I wrote yesterday regarding a situation that has unfolded over the past 12 years. If you haven’t read that, I encourage you to do that first.
When I posted it on Facebook, I received several kind comments. Many expressed sympathy, which was very much appreciated. But that wasn’t why I wrote it. I shared it for those who said that because of similar experiences, they are done with church. And perhaps even done with faith. And for others like them who didn’t comment but feel the same.
That breaks my heart.
This series of posts is written in the hopes that it can be an encouragement to others. To not give up on church, and even more to not give up on Jesus.
That said, on to part 2.
In 2010 during a sabbatical in Ireland, the idea of moving to Ireland first came up.
In July 2011, Liz and I travelled to Dublin to meet with the local pastor here and the person who oversaw our denomination on the whole island who came down from Belfast. The goal was mainly to receive an invitation from them to come. Which we got.
Two months later, we announced to our church that I would leave my lead pastor role, in Ithaca, in May 2012.
(I will not go into the details of that process as I have done that frequently here. Plus, that is not the purpose of this post.)
As I began telling people within the denomination our plans, some of our friends were incredibly helpful and tried to provide us with some guidance and helped us make some critical connections.
One of these connections was with a psychologist specialising in helping people make overseas moves. (We would not have gotten through this without him!)
A Season of Confusion
What we soon learned was that the path forward was not clear at all. There wasn’t a pastor that we could find, of an established US church who had successfully made a move like this.
Here is the challenge. If a pastor in the US wanted to move to a country where the denomination was not currently present, that is under the purview of the missions department.
But, if there is already a presence within the country, you go in as a church planter…but you have to go and be a part of a local church in that country and plant out from their church.
But in the intervening time, who we were supposed to report to or seek support from was unclear. And no one seemed to know. (a national leader will acknowledge below that the system they had in place was dysfunctional)
So, we needed to figure out how to move to another country. How to obtain residency, how to get the kids in school, figure out insurance, find a place to live, and what seemed like one thousand other things.
We also had to navigate a church system that none of the leaders “overseeing” it fully understood.
This issue was expressed well during a regional conference our last week in the States. As they did each year, they invited everyone who was part of our area and were going out to church plant to come forward one night. They did the same with missionaries another night.
Liz and I were not mentioned in either. Probably because I didn’t fit anywhere. But, still we were leaving after pastoring a church there for 12 years.
While I recognised the confusion, it also stung. Although I asked him not to, one of my close friends talked to the person running the conference about the oversight. I was invited up at the last minute to share what we were planning and was prayed for.
The Final Months
To protect the privacy of those involved, I will simply state that our family had a series of challenging situations arise over the final few months in New York. That does not include that I had jaw surgery, and we had a one-year-old kid. It was a crazy time.
We tried to acquire the help needed while in New York and then planned to get the required support upon landing in Dublin.
Because of the confusion about where we fit in the denomination, we built our own support network, but it didn’t include denominational leaders. I spoke with a few pastors and the counsellor I mentioned earlier, and they supported us as best they could.
I was also beginning to contact the person in Dublin since we would be joining his church shortly. However, I kept getting this gut feeling that he didn’t really want us.
I checked that out with the guy in Belfast, who assured me I was wrong.
So I ignored my intuition and jumped in.
[Since moving here, I have learned that Irish people tend to be much more indirect in their communication styles than Americans. So you may hear a “yes” or a “maybe”, but you have actually been told “probably not”.]
Going Down Hill Fast
In mid-July, we landed in Dublin. We stayed with a family from the church we met on a previous trip. They let us stay in their home, took me to get my visa, and helped us shop for a car and a place to live. They were (and remain) amazing!
We occasionally met with the pastors of the church we would be attending. We shared about the difficulties we were working through.
They shared them with the person up in Belfast.
So when Liz and I finally met with the Dublin people and the guy from Belfast, the first thing we heard was, “you should not have come.”
