My Teen Son Opted Out: See What My Congregation Did Next
Moreland Community Presbyterian Church is a small church in rural Upstate New York. The church has been there for over 180 years, if you don’t count the entire structure being moved down the road at one point. Up until just a few years ago, the Town Grange was a few doors down from the church. The Grange has now been torn down, but the farming roots of Moreland burrow deep in the soil and history of the people who live and worship there.
When I was in seminary I was told that the rural churches could be tough for a newly ordained minister. There was a stereotype of the ultra-conservative, even fundamentalist, congregation that didn’t like change and would look upon any new ideas with suspicion. According to this stereotype, Moreland should have been such a place. It wasn’t.
Who Were They?
The congregation was a mix of people who had recently moved there, meaning any time within the last one hundred years, and the various family members of the original farm families. Then there were a few who had come to Moreland when their own churches had shut down. Some of the sons and daughters of long time members had moved away for a while and come back. Little by little I learned that many of the folks who had chosen Moreland as their church home had originally come from different denominations, mostly Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist. I felt right at home myself, having been raised Catholic. I think this mix of experiences was a big part of what made, and still makes, Moreland a truly gracious community.
When I came to Moreland as pastor, my boys were six, seven, and eight years old. I’ve mentioned in another story that they were quite active. The members and friends of the church embraced us wholeheartedly. Immediately, the boys felt that. They came to love the church members as though they were family. They became family. The boys had many grandfathers and grandmothers who loved, and fed, them unconditionally. Sunday School was run by a physical education teacher with some active children of her own, so it was perfect. The boys were very involved in church events, learning very young how to help with church dinners with the guidance and example of men and women who rolled up their sleeves and did whatever needed doing.
Two of my sons, Jake and Luke, left to right
As the children of the church grew, of course, many of the Elders also grew older. I was happy to see that my boys were becoming solicitous of them, and trying to help out, without much prodding. They knew these people so well. They loved them.
When we finally had a critical mass of young teens, I started a confirmation class. They were all bright and curious teens, and they all knew me well. We started by meeting up in the church balcony, which was mostly unused, other than for the weekly bell ringing which generations of Moreland youth had done, swinging from the big rope that hung down over the few pews. During those first meetings, I told the kids to ask me anything they wanted to know about life and faith. It made for some very interesting conversations and I got to know all of them much better, including my own sons. There was a lot of giggling, too, but these kids had been thinking about the issues we discussed for a while. They were serious, and I attempted to give them well thought out answers. I was very pleased with the way it was going.
My oldest son, Luke, was one of the older teens in the group at that point. I think he must have been fourteen or fifteen then. He had been to a summer program where he had flown a plane and he was going to be a pilot. I always had a hard time keeping Luke supplied with books. He read a lot, mostly nonfiction about planes and science. He could not only fly a plane, he knew how they worked, and could name just about every kind there was. He knew a lot about a lot of things. He was also very tall for his age, having grown nine inches the previous year! Luke would seem to be quiet and reserved, until someone brought up a subject he was interested in. I found out that faith was not one of those subjects.
I have never been one to push my beliefs on anyone. Some may consider that a shortcoming where evangelism is concerned, but I always felt that if my life couldn’t say it, I should keep my mouth shut, and if it did, someone would ask me why. The church members at Moreland were very similar, I believe. Their lives really did show their faith, but they were of the mind that sharing their faith meant being kind, helpful, and honest. There was no pressure. So, it completely took me by surprise when Luke told me, at home, that he didn’t believe in God and wasn’t planning to be confirmed and join the church. As a matter of fact, he told me, he didn’t want to go to church anymore.
Sunday School at Moreland
I couldn’t understand why. He had always seemed fine at church. He took part in everything with a good attitude. And, the honest fact of the matter was, that he would have to go with us. He was certainly old enough to stay at home by himself, but we always went to my mother’s for dinner after church on Sunday, and it was too far for me to drive back home to get him.
Ask the Experts
I struggled with what to do. There is always an extra level of angst about such things when you are the pastor and you know everyone is paying attention to how you handle a situation like this. Then one Sunday, the boys had stayed at a friend’s house and didn’t go to church with me. I took that opportunity to address the situation from the pulpit, not just about Luke, but about teens and the church in general. I asked my congregation for help, too, telling them that I truly didn’t know what to do and needed their advice. When the service was over, almost every person told me not to worry about it, as they shook my hand or gave me a hug. They said it was normal, that their kids had gone through it, that forcing it wouldn’t help, that he would come around. I was so relieved. What they were saying rang true to me, but I guess I had been worried about what they would think or expect. One of the most committed members of the church told me that he had come back to church in his sixties. I couldn’t believe it. I felt I was on more solid ground, but there was still the problem of what to do with Luke during worship.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind (Almost)
Luke made that decision himself. He started bringing a book with him and would go up to the very back of the balcony, where he couldn’t be seen from the lower pews, and read. He would help out the smaller children with pulling the bell rope, and he was still hearing everything. The church Elders were okay with it, but I was still a little uncomfortable. What would new people think? And, of course, I could see him from my vantage point at the front of the church, which was a constant reminder of the issue. During the sharing of peace, some people would yell up to Luke, and a few would even go up to the balcony to shake his hand. This went on a while and started to seem normal, and, in the meantime, Jake and Isaac, my younger two boys, were confirmed and joined the church.
The Other Shoe
Then, one night, in the summer, we gathered for a Session meeting. In the Presbyterian Church, the Session is the board of ruling Elders. As pastor, I moderated those meetings. We sat down and got to work, moving through the regular and old business pretty easily. Even when there were disagreements, those meetings were never difficult. When I called for new business, a few things came up and were resolved or tabled. As I was just about to ask for a motion to adjourn and pray, Beverly spoke up.
Beverly is one of the very kindest, most faithful women I’ve ever known. When she said, “I think we need to talk about Luke,” my heart sunk into the pit of my stomach.
Of course I was thinking that the jig was up, that someone was upset about Luke sitting in the balcony and reading during worship. I was already rushing ahead in my mind, trying to come up with another solution, lecturing Luke, apologizing. I almost didn’t hear what Beverly said. But she was raising her voice, which Beverly never did. She was obviously upset. Everyone was at attention, listening.
Beverly said, “It’s the middle of summer, and I think it’s terrible that Luke is sitting up in the balcony with only one fan. There should be another. What are we trying to do, roast the poor boy?”
I almost laughed out loud. I couldn’t believe it! During the ensuing conversation between the Elders about where we could get a fan from, if we needed to get a new one, and whose budget it would come from, I hardly heard anything. I think I was probably sitting there with my jaw firmly on the floor. When the matter was settled, someone was going to bring a fan from home and we’d see if that was enough, I said something about grace, about how stunningly gracious the people of Moreland were, not just to me and my family, but to each other and everyone who came through the church door. I was overcome. We prayed, and then laughed and shared hugs before we went our separate ways that night.
I Can Still Hear Her Say It
When I got home I told Luke what had happened. He was equally amazed. He said that he really loved them, that they were amazing people. And I know that the grace they showed to him and to us continues to reverberate in our lives, in the way we treat others, the way we feel about ourselves, and in the spiritual journey each of us is on. I can still hear Beverly’s voice that night. And I am still awed.
Originally published at leapofgrace.com on April 5, 2017.