I feel I am walking toward a door in a dark and empty room and I can hear the echoes of every footfall. For fifteen years I have served various congregations in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ as minister. Presently I pastor the West Islip Church of Christ, a wonderful group of committed Christians with a significant history in our branch of the Christian tree. Today I announce my departure from that cherished vocation. I am giving up a calling, a way of life, and in my present circumstance a generous salary complete with a parsonage in a lovely neighborhood nestled on the shore of the Great South Bay. Needless to say, I am short of breath.
Church is part of me. I thought I would serve the church forever by answering the call to ministry. My parents made sure that my earliest and most frequent memories were of time spent with our church family: singing hymns, reading scripture, fervently praying, and breaking bread. I lived away from my extended family, but that did not matter. I had the church, and that meant that I had aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents aplenty. I never went without love. I always knew I belonged. I was safe there.
When I was eleven my church asked me to participate in a program called “Children’s Worship Training.” A tiny chapel with shortened pews was set up in the church basement. I led worship there for energetic toddlers and runny nosed kindergarteners. I thrived.
When I was 13 I delivered my first sermon to an adult audience. I had scribbled it out on clean lined notebook paper the Saturday before it was to be preached. By the time I reached church the next day my nervous hands had reduced the paper to a wrinkled mess.
By the end of my 16th year I was on my way to Harding University, a private Christian school, to earn my academic stripes in their department of Bible and Religion. Before my 18th birthday I was on staff at the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy AK serving as the Associate Youth Minister. Prior to graduating with my B.A. I delivered a departing chapel message to the entire student body. I received two commendation letters from faculty, one of which read, “This is the finest chapel message we have received in a long, long time.” I felt the blessing of God on a promising career.
Later I attended New Brunswick Theological Seminary and earned my Masters of Divinity degree (the typical degree that precedes ordination in most denominations). In each of the final two years of my program I was selected for The Reverend Edward Lodewick Prize for excellence in preaching. I had come a long way from nervous hands and wrinkled notebook paper. All my experiences seemed to point to one thing: I was meant to preach and minister. Yet here I am, staring down over the precipice of the mountain that is my entire life, not knowing what lies below, and with a willingness to jump.
You don’t make so radical a change without reasons. There are reasons.
As you are well aware Shannon and I are very close to our extended family, and our parents have experienced various health concerns of late. As they grow older we feel a responsibility to be at their side aiding them. The Lugdon Lodge family business is a demanding one, and Shannon’s vacations are full with the duties of lodge. She feels guilt that she cannot do more for those she loves. Shannon’s plans are to help her parents in their business. She has education and career goals she will pursue. In addition I have an opportunity to work alongside my sister in some new pursuits she is involved in (I have a super cool sister, so that is easy to get behind). I hope to do more writing, to embrace a simpler lifestyle, and to work some with my hands. Manny is transitioning at the end of this school year from Elementary school to Jr. High. If we were going to make a move, this was a window of opportunity.
In addition to the reasons just described there is a counter narrative to the story of my early church life, and how it set me on a direction.
My home of origin was rich in many things, but lucre was not one of them. We were a family of meager means, and so we lived a different life. My father was a high school graduate, my mother was a dropout (she later, through much perseverance, completed her G.E.D). My father taught me to work with my hands and to love the outdoors. We ate government food and cashed social security disability checks. We went fishing and hunting (not for leisure but for meat). We grew our own food. My mother canned and made jams, and pickles, and homemade relish. When we could afford them we drove cars no one else wanted, often we walked. We lived in a house that had long passed its hundredth birthday, and that would have been an embarrassment to anyone, save for my mother’s careful cleaning and my mother and father’s ingenuity in covering over unseemly things. This is who I was, and in many ways still am. So at times I feel a square peg in a round hole walking the halls of academia, holding counsel in my office with towering oak book shelves, and taking my evening runs on the canal streets with houses that stretch up to the sky in opulence, boasting strong collonades, decorative cornices, and large palladian windows. It is so different here. I confess there are occasions that I don’t know which way to stand, or how to speak, or how to raise my children in such an alien landscape.
My upbringing was rural, not suburban. I was happily provincial. The pace was slow. The competitive culture found in more populated areas was virtually nonexistent. I trusted people, and they trusted me. I am nostalgic for that place now. I long for it like a life-long sailor yearns for the heave of a ship beneath him after a long furlough deep in the mainland. I feel a strong need to go back home and remember and reunite with the things that made me Jesse. I have heard that people change careers. I know I am not alone. I have heard that some people return to their roots. So this is my attempt to do just that.
What I am saying is that for many years I have lived with a foot in two worlds. My life felt lost in interstitial space. I do not regret my experiences at all. I am overjoyed for them. But I did feel a sense of loss when at the end of the day my body did not smell of sawdust and sweat, and ache from manual labor, and I was unable to walk through a dense stand of pines far from highways and byways. I feel I have traveled far and wide, and that now I desire home. No matter where I have lived, I have always thought of Maine as “home.”
I also feel a need to recharge. Life has a long middle. I am presently in the thick of it, and I confess that my ministry has suffered. I grew tired of the many requests of the ministry and my grace with others was waning. I was hesitant to start new initiatives, and I felt a lack of creative imagination. The church of God deserves our best, and at times I could have done more and because of that my conscience was violated. I am encouraged at the thought of new leadership and new ideas and new energy. I hope they can bless the fellowship that meets at West Islip in every way the Spirit can imagine.
My resignation comes on the cusp of the West Islip Church of Christ’s fiftieth anniversary. I feel badly about the timing. It was important to me that the event be used as a time to generate excitement about new arrivals, and different directions. I am fully committed to the celebration, and can’t wait to see and embrace our many honored visitors.
For those who have interest the itinerary for my family looks like this: Shannon and the kids will leave after the fiftieth anniversary and will return again for Vacation Bible School. Shannon will then move to Maine and the kids will begin school in Fort Kent. I will stay through September and move after the congregational retreat. Life will be different for us there. We humbly request your prayers. Thank you for partnering with us in the journey of life. Thank you for your friendship.