By Jessie Clemence
The church gymnasium, once filled with the sound of squealing children and bouncing balls, fell silent.
The church bank account, once bolstered with tithes from generous givers, dropped to a frightening low.
The elder board had vacancies. The pulpit lacked a minister and the worship team was missing vocalists and musicians.
Children were missing from Sunday school classes, but that was OK because there weren’t enough adults to teach them anyway.
The church had split, and those of us who stayed walked through an endless succession of losses. I grew tired of trying to explain to my children why their friends were suddenly missing on Sunday. I grew furious at everyone who had voted for the enormous church mortgage a few years earlier and then left us without the means to pay for it.
To preserve my sanity, I unfollowed a slew of old church friends on social media. I decided Jesus would understand my need for a little bit of space from the emotional gut punches of badly placed comments.
The Blessings of Staying
Walking to the car on Sunday mornings became an act of maturity and discipline. It certainly wasn’t joy or excitement that dragged us out of the house to the church building. We just knew that someone had to show up, and it might as well be us. On Sunday we straggled into the building with the other families who stayed, our faces often betraying our struggles and frustrations.
Did we pray for a chance to leave as well? We certainly did. It would have been much easier to walk out, but that was never God’s direction for our family. We stayed because we knew we needed to stay. And we’ve never once regretted that decision, hard as it was. We’ve been given a front-row seat to watch God’s restoration of a congregation.
First, a young staff member and his family agreed to stay and fill the pulpit in the middle of the tumult. Men stepped up to fill open elder positions, new vocalists volunteered, and teenagers picked up their guitars and blew us away with skills we didn’t know they had. The children’s programs were condensed and restructured until we had enough (barely enough) kids and teachers.
The bank account remained a serious concern, until The Solomon Foundation stepped in and refinanced the mortgage when conventional banks shied away from our situation. Piece by piece, things fell back into place. We began to breathe a little easier.
Lessons in Grace
While the church’s situation was resolving itself, my heart remained unsettled. I’d like to say I sailed through the experience with a joyful, worshipful attitude. I wish I’d run to the auditorium each Sunday, ready for the Holy Spirit to fill the room and change my heart. I wish I’d believed God could still glorify himself despite our despair. But these things did not happen. I was an angry, anxious mess who sat in the back row and prayed for something—anything—to happen.
When I prayed, my heart wasn’t in the right place, but God heard me anyway. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to give me more and more grace for those who had left. The bitterness eased as I realized our friends didn’t leave the church to hurt us. They weren’t terrible people; they were simply convicted of other issues and impassioned for other ministry focuses. They left because they felt a strong pull to honor God in another way.
I realized they probably felt the same frustration toward me, and they were likely angry and irritated at my choices. I had to examine my own actions and repent of my own sin. What could I have done differently? What responsibility did I have in the split? I identified specific sins and repented of them. But there were other choices that—even now—I’m not sure I could have changed. Hindsight helped reveal some errors to me, but I was doing the best I knew to do at the time. Paul’s words rang true for me:
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:3-5).
My judgment of the situation—who was right and who was wrong—was inadequate. It was all in God’s hands, and I chose to believe we were all doing the best we could to follow Christ. Offering grace to my friends and myself was the only way I could get through it.
A Renewed Focus on a Restoring God
As the anxieties eased and the bitterness faded, something beautiful emerged. The congregation renewed our focus on Christ. We allowed the Holy Spirit to work in us corporately and individually as we began to seek ways to glorify God while we rebuilt. We had no choice but to look to the future with faith, because holding on to our grief and fury would only poison us. None of this healing was possible within our human ability; it was the Holy Spirit who worked in us as we prayed for God to be glorified.
God is good. He can be trusted. This is his church and we are his people, and when we take our focus off ourselves and our petty opinions, he can work a miracle. We have a hope and a future because he holds that future, and he loves us enough to rebuild what is broken.
About five years have passed, but I still sit in the back row of the auditorium each Sunday, and sometimes I still cry a little. But now my tears are joyful. The young minister who stayed is now the lead pastor, and every Sunday I’m so thankful he and his family are here. New staff have come. New families have joined, and many of those couples are having children and repopulating our children’s programs. We must watch our step each week as a hoard of giggling toddlers plays tag in the foyer.
The laughter is back. So are the bouncing balls, the smiles, the laughter, and the joy. Relationships have grown deep and strong. When I look into the eyes of the sisters and brothers who stayed with us through the storm, I know I can trust them through anything.
But mostly, I’ve learned I can trust God through anything. There’s nothing so broken that he can’t restore it. Not even my own heart, which is prone to anxiety, distrust, and bitterness. He alone can restore our hearts to faith and joy as we glorify him together, one little congregation in his worldwide church.
Jessie Clemence is a Christian church secretary. Her newest book is I Could Use a Nap and a Million Dollars (Kregel Publications). Her website is jessieclemence.com.