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When is the right time to leave a relationship, a job, or a church?
I’ve thought about that question often over the years, and I’m thinking about it today, in light of the decisions being made this month in the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. (I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in the CRC.). The news, as well as the recent posts on this blog, have been triggering at times because of my own relatively recent (and painful) experiences in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is where I ended up and continue to be a member.
I’m one of those people who finds it nearly impossible to leave anything. I’ve never left a job, for example, without having another to go to. I’ve been married to the same person for 45 years now and counting. And I am a member of a denomination that many others, over the years, could no longer continue to support, especially in the months following the General Assembly decision in 2014 to allow same-sex marriage, a decision I supported.
Why is that? Well, as with so much in our lives, part of the answer can be found in the way I was raised. My father worked for the same company for more than 40 years. He was there so long that he eventually owned it. He and my mother nearly made it to their 70th wedding anniversary before he died, an indicator of constancy if there ever was one. And my family never seemed to leave a church, no matter how much we disagreed with its direction, and there were plenty of conversations about its direction over our evening meals.
Constancy, loyalty, persistence — call it whatever you want — it’s in my blood. And mostly, I like to think, that’s a good thing.
But there’s more to it than that. I was trained to think theologically, and on a topic like this I can’t help myself. What comes to mind of course is covenant. It’s a term that helps define just about all the relationships in my life. I’ve read that the word appears 30 times in the New Testament (and nearly 300 times in the Old). It would be impossible to define the term precisely here, but to me covenant implies a strong, enduring bond and often has a “no matter what” quality to it. I entered nearly every relationship in my life thinking that it would be binding at a deep, spiritual level.
And yet, not every relationship can or should last forever. People break covenants all the time, sometimes for good reasons. A partner in an abusive relationship, I believe, should leave—for their own physical and emotional health.
A broken relationship is always a source of pain and grief, but it can also signal something else. It can signal, for example, a realization that I don’t deserve to be taken for granted or treated badly. I’m a child of God and deserve to be treated that way—in all my relationships. My worth as a human being means that I can and should protect myself and look out for my own welfare.
How long to stay, though, is one of the most difficult and complicated issues of life. Leaving a job often means the loss not only of income but also medical insurance. Some of us simply can’t afford to leave, no matter how justified. And yet, if we witness something illegal or unethical in our work environment, isn’t there a moral requirement to leave? Not saying anything, not doing something, makes us complicit.
A marriage is just as complicated, maybe more so. I’ve heard people say that higher divorce rates mean that people take marriage less seriously, but I don’t believe it. In my work I have never met anyone who walked away from a marriage lightly, just as I’ve never met anyone who left a job or a church lightly. These separations are nearly always painful, even when accompanied by relief, at finally having made the decision to leave.
What I found myself thinking in most of those situations, curiously enough, was, “What took you so long?”
My own most difficult moment came at a presbytery meeting where the decision was made to “dismiss”—even now I trip over the word—nine congregations with their property to other denominations. If there had been one vote that day, I might have been able to go on, but there were nine separate motions, nine separate stories of pain, and then nine celebrations by congregational representatives who were free of the rest of us at last. The emotional battering went on for the better part of a day.
Our presbytery called the process “gracious separation,” but at the time there seemed to be little that was gracious about it. We gave the departing churches just about everything they wanted and would have handed them more to be finished with it. I am haunted by the experience to this day.
A few weeks after participating in this meeting, I received an inquiry from a church not affiliated with the PCUSA and not even in this country or on this continent. Would I be interested in talking about becoming their pastor, they wondered? I was. I accepted their call a few months later and continued the last years of my ministry in another place—a place, it should be noted, with its own set of problems and challenges. Was my decision to leave the right decision? I thought so at the time.
Many of my colleagues, the ones I talked to after that presbytery meeting, had a different perspective. They were relieved that the whole thing was over. We could finally get on with being the church, they said. No more haggling over the same issue at meeting after meeting, year after year.
So, when is it the right time to leave? I don’t know. Maybe there is no right time.