John 17:6-19, Jesus’ Departure, and Remaining

[May 17, 2015] This is the 7th Sunday of Easter, the Sunday following Ascension Thursday. Since I was working at the store on Thursday evening, it would therefore be the Sunday on which we celebrate the ascension. During the nine days between the ascension and Pentecost the disciples waited for the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The text of the Gospel this day comes from Jesus’ prayer to the Father, which he spoke concerning the disciples in the disciples’ hearing just before they crossed the Kidron Valley and approached the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was arrested. We spoke about the significance of Jesus’ ascension in the light of this prayer.

So we spoke about the Father’s election and the Holy Spirit’s interior working and the Son’s revelation, and how the Triune God would keep the disciples (and us) faithful to the Name. Then I presented my resignation from the church, to be effective after July 31. I will waiting for God’s call to another church in the meantime, and work that can sustain me until then.

This is what I wrote:

The Reverend Petra Aleah Strand, O.E.F., M.Div.
Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ridgefield Park
227 Euclid Avenue, Ridgefield Park, New Jersey 07666

May 17, 2015

Dear Members of the Session and Congregation:

I have served this congregation since the midsummer of 2000, over 15 years, and over those years I have loved each of you and loved serving you as a Minister of Word and Sacraments, leading your worship, carefully teaching you the scriptures—the Gospel and way of Jesus, and the living of the Church—accompanying and guiding you through life’s transitions and crises, and growing with you as we each grow inwardly in and toward Christ, our beginning and end, our center and our all. Christ has come to be better known by you all, and no less by me, as the Holy Spirit has worked among us under the Father’s love and care. You have changed and I have changed—much—and yet through it all I have identified closely with my calling to serve this congregation and am deeply attached to all of you.

In this process of growth I have suffered many losses as dear ones have died and others have moved away. I have grieved and grieved deeply as my heart was broken; and each time I have experienced the healing and renewal of faith and hope. I have suffered the loss of my own soul, my grasp of things, my perspectives and interpretations, my dreams, and my desires, again and again, to find in the mystery of the darkness the presence of Christ, my nemesis, my beloved and darling, my lord: Christ in all humility and love suffering and dying, and rising in the glory of God.

I now face loss again, and bring loss to you, as with much sorrow I offer my resignation as the installed pastor of this congregation, to be effective after July 31, the ninth Friday after Trinity, in the year of our Lord 2015.

My decision is not based on the recent changes in my life and gender-identity but on the strain that my salary and benefits place on the finances of the church, and the inability of the church to sustain this strain any further. The church has suffered financial loss every year since I began serving among you and, while this has ebbed and flowed, nothing has stemmed its overall tide. The church’s resources are at a point now that it would be unwise and irresponsible to continue this pattern any longer.

Moreover, while the number of people making up the English-speaking congregation has changed over the years, fluctuating much as it has shrunk and grown and declined, it has come now to a point where the community as a whole, each of its members deeply committed over years and remaining so, has spent its strength. Aging and decline in health have taken some from our physical midst, others are relocating to other communities, and those who remain, while worthy of my best efforts, and warranting the ministry of the Church, its encouragement, nurturance and consolation, do not warrant the toll of my salary (and the benefits due me) on the financial reserves that remain to the congregation. The Latino ministry of the commissioned lay pastors, G____ and P____, has been with my encouragement and under my oversight, but it does not and has never depended on me personally.

This turn does not represent failure on the part of the English-speaking congregation. Far from it. The larger community of Ridgefield Park, the communities in which we live, and our families have been served by our words and actions, by the accompaniment and fellowship and friendship we have offered. People have come to the faith of Christ. The Presbytery has been served by our members. After years of teaching and pastoral care, the congregation learned much and has come to depend not on its pastor but on Christ as its Shepherd. Its faith is authentic and deep, and this is manifest in its genuine lack of self-righteousness, in its true humility and the true love and care its members all have for each other. This has not abated. Indeed, when those over whom I have been a pastor all these years (i.e., the English-speaking congregants) were put to the test on the evening of April 19, I witnessed such a display of love and devotion not only to me but as a community that I was dumbfounded with amazement and gratitude at the expression of Christlikeness that was simply there. No, there is no failure here. The decline that we see is because the church is a living organism that goes through stages of life and it has reached that stage when it needs to let go of what it has had and surrender into the open and loving receiving hands of the Triune God, our source and our end.

In the following weeks and months I will be looking for another call and a job that can sustain me. I will not be alone but you will accompany me by your love and prayers and your remembrance of our life together. I know I also have the love and devotion of the members of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans. The Committee on Ministry of the Presbytery of the Palisades has also committed to help me. Those who work at REI, who have helped me so much already as a loving community, will continue to help sustain me through this time. The love of friends and family will also support me. There are others. I expect this network of support to continue to grow around me as I seek to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit within me, the providential arrangements of the Father before me, and the light of my beloved, Jesus Christ, all around me. I move into a future I do not know. I am anxious, this is my weakness; but I am not afraid, this comes from Christ.

This search and its accoutrements, however, will now be my focus. I will wean myself from my work as an administrator, as a liturgist, as a pastoral presence, and hand this off as much as I can to the people of the church, to their session, and to the Committee on Ministry. This is, in a way, a dying process for me; but we have learned, have we not, that it is by dying that we live. As I let go, you too must let go of me; but we are not abandoned. Even after I finish, as opportunity provides, I will continue to be your servant—though not in the same capacity as your installed pastor—and we will be in touch. Moreover you have each other, and you have the larger church beside you. Most of all, you are in the loving hands of the one God: our Father, our Savior, and the sweet (though at times turbulent) Holy Spirit. We are secure; a bit blind, yes, but let us not ever imagine we are on our own.

Wishing peace to you, peace to you all,
the peace of Christ, within and among you forever,

I am the Reverend Pastor Petra Aleah Strand,
Minister of Word and Sacraments, your Servant,
on this the seventh Sunday of Easter, Anno Domini 2015.

And so it was done. I presented this letter and read it to the elders in session on the same afternoon where it was solemnly received. I also presented the Committee on Ministry with a copy of the same.

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