now, they just wanted to survive another day. They had faced the prospect of closure on several occasions. Money was tight. Again, this may sound familiar. I know I’ve been there. I also know, from experience, that congregations are resilient. They can and will outlast ministers with bright ideas.

                In the end, having given seven years to the congregation, and now in her early 60s, Melosh decided to move on. Of course, she discovered that the call for pastors over the age of 60, unless open to interim ministry, is limited. She found life after Saints and Sinners Lutheran Church, but not what she had expected. As to what that is, you will need to read the book. In the course of the book we walk with her through wedding ceremonies gone awry, encountering seekers, dealing with building codes, ministering to families dealing with horrific tragic deaths, trying to find ways of hospitable to neighbors.  While, she chose to leave the church, she had come to love the people, even the people who resisted her new ideas. She left, knowing she did her best, but knowing that the church was smaller than it had been at the beginning of her ministry. It wasn’t because she didn’t giver herself fully to the congregation. It was simply the reality of changing times, and growing diffidence toward traditional religious practices and communities.

                I received an Advanced Reader Copy of the book sometime back. Knowing that it was about to be released (July 24, 2018), I decided I had better dive in. Once I started reading I discerned that this might be a book clergy, whether new or not so new at this business, should read. It brings a bit of realism to expectations for ministry. It’s great to go in with anticipation and big ideas, but we should not perceive ourselves as saviors. We are pastors! Sometimes churches do turn around, but often they do not. It’s not that they will cease to exist any time soon, but they won’t return to the glory days. Like I said, churches are resilient. They even survive pastors with grandiose ideas! Her decision to write about ministry autobiographically brings a certain liveliness to the story.

               While we may not share in every experience she shares, many of us, especially those of us who have been at this awhile, will find ourselves someplace in the story. This is especially true of clergy who have served or are serving smaller congregations that have been in decline for many years, and who are dealing with an aging and often tired membership, and buildings requiring significant remodeling (and organization). Whether younger clergy are ready to hear this is another thing. Perhaps it's best they don't. On the other hand, it might serve to temper expectations. For those of us who have been at this for some time, having done our best, Melosh’s story might help some of us let go of the guilt of not saving the churches entrusted to our care. It might also give us encouragement to keep moving forward, knowing that there is something to be said for faithfulness. 


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