I pay attention to my dreams. My dreams often reveal the depth of my anxiety or other feelings. For example, during much of the COVID-19 pandemic, I dreamed of unmasked church people crowded together in the church building. Usually, in this recurring dream, I struggled to find my mask, get their attention, and remind them of the safety protocols. Carl Jung wrote, “The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul.” I have found my dreams reveal that which haunts me and requires my reflective work. During the pandemic, the psychic energy and overwhelming responsibility of keeping a congregation safe preoccupied me and stole a bit of my soul.
Dreams can reveal obvious things but also those matters which need my attention. Perhaps my inability (or unwillingness?) to let go of my overwhelming sense of responsibility for 200 people is why those anxiety dreams recurred. Though I suffered during those years, I am not sorry for my decisions and actions. No one was infected with the coronavirus from exposure at the church or a church-related event.
After joining the Great Resignation and beginning my cross-continental pilgrimage to reset my physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being, my dreams changed. The anxious dreams about health protocols or being unprepared to preach were no more. About three weeks into my journey, I had a dramatic dream that manifested significant emotional power. Writing at the time I wrote, I experienced feelings of rejection, being misunderstood, feelings of guilt, and profound grief. Yeah, I pondered all this before falling off to sleep again. Reflecting, I realized these emotions still linger within my waking hours.
My reason for separating from my church was multifaceted. Certainly, like so many, the pandemic itself contributed to my exhaustion and burnout. But it was much more complicated than that. As I have hinted, a congregational decision was made at about the same time as the shutdowns. The result of this decision ultimately led to an untenable context for me. I spent those years not only with the pandemic challenges all pastors shared but being abused by an individual and neglected by those I asked for help.
I held on for as long as I did because I believed I could make things work. I read. I went to webinars. I asked for help. I used strategies that have been effective in my past positions and new ones I learned or devised. In the end, I resigned for multifaceted reasons in which this was a big part. Like in many institutions, not everyone knows the nature of the struggles due to confidentiality. This is a greater good but can make it both hard and lonely for those who struggle with that which so many do not know.
My dream revealed my feelings of rejection (neglect) and being misunderstood (many were unaware). These emotions linger. After my journey, I have let go of some of the emotions, if not the intellectual memories of what happened. I grieved the loss of my hopes and dreams for this congregation. I grieved the loss of relationships with people I love deeply. Those feelings still linger; sometimes, I feel angry at those I perceive whose behaviors resulted in my losses.
I have reached a healthy emotional and spiritual balance through my cross-continental journey, but I am not the same. I am scarred but healing.
But the feelings of guilt my dream shone a light upon are yet to be faced. I feel guilty – perhaps more precisely, incompetent, a failure, or inadequate that I could not fix the untenable situation. Before you throw platitudes at me, I know them all: I did my best. I cannot change anyone but myself. I needed help which came too late. But damn! I hate to be out of control! I don’t like that I am not a superhero who can overcome and fix any problem with enough information and effort.
It is humbling. It is life.
As I’ve been processing this powerful cluster of emotions (guilty, feelings of failure, inadequacy), my pilgrimage has helped me to begin naming the roles that others played in my untenable circumstances. We did the best we could in something that was more difficult than any of us initially thought. In some cases, others failed me. At other times I might have spoken more forcefully and clearly.
Though this emotion is still unbalanced, I can see the edges of my wound beginning to heal. In time, the center of the cut will scab over. But this is one of the life experiences that will leave a scar. The challenge will be to look at it, maybe rub my fingers over it, and absorb the lessons it can teach.
The challenges I faced are unique and contextual but also reveal systemic limitations in the way we do church. While people sometimes simply do not do the hard things, the design and idiosyncratic side effects of congregational governance can make it difficult for good people to take necessary actions.
Stay tuned as I begin a series analyzing the systemic issues in the way we do church. -Tim