We came upon a clearing that day, hiking near the James River in Richmond, VA. It was set against the wilderness, it looked like something more out of The Walking Dead set, than an old abandoned hydroelectric plant. A clear path led to a gigantic steel gate that was indefinitely closed.
This old abandoned place, reminded me of a place in our lives when we thought we were part of something life giving and healthy, but as we dug deeper we saw it was a place ready to be abandoned and closed. This building reminded me of all the times that God has placed me in the wilderness, feeling out of place and extremely frustrated. I have felt this in schools I have taught in and churches that I was on staff at. We, on a path, in the wilderness would see what we thought was a clearing, so we worked so hard to swath away all the branches to find the next peaceful place to be at.
The funny thing was that I never found a peaceful place to be at while I was in the wilderness. Part of it was because I did not believe I was in the wilderness, I just believed that the right opportunity had not reached me yet, so I interviewed with numerous churches trying to find a good fit for us. We traveled to Missouri, Michigan, Florida, and Georgia all to find places that I was not offered a position. We were in a transitional mode for years, but really we were in the middle of the wilderness. God was teaching me more about who I am.
We exited our most recent wilderness period in 2012, when a church I was hired at started to stress over financial woes. The pastor who was trying to transition a church had more money going out than coming in. We signed onto a church that was much different than we pictured it. It was like walking into something frozen in the 1960’s. An extremely impoverished area, and a church that had little to give its neighbors besides outdated frozen food.
I was used to being a part of churches where volunteers helped with a lot of the manual labor jobs, or at least assisted. I ended up being responsible for picking up the outdated frozen food from a transfer truck in the back of a storage lot. I would fill my vehicle up to the brim and deliver it to the building that we would freeze it more and than give it away. Much of the food was spoiled, so we ended up having to sort through each piece, sometimes there were 5 or 6 leaf bags full of food wrapped up for a convenience store.
The church had a large full color sign that must have cost thousands of dollars, of course as I was put in charge of it it broke and we could never afford to fix it. It was the bane of our existence, because it spoke that our church was doing well when it was working and that we were broke when it was broke.
The pastor tried his best to build community between the staff, but it was difficult because he had a plan, but was holding it tightly. He treated me like a friend, but had not really earned my friendship. He could be erratic and extremely patronizing.
There were many other times that frustrated me, but the biggest frustration is the wedge that was created between my wife and myself. It was hard to get up every day and go to work knowing that I truly hated 90% of my job, save the time I spent with the amazing kids we served. My wife and I attended marriage counseling while we were there and we were back on the road to a healthy marriage, but it was hard for a few months. I was miserable and I brought it home with me everyday.
The final straw for me was when my boss asked me if I would mind getting a side job to help with my salary with the church. After being told three weeks into my job, I was a “Going out of business sign.” I knew the writing was on the wall, but with this new information I had to find a way out and back home to Raleigh.
I contacted a school with an opening and interviewed, I accepted the position at the end of the interview and felt relief that I had not felt in years. I had escaped the worst decision I had made in my life.
Through all of this, I still would never trade the five months I spent at that church. It taught me a lot about myself and it eventually helped me work out a lot of things. The great thing, is that after I left another staff member left and now the church has been taken over by a more healthy local church and they are helping it become what he originally envisioned it to be. I don’t hold any bitterness, and I don’t hold any shame, because in that wilderness, I was on my way back to finding the man God had called me to be.