(This is post in a 10 part series of posts detailing the events leading up to our move from Ithaca to Dublin. You can read the whole series here)
One of the hardest things about living in Ithaca is having to constantly say good-bye to friends. Students come for 4 years to get their bachelors, or perhaps 5 or more for a PhD. A few of them stay, but most are in town briefly before they are on to the next thing.
We knew one person who worked at Cornell who had a rule that he would not make friends with associate professors until they received tenure as it was too hard to keep saying good-bye.
Early on in the life of the Ithaca Vineyard, towards the end of a school year I asked people to raise their hands if they were leaving town in May so we could pray for them. Perhaps the number has grown larger in my head over the years, but it seemed like 75% of the people in the room that day raised their hands. You could hear the gasp, and feel the energy get sucked out of the room. I never did that again.
When you are in a place like Ithaca, it always feels like everyone is heading off to a new adventure, and you are simply saying good-bye and wishing them well. Even our kids who loved Ithaca, all planned to leave once they were old enough.
Living in Ithaca, more than many places means having people you care about leave.
With that background, the idea of telling the Ithaca Vineyard that we were leaving, was not something I was looking forward to at all. And because of everything that can be involved for people when the pastor of their church leaves, we really wanted to get it right.
Due to the young age of the Vineyard, there was not track record that we could pull from on how to leave well. A lot of the info we received was contradictory.
About 2 or 3 weeks before we were planning to make the announcement that we were moving, the plan was meet with our leaders on the last Sunday in July and tell them. Then the following Sunday we’d make the announcement to the whole church during our normal worship service. While that was the advice we’d received, there was a big part of me that saw that going awfully. “And today’s message…oh wait, did I mention I’m leaving and moving to Ireland?”
I was having a tough time thinking of any scenario, where that went well. Then I had an idea.
When Liz and I first moved to Ithaca in 1994, we were part of the Groton Assembly of God (I was ordained with the AG way back then.) Although Groton was the furthest of the three churches we’d be working with while we started a campus ministry at Cornell, we really hit it off with the pastor of the church there and it was the best fit for us.
A few years later, shortly after we joined the Vineyard, he moved to an AG church in Syracuse. And then in the past few years he had retired from that church. Since he had experience leaving a church well, we set up a time to meet with him and his wife in July.
One of the suggestions he made was that rather than making the announcement on Sunday morning, we send out a letter to the whole church on Monday, and then talk more about it on Sunday. While that seems so obvious in retrospect, the idea is one we’d never heard.
It was a weird letter to write. Obviously, I was excited about what we were planning, but I was sad about leaving the church we’d been part of for 12 years. And I wanted to communicate both of those facts in the letter.
So the day after I spoke to a group of our leaders, I dropped the letters in the mail…and waited. What was the response going to be? I had no idea. Would people be happy? Angry? Ambivalent? Would they call? Email?
Before that Sunday morning, I actually only received one response. A friend who’d been part of the church for over decade, and had been in leadership previously, sent me an email, the text of which was simply:
Other than that, I didn’t hear anything.
Now, some people were speaking to each other and processing the news that way. Others were simply praying about it. But by the time we all got together that following Sunday, most people had had time to work through the emotions, and come on Sunday with good questions for us and the church leaders. (We held a meeting after the service where we could talk in more detail about what the plan was going forward.)
(if you’d like to see the actual message we shared that Sunday, you can find it here.)
One of the other decisions we had to make long before we arrived at this point was when to inform the whole congregation about what was happening. Generally, if a pastor leaves to go to another church the time between the announcement and the departure is 4 weeks or so. If the pastor needs to leave because they did something stupid/sinful, it is generally immediate. So how would it work for a church to walk through this process for the next 10 months with a ‘lame-duck’ pastor (as I was occasionally referred to).
There were a few suggestions that we wait until about a month before we left before sharing this…but for me, a key part of pastoring is talking about the stuff God puts on my heart. To have something so major, and keep it hidden for so long, really felt dishonest to me. The church council agreed that that seemed right to them as well. So that is why we did it when we did.
In going through this series of messages, in retrospect, there are things I wish we would have done differently. But for the most part, I am so thankful for the amazing group of people God surrounded us with through this process and for the wisdom, discernment and council they brought to this process and to us.
For those of you who were part of this process, thank you for going through this with us.