Note: this is the letter I sent to my congregation the week after Thanksgiving.
Let me begin with confession:
When it was time to write this letter last week I was out of words. I had preached three times on Sunday, had two funerals on Monday, another one on Tuesday, and then the Thanksgiving service on Tuesday night. I didn’t have time to say what I wanted to say to you so I pulled something from my files, blew the dust off of it, and sent it to you. But it wasn’t what I really wanted to say to you in those days just before Thanksgiving. I wanted to say this:
I’m thankful for you.
When I came to First Baptist in 2008 I was pretty beat up. I had survived an attempt to force me out of my previous church. It’s a long story, but it seems to come down to this: things were changing at that church in a way that made some people uncomfortable; I was the pastor, the agent of change; therefore I needed to go.
I will never forget the deacons’ meeting where five church members were given the opportunity to make accusations against the pastor. For an hour-and-a-half I sat in a room while each of them read off a list of half-truth and untruths intended to bring me down. I sat there silently, biting my lip, but thinking with each accusation, “That’s not true!”
The deacons got together the next week, without me (and without my accusers), and concluded on their own that none of those accusations was valid. They wrote up a statement of love and support for their pastor and read it aloud at the next church business meeting, but the damage had been done. My relationship with that congregation was affected, as was theirs with me.
Those five people eventually left the church and while I hoped things would get better immediately they did not. That small faction had left behind a legacy of suspicion and mistrust that was hard to overcome. I thought about leaving, but didn’t feel that I could until the church was in a healthier place. When I was first contacted by this church I said no.
But five months later this church contacted me again and this time I felt that I could say yes. I met with the search committee. I met with the staff. And finally I agreed to come to Richmond and preach a trial sermon. The church was packed that day, and at the end of worship, after the affirmative vote, you got to your feet and gave me a standing ovation that went on and on. I was blinking back tears, grateful beyond my ability to express it.
In the first days of my ministry here I described the experience as “being licked on the face by an entire litter of Golden Retriever puppies.” That’s how warm your welcome was. But I had trouble receiving it. I had been hurt by a church. I didn’t know if I could trust your love. But you didn’t let that stop you; you just kept on loving me. And little by little the wall I had built around my heart came down, and you got in, and now I can’t imagine that I would ever let you out.
So, this is what I want to say, while the spirit of Thanksgiving still lingers in the air: I love you, and I’m thankful for you, and I’m thankful for the way you loved me back to life again.
You restored my faith in the church.