Sometimes You Have No Choice But to Make a Choice


Post Author: Holly Smith


Two years ago, I stood in the pulpit preaching the hardest sermon I would preach to date. That sermon; my first “goodbye” and “I failed, I’m sorry” sermon, flowed from my mouth with sadness in my breathe and tears streaming down my face. “Hot Mess” and “Ugly Cry” describes this occasion. The congregation listened and cried with me that day, never pointing out how much pain they were going through. They and I both knew that I could not save them.

I preached from that pulpit for first time just fourteen months before this defining moment. My husband and I had moved our twin four-month old baby boys and our two year old daughter from my internship in South Dakota, to sunny Florida so I could become a generalist associate pastor. I moved sure of my choice, sure of my first call, sure that I could be a full-time associate pastor with three children under three. I grew up being told I could do anything I set my mind to. I remember thinking, “they know I’m a mom and an associate pastor call is much more doable than a solo-pastor or senior-pastor call”. I too laugh at just naive spirit now. I learned two things in the first month as an associate: I knew nothing, and churches give you as much responsibility as you are willing to take regardless of your family.

I quickly came to the conclusion that my position was a conglomerate of all the needs in the church: primarily youth, adult education, help in worship and pastoral care. As I quickly learned how to navigate the choppy waters of associate pastor-ship and youth ministry, my family at home began to fall apart.

My sweet innocent baby boys entered daycare for the first time in their lives. A small in-home daycare where I thought their fragile preemie immune systems were safe. At first it seemed if I they seemed to adjust well to their new daytime environment even though I struggled to leave them everyday. Their caregiver reminded me that they mostly just slept and ate, so I could free my conscience of missing much. Then their immune systems began to breakdown. I soon became good friends with the staff at the pediatrician’s office. A runny nose quickly turned into a wheeze and the wheeze into a full blow asthma attack. My worry became everyone’s worry when the boys were admitted to the hospital.

As the situation at home became rocky, the trouble at work began to surmount my ability to cope. I struggled with how to give the youth group the attention it demanded while accomplishing all of my other tasks. I attempted to seek help from within the church, only to be told that my only option was resignation. Comments like, “Someday, your children will hate you for leaving them” and “Did you not realize this job would be horrible?” still sting to this day. I like my boys began to feel like I could not take in enough air. Nine months in the little hope I had disappeared when the pastor that I worked under resigned. I remember him telling me ever so gently and thinking to myself, “Why can’t I be you?”

By the time the interim pastor arrived, I existed as just a shell of myself. Beaten and broken-down by the longest ten months of my life. The call that I longed for did not exist, the mentoring relationship that I craved never manged to take shape. I felt relieved when the nominating committee announced that the interim would soon join us. I greeted him hopeful that things would soon even themselves out. I quickly learned that he ran from his own demons.

He said and did things that made me uneasy, and I did everything in my power to avoid confrontation with him. I spent many hours visiting parishioners and reading at the library just to escape. My boys continued to struggle with constant lung issues and then it happened. I began to get physically sick and they both ended up in the pediatric intensive care unit. I held their tiny bodies as they struggled to take breaths. I promised them that mommy would get a grip, that I would figure out away to make them better. My prayer life and relationship with Christ was nonexistent.

The interim pastor scolded me when I returned back from the hospital saying that I took so much time off that he could never take his time. My boys in the PICU created an inconvenience. I realized that God called me to be a pastor but did not expect me to kill myself trying. I needed to keep my promise to those sweet baby boys.

With that promise in mind, I asked the session for sabbatical time to get a grip on my life. I spend an entire month praying and reading. I visited my therapist weekly to learn coping skills, and to heal. Then I went back, only to discover that no amount of change in me was going to change the situation. I resigned. At the time, a part of me died. I dusted myself off and went home to my three precious children. I read to them, watched Sesame Street, went for walks, and slowly began to heal. In time, I also took on a small stated supply position during the weekends. I learned that sometimes we need to fail in order to understand how to overcome. God’s strength lifted me up, dusted me off, and embraced the brokenness of my soul.

Eighteen months after that sermon, I once again entered full-time ministry. This time as a solo pastor of a small congregation with healthy children and realistic boundaries. It took being broken down to realize that I could do nothing without God. I cannot be all things to all people and that is okay.


Holly Smith is the pastor at First United Presbyterian Church, Atlantic, IA.  She is a lover of Jesus and all things crafty. She is wife to Matt, and mother to Sarah, Gideon, and Micah.  Holly graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.


Image by: Holly Smith
Used with permission
11 replies
  1. Betsy T
    Betsy T says:

    What a story. But I wish you would not call it a failure. It sounds like you are one of the many, many of us- especially us young women- who went into low-fit calls where unrealistic expectations hurt us horribly.

    The church failed you. If we want to consider our calls as relationships, then we have to put responsibility on the senior pastors and the churches as well as on ourselves.

