Auld Lang Syne: A Reflection on Pastoral Realities

Auld Lang Syne literally translates to “old long since.” This poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 questions the listener to reflect upon days gone by. It seems appropriate to name that very familiar tune in light of the viral response to the resignation of Rev. Alexander Lang from church ministry, as we are comfortable knowing it. I think it is essential for me to name that I do not know Rev. Lang or his ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights. For his benefit, I also think it is important to name that I went to Union Presbyterian Seminary-Richmond, NOT Princeton.

My reflection today leans more into what I received through the comments from other members of clergy in response to Rev. Lang’s lived experience. I read amazingly insensitive, hateful, judgmental, and negative statements, aimed at this man who has served this congregation faithfully for ten years. I also read many reflections that were not about him at all, but about how his struggles showed up in their ministry as if their experience was identical. I even read where one person thought he was self-absorbed while they talked about themselves in response to Rev. Lang’s lived experience. Oh, the irony.

The non-clergy comments solidified my belief that many folks in the pews have no idea what a pastor does other than preach on Sunday morning. This was a sad reality and perhaps accounts for many of the contrary comments. They don’t know because so much of our jobs must be done either in solitude or complete confidentiality, and it is exhausting. Rev. Lang said multiple times that he was exhausted. What did Jesus do when he was exhausted? He rested. Perhaps Rev. Lang is following the example of Jesus by leaving church ministry. I have intentionally named church ministry because Rev. Lang said that he was going to start a business to help others form relationships. If that isn’t ministry, I don’t know what is. To be sure, it doesn’t appear that he’s taking an easy way out.

Many of us were introduced to this resignation via Facebook. Rev. Lang wrote an article sharing many reasons he resigned, his feelings, and where he was going. This was not a stand-alone article but a compliment to his last sermon at First Presbyterian. Rev. Lang’s sermon was authentic, raw, and vulnerable. I felt pain in his delivery. Part of his pain was that he knew his leaving would place the church in a different challenge over which they had no control. He clearly loved them and they clearly loved him. This man was raised by an abusive alcoholic mother whom he thought hated him until he met Jesus. How many pastors will stand in a pulpit with tears streaming down their cheeks and share that with their congregation? He said, “I hated my mother.” His authenticity is to be applauded, especially in a day and time when the church is constantly being accused of being inauthentic and hypocritical. He said, “I believe that you cannot fully live into Jesus’ teachings unless you are willing to be vulnerable.” Bravo, Rev. Lang. This brings me back to my earlier point. His ministry was just that, his. His struggles were just that, his. My mother was exactly the opposite, and I adored her. That shaped my ministry just like his mother helped shape his. This is not a place for judgment but an opportunity for us to spread our nets out wider and deeper, past the shallow water into the deep. According to the voices of multiple members of First Presbyterian, they were challenged weekly to do just that. Go deeper and wider, be uncomfortable, be stretched to serve. They loved that. They loved him. One member said, “I have been challenged, and my faith has grown over the last ten years. I used to come to church just to come, but that has changed.” Rev. Lang seems to have done a fine job.

Listening to Rev. Lang and reading his article, I thought about our ordination vows and how he had the courage and guts to live into them. We promise “to further peace, unity, and purity of the church, and pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” Rev. Lang said that he was exhausted, and after listening to his sermon, reading the article, and the responses, he doesn’t mean he needs a two-week vacation or sabbatical. His soul has been depleted. He is wildly creative and poured out all the energy, intelligence, and imagination he had. I can assure you that the majority of us in the PCUSA do not memorize our sermons every Sunday. We are taught to be manuscript preachers. We are even taught how to turn pages where nobody notices. Many of us have, but that is not the norm. That is how Rev. Lang translated what it meant to give his best and be faithful to what he believed. If your soul is depleted, you have no energy, intelligence, or imagination, and sometimes it’s even hard to love oneself. Often, we love others before we love ourselves in ministry. This, too, depletes you. How can one further peace, unity, and purity of the church, if one doesn’t have that within? Rev. Lang walked boldly into faith and spoke truth to power.

