Dearest Brothers and Sisters,
For almost three and a half years, it has been my deepest honor and pleasure to love and serve you in Christ’s name as your pastor. These have been, by a long shot, the happiest years of my life. Never have I fallen so deeply in love with a congregation and a city. My wife has repeatedly thanked me for bringing us to Kalamazoo with this ministry. Her ministry has blossomed in this place every bit as much as mine has. Our children have grown from toddling pre-schoolers into budding leaders of the future. As pastor and congregation, we have laughed and cried together. We have worked and played together. We have opened the Scriptures and prayed together. We have served and been served by each other in the Eucharist. We have faced challenges and made bold decisions together for the cause of Christ’s kingdom of heaven on earth. We have borne each other up on the wings of faith, hope, and love. And we have eaten… oh my goodness, have we eaten!
The past eighteen months have been particularly challenging for us as a congregation. As members have moved away, grants have been cut, and financial reserves depleted, we have had to face hard truths about the reality of our limitations. You made a huge sacrifice last year as we relocated out of our beloved building. At the same time, my family and I sacrificed a significant portion of our income as my job was taken from full-time to part-time status. The year has been difficult for my family as we have eaten through our savings to stay afloat. All of this has been for the sake of the mission of the Church, and it has been worthwhile. North Church at the beginning of 2017 is in much better shape than it was when I arrived three and half years ago. We have accomplished so much together.
We have not been alone in this struggle, either. Our presbytery has been a supportive and listening partner with us throughout the discernment and transition process, even as they themselves have faced financial difficulties even more drastic than our own. In 2016, there was an $80,000 shortfall in shared mission giving from congregations to the presbytery. This is the same fund from which North Church receives $20,000 annually as a Mission Covenant Partner. As a result of this shortfall, the presbytery needs to make certain adjustments to its own spending. I was informed by the trustees last summer that this adjustment would include the support we receive from them. Beginning this year, our grant will be gradually reduced to a level that the presbytery can sustain for the long term. We will still receive financial support, but it will be a mere fraction of what we have received in years past. Without this grant, North Church cannot sustain a pastoral position at three-quarter-time status.
This news has left me in the impossible position of having to choose between the two most important things in my life: my family and my church. I cannot, in good conscience, ask North to devote a higher and higher percentage of your increasingly limited resources to the pastor’s salary alone, but neither can my family afford to further reduce our income below what it already is. With my two-year designated pastor contract set to end in September, my wife and I decided, after much prayer and discussion, that I should begin to look for other work in 2017.
Based on anecdotal reports from the marketplace, we expected this search to take at least six to eight months. If I began to look in January, we might stand a better chance of being able to secure suitable employment by the time my contract ended in September. We were surprised when a full-time position suddenly opened up in Battle Creek. I applied, interviewed, and was offered the job last week. After discussing the matter further with my wife, we decided to accept the offer, even though it was coming much sooner than we had anticipated. My new employer has asked that I be available to start work at the beginning of March.
With the consultation and consent of our presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, I have asked the session to call a special meeting of the congregation next Sunday (February 12) for the purpose of requesting a dissolution of the pastoral relationship, effective February 28, 2017. My final Sunday as pastor will be Transfiguration Sunday, February 26.
What I most want to say to you in this moment that I love you all very much and I fervently believe in the mission of this congregation. A new job can never change that.
My new job is not a pastoral position. This means that I will be leaving ordained ministry for a while, probably several years, but I hope to one day return to it. My family and I will continue living in Kalamazoo, where my wife’s work and ministry is reaching ever-new heights and my children will continue to take full advantage of the many blessings this city has to offer.
I realize this announcement causes you great pain, as it does me. I also expect that you may have many questions in the coming days. I will be available in the coming weeks to answer those questions, to the best of my ability, and share your concerns. I hope to spend the coming days with you giving thanks to God for the good ministry we have done together as pastor and congregation. The leaders of our presbytery will also be present to accompany you into this new era. I look forward to hearing, in the coming years, about all the good things that God is continuing to do in the world through North Presbyterian Church!
And if you remember only one thing from my time with you, let it be this:
I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!
Be blessed and be a blessing,
The Reverend J. Barrett Lee