    Also- you are not alone, and it DOES get better.
    My first call turned into a living nightmare, too. For the senior pastor to snark at you because he “couldn’t take his time off” because your children were in the PICU is ridiculous. That harks more to HIS inability to maintain balance in his own life- he’s putting his own responsibility for work-life balance onto you, and that is not appropriate.

    Healthy parishes recognize the humanity in their pastors. Healthy humans recognize that very sick family members need special care. Healthy boss-employee relationships have give-and-take. (I.e., my boss took on extra responsibilities when I had a bike crash and had to miss services on 12 hours notice. I took on extra responsibilities when his baby was born and he missed Easter. No one snarked at each other. It was a healthy give-and-take.)

    I pray that some day, you can look back and not call this a failure on your part, as a pastor, but a failure of the church to be the healthy place you deserved.

    And reading between those lines, I wonder if that senior pastor wasn’t approaching associate abuse. If you were hiding out so you didn’t have to have confrontations with him, that says to me that you had some fear of his anger. I have been there. I used to hide out in libraries too, and it was years before I admitted to any other colleagues how bad it really was. As an associate you have so little power, and I hope you can hear from those of us who survived and are on the other side…

    What happened to you was wrong. The decisions you made for your children, your family, and yourself were the right ones. And you did NOT fail!

    Reply
  2. LiturgyGeek
    LiturgyGeek says:

    I want to reiterate what Betsy said above, who said it best of all. You did not fail, but the lack of health in that toxic system became reflected in the health of your children (and you!). I’m so, so sorry you dealt with this.

    And – dear one! I’m 40 minutes away! I serve the UCC church in Red Oak (for another 7 weeks, anyway), and I’d love to try to come meet with you before I leave.

    Reply
  3. Sarah G.
    Sarah G. says:

    Oh, what a horrible situation. I’m so mad at that interim on your behalf! I’m so glad you’ve had time to heal and find ministry that is a perfect fit for you. AND that your sweet babies are healthy!

    Reply
  4. Jen H.
    Jen H. says:

    I’m so sorry that happened to you and your family. What a terrible time. It took strength to leave! I hope and pray solo ministry (and your current congregation) gives you the support you deserve–I’ve been a solo for 4 years (with 2 little ones) and so far the congregation has been wonderfully supportive of my family. Blessings to you.

    Reply
  5. Callie S.
    Callie S. says:

    Thank you, Holly! As a mama of a little one (19 months) and an associate, I resonate with your story so much. I often wonder whether I would be able to “solo pastor” a congregation as a young mother, and/or whether a congregation would see me as capable *and* respect my family boundaries. You give me hope.

    Reply
  6. Brandi Wooten
    Brandi Wooten says:

    Holly,

    Thank you for sharing this part of your story. In reading your story, I heard echoes of my own first call as an associate and realize I am not alone in that experience and neither are you. I am so glad you are in a better place. God can work in us even in the challenges of life. I learned many things from my experience that I will never do again and learned from the behavior of my senior pastor what not to do in ministry. Thank you and blessings to you and your family.

    Reply
  7. Melissa DeRosia
    Melissa DeRosia says:

    Beautiful words for such an ugly experience. You give voice to the expereinces of so many in ministry, thank you for your vulnerability. It was so wonderful meeting you face to face too!! Lily still talks about her friend Sarah from UnCo 🙂

    Reply
  8. Collette Broady Preiss
    Collette Broady Preiss says:

    Thanks for a beautiful reflection. I’m okay with you calling it a failure, because that’s what it felt like (and maybe still does ) to you. I’m familiar with the feeling, and am actually thankful now for some of the experiences I call failures, because I learned a lot from them that I’ll never forget.

    My therapist recently told me to consider that maybe there are some things we are meant to fail. Like being super mom and super pastor for example!

    Reply
  9. Holly Smith
    Holly Smith says:

    Thank You all for your kind words. My family and I are in a fantastic place. So much healing has happened… I wrote so others in my shoes might be comforted in the knowledge that they are not alone. The church I served was deeply wounded in the transition as well… my thoughts and prayers never stray to far from praying fir they healing as well. Again thank you for the love.

    Reply
  10. Philippa Segrave-Pride
    Philippa Segrave-Pride says:

    THank you Holly for being so open and honest about how it feeels. I am the mother of a beautiful 4yr old who told me that I am boring because all I do is work, work work. I am the Senior minister at a relatively large church in the UK. I am also one of the first young incumbents to come through the system. The Bishop called me a Guinea Pig, testing how it works, but often it doesn’t. i am planning an exit strategy that hopefull won’t hurt the congrgation or myself too much. I would be keen to hear how others get on and if there are any helpful suggestions to coping with fulltime ministry, a husband who works in the corporate world and a feisty 4 year old!

    Reply

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