When I measure the health of North Liberty Christian Church in terms of key external indicators, things don’t look good. I’ve been writing about this church’s challenges for two years now, chronicling its story of a dying congregation, of leaving the land it called home for 170 years, of delays and cost overruns in building a smaller and more affordable building, and of worshiping in space rented from a neighboring church. In the months since I last wrote about the church, it has been unable to raise funds to cover the overages, no further progress has been made on the new building, the pastor has resigned, and an elder has stepped down and left the church with his family.

If this church were a football team, I’d say it was down 30 points at the two-minute warning.

Inside Bethel

But a remarkable thing has been happening that shows that this congregation has a future. The church has been slowly growing. Six months ago, half the chairs in the rented sanctuary were empty every Sunday. Today they’re all full, as are many more chairs that have been added. The church regained several members who left years ago in sadness while the church was riddled with strife. Even better, several newcomers have started attending regularly. I think it’s because the congregation has healed from its wounds and has emerged united and hopeful. You can feel it during worship – the Holy Spirit is free to dwell among the people because they are able to receive. Returning members and newcomers are responding to that, and they’re staying.

But my sons and I are not. I’m the elder who stepped down; it is my family who has left.

During 2010 circumstances in my sons’ lives required more and more of my time and attention. My role in the church as a teacher and elder took a lot of time and energy, and so did my job, and soon I was stretched too thin. I quit teaching – which I miss, by the way – to try to gain some balance. It wasn’t enough. Additionally, as the year wore on I increasingly found myself disagreeing with the other elders. We weren’t fighting; I just felt God was leading the church in one direction, and they felt like he was leading it in another. By late last year my competing pressures had pushed me to the edge of exhaustion, and I knew something else had to give. It was clear to me that my time as an elder needed to end, for my health and the congregation’s.

I served in that church because I thought it was God’s mission for me, and without that service I was at loose ends for several months. But as my spirit was restored and I gave more time and energy to my sons, I began to see that they are the mission God has in mind for me now. It changed my focus. My sons were the only youth their age at North Liberty and I had known for some time that they wished it were different. Now I see that they need interaction with others their ages who are also seeking God. And even though the church is growing, it is attracting people whose children are grown. It seems unlikely that my sons will find friends there any time soon. When my older son recently joined the youth group at his mother’s church, I knew we had to find someplace where he and his brother could plug in.

Still, I dragged my feet. I love the people at North Liberty Christian Church. I was honored to serve them and blessed to be in community with them. Also, they stood by me as my marriage ended, which was the most difficult time of my life. Many of them know how I contributed to my marriage’s end and loved me anyway. A few of them were on my short list of people to call, and talked me off the ledge time and again when I despaired the hardest. It is hard to leave behind these people who showed such Godly grace to me.

And so I felt little joy on Sunday as we worshiped elsewhere for the first time. I hoped that singing to God would put me into the spirit, but I didn’t know any of the songs. I was in a funk most of the day. But I also feel hopeful because I’m sure that God has excellent service in store for us with our next congregation. Perhaps the way I thought I saw God leading North Liberty might instead be the kind of church God is leading me to find for my family. I hope we find it soon.


14 responses to “Moving on is a simple thing; what it leaves behind is hard”

  1. Dani Avatar

    God bless you and the boys on this next phase of your spiritual journey. As always, you’ll all be in my prayers.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Dani!

  2. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    You know, Jim, I’m not really a religious guy… tried, but it just didn’t take root… nevertheless I find what you’re saying here touching, compelling, and courageous. The revelation that the departing elder was in fact you was literally jaw-dropping. What a lot of brave wisdom, and compassion, both for your sons and the good people of North Liberty. Your spiritual journey here is an object lesson for anyone, because everyone has to face questions of loyalties and values, and trying to pick the best course out of myriad possibilities and competing inclinations. One of the best things to come out of the Reformation is the right to listen to the calling of the path you need to take, and while others may be sad your path isn’t exactly the same as theirs anymore, they can glory in name of Liberty.

    Your courage, honesty, and openness are always breathtaking. I’m glad I found this blog.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks, LP. Rush may have sang, “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice,” but I have found the path anything but sure as I’ve tried to follow God. Figuring out where to step has, however, caused me to grow quite a bit.

  3. Tori Nelson Avatar

    This is a really beautiful post, Jim. I’ve come across a few people in my little life that loved and comforted me regardless of my shortcomings, and they really have made all the difference in the world.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Tori, that kind of acceptance is the love that makes the world go round!

  4. faithofmustard Avatar

    Jim, I commend you for doing what it is best for your boys, and for walking away from something that is/was important to you. I often find that when God calls me to cause change, often it is me who has to adjust my direction, rather than trying to change the circumstances around me. It sounds like this is how it is for you, and so I believe that he will guide you in using your gifts at your new church in ways that was not possible before. When I switched churches last year I left every Sunday feeling discouraged, but little by little God provided opportunities for me to become plugged in. When we follow God’s will, he always rewards us! Good luck to you and God bless.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thank you for saying so. I hope I can always recognize quickly when it’s time for me to change direction.

  5. vanilla Avatar

    Your article exhibits a level of love and transparency too seldom seen in the church these days. It is hard to leave the congregation, but one does not leave the fellowship of God’s people. I applaud your recognition of the needs of your children, both within the home and in the greater society in which they function. This includes, as you observed, the need for them to have peers in their worship mileu. Blessings.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Your words are a balm. Thank you.

  6. Todd Pack Avatar

    Well written and obviously from the heart, Jim. I know leaving the congragation wasn’t easy, but I think you’re setting a good example for your sons. I think it’s important for children to see that sometimes we have to do what’s right, even if it isn’t easy or what we want to do.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks, Todd, I appreciate your words.

  7. Chris Rowland Avatar
    Chris Rowland

    Jim, an elder “must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him” (1 Tim. 3:4, NLT). An elder cannot neglect the mission field of his family, and the example that he sets in doing so. Now I’m not necessarily talking about converting our children here, but the example and lessons that you learn from shepherding your children will make you an even more effective shepherd for the rest of God’s flock. An effective and engaged parent will make the best type of church leader in the future.

    I agree that it is not always an easy thing to know when God will plan a change of direction for us. Last December, I never would have imagined I would be giving up my career as a software developer and move my family to Cincinnati to serve full-time in the ministry as an administrator for our church denomination. But when those decisions come along, there is usually some feeling deep inside where you just “know” but can’t necessarily express aloud.

    I’ll be praying that you find a new church home where you and the boys can all grow in grace and knowledge.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Chris, thanks for these words. I think that my involvement in my congregation did interfere a little with my ability to see my family’s needs clearly. I’ve corrected that now!

      Discerning God’s leading is, I think, something we can get better at as we keep devoting ourselves to Him. But I’m not sure we ever master it!

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