The PCUSA is a shrinking denomination with amazing resources. We have an opportunity as believers, clergy, church members, and leaders to follow in Rev. Lang’s footsteps. I am not suggesting we all leave church or church ministry. I am suggesting that we all become authentic truth-tellers and preach the gospel according to the truth, and not our addiction to our pensions or days gone by. The world is starved for authentic leaders. Why do we feel so empowered to speak harshly about Rev. Lang’s decision, read into it our own experiences, or judge him in any way? Could it be that many of us wish we could stand in our pulpits and be completely honest about what happens to you from week to week, or what has happened in the past that has formed you? Could it be that we are simply jealous of his audacity? Could it be that church leaders stand before congregations repeatedly, and take the same vows, never to remember them again? Could it be that when we have the privilege to stand behind that Communion Table and serve God’s people that we are simply going through the motions and not considering how powerful Jesus’ ministry truly was? Do we ever consider the danger and self-sacrifice Jesus endured to host that meal? Could it be that our Thanksgiving isn’t deep or wide enough to catch the disciple-fish, we’re supposed to be catching? Could it be that when we stand behind that Sacred Desk to preach the gospel we are more concerned with comfort than with the immense amount of discomfort with which much of the gospel contains? The Holy Word is filled with the ugliness of humanity yet, somehow, we want the church to make us feel better every Sunday. Furthermore, we expect fine servants like Rev. Lang to lay aside their own hurt, their own family, their own spirituality, and their own truth, and be something other than human.

Rev. Lang shared his struggles with his congregation and prepared them for his leaving. He preached 10 exit sermons, made phone calls, and visits leading up to his last day. The outsiders, us, got the tail end of a several-month journey, and made it something it was not. My prayer is that other pastors will make the choice to leave before they do damage. We can stay too long and hurt our churches. My prayer is that those of us who choose to be in church ministry will learn to be honest and authentic in our ministry so that we don’t reach the point of utter exhaustion and truly live into those vows we made to God, our churches, and ourselves. Rev. Alexander Lang, may God bless you, your family, and the next chapter in your book of life. May the peace of God be with you.

Rev. Dr. Amantha L Barbee is a clergy member of the Presbyterian Church USA.  She holds a BA from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary – Richmond, VA, where she received the E.T. George Award for Excellence in Homiletics and Worship. She has a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA. She was a program director in a women’s homeless center before pastoring three different churches in the denomination. Barbee is the recent past chairperson of the General Assembly Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. She is the recipient of the 2018 PCUSA Woman of Faith Award. She served on the Executive Board of Trustees for Montreat Conference Center, President’s advisory board for Union Presbyterian Seminary, and the strategy team for NEXTChurch. Rev. Barbee is the past chairperson of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice (CCCJ). The 224th General Assembly voted for her to be one of two delegates to the World Council of Churches in Karlsruhe, Germany. Barbee has extensive training in anti-racism and anti-bias models for people of faith and corporate America and is a trained personal coach. She has led peaceful and challenging protests, and her work has been recognized nationally.  

Rev. Barbee is a visionary and a creative force for multiple streams for fighting justice. Just a few of the projects in which she has participated and led are:

  • Voter Registration in a religious environment, promoting an understanding of the importance of participatory democracy.
  • Health and wellness and the importance of using a faith platform to address public safety by hosting Covid Testing.
  • Ecumenism is at the core of many of the projects. The work of CCCJ, a 93-member clergy-only group with representation from 54 congregations (Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist), would not have been possible had we not heard, listened and responded to the needs of each community. Together we fought for Black and brown bodies being shot in the street, education inequalities, hosting political debates, fair wages, housing inequities, and LGBTQIA issues.   
  • Participation in the formation of future leaders by partnering with the non-profit and philanthropic sectors to utilize the lived experiences of students in sync with the reality of the ecological inequities in the rural south.
  • Economic development with the understanding that without a myriad of tools with which to work, marginalized communities will always be at a disadvantage. This was the precipice for a free-standing community grocery store, free to the patrons. The food was not the only thing available. Onsite therapist, resource connection, and inclusion in the annual health fair, including financial health.

Rev. Barbee is known for her honest, practical, and pragmatic approach to empowerment in the community, congregations, the states, and the country.

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