We were accused of misleading them by not telling them what we were working through.
(Perhaps if there would have been someone we checked in with during this process, that would have happened. But as I mentioned, we were very much on our own. Of the people we did speak with, including the psychologist, no one suggested we stay in the States.)
So, yeah, that was fun.
Because of this encounter, Liz would sometimes cry during worship.
She met with one of the pastors at the church, who commented on seeing her upset. Liz expressed how difficult our “greeting” had been and how difficult it was to be told, “you should not have come”.
The conversation proceeded like this:
Pastor: Do you want to speak to the guy in Belfast.
Liz: Not now. I don’t think it would help at this point.
Pastor: So you are refusing to speak to the guy in Belfast.
Liz: No, that isn’t what I said. I said I don’t think it would help at this point, but we will down the road.
Liz came home and shared what a strange conversation she had had.
A week later, I met with another staff pastor. “I hear Liz is refusing to speak to the guy in Belfast”. I assured him that is not what she said.
Shortly afterwards, I was called to a meeting with the guy from Belfast. He was upset that Liz was speaking badly about him and refusing to speak with him.
I explained that that was not what happened.
He said, “I know the people in Dublin. Why would they lie?”
At that point, he told me I could no longer say I was planting a church in Ireland. I could still go through training, but everything was on hold.
Two US Leaders
And sadly, this is where it starts to get ugly.
So, we had no pastoral support. The church we left in Ithaca was focused on finding a new pastor. I was told in the US we’d be supported pastorally over here…but you see how that went.
So we began building a support network. We reconnected with the psychiatrist we’d met with beforehand. I met with a respected church leader in Dublin who offered to support and coach us through this. And I began connecting with a few pastors in the States who offered to help.
When we tried to see if US leaders could help us, I was told that the leadership of my denomination in the States could not be involved because they didn’t want to appear to be stepping on toes.
However, they were very involved. But they only spoke to the leaders here to get their side. They were never willing to speak with Liz or me.
One very good day was when a friend who worked with the US missions board reached out. He was one of the people who helped early on. We had a video chat, and he listened to what I had to say and said he was committed to walking us through this process.
He had been instructed to ask me for a write-up of the whole process. What went well, what went horrible. It seemed like things were turning a corner.
I sent that to him. Once the head of the missions board had it, my friend was instructed to not speak with me any further. Eventually, it was stated that my name was not to be brought up at their meetings.
Another friend spoke to the head of US church planting at a national conference summer of 2013 to see if he could help.
Here is part of what he told me afterwards:
“(Church planting leader) was VERY defensive of (guy from Belfast) (“a very close friend”) and told me that nearly every single US to Europe church plant had failed. I said that seems to indicate a problem with their system, not necessarily a planter issue. He agreed that the system they had was dysfunctional and that you guys were just the latest illustration of that.”
This is a big part of why I decided to share this now. The church planting leader and his wife have had to resign from their church and their denominational leadership positions because he and his wife are accused of getting VERY defensive of their son when their son/youth pastor was reported to have assaulted young girls in their church.
What those girls and their families endured was so much worse than what we went through. But what if the defensive way he addressed my situation would have been enough for someone to call him on it and encourage him to be better? But of course he was in a position of power, so that is too often what powerful people do.
Back to Ireland…so conversations were happening; Liz and I just weren’t invited in. And while there was an acknowledgement that the system we found ourselves in was broken. It was too late for us.
As I was wrapping this up, it hit me how skilled abusive people are at using shame as a weapon. Liz and I landed in Dublin with some difficult things going. None of it felt insurmountable; it was just hard.
But it was eventually used by people here and by US leaders to shame us. When all the people in power say you are the problem, you eventually believe you are the problem. And even standing up for yourself is too much because you know that the source of shame will be pulled out and used on you again. That is simply what abusive people do.
I’ll wrap this up before the end of the week with a recap of how this whole story reached its conclusion.
Photo by John Bussell on Unsplash