Vanessa Felhauer was one of the staffers to be laid off. While she is now in private practice and is a preferred provider through Summitview, which offers financial assistance for women and children seeking her counseling services, Vanessa worked at Summitview in many capacities over the last 15 years.
This change placed pressure on a variety of long-term relationships. Vanessa and the Summitview pastors certainly experienced this pressure. They have made mistakes over the last few months — but they have extended grace, as well. We share this email exchange between Vanessa and Nathan Hrouda, Mitch Majeski, Perry Paulding and Aaron Ritter as an attempt to show what they learned along the way. It has been edited for readability.
Mitch: So, I still look back on the day you were laid off with heaviness of heart — it was a rough day. As you look back on October 2015, how would you describe the emotional journey of moving out of employment as a staff member at Summitview? What relational challenges were most difficult in that transition?
Vanessa: Of course it’s never an easy experience for anyone to get laid off from a job, but when it’s your own church, there are a whole different set of challenges. And it’s not just that your co-workers are your friends, co-members and pastors. Summitview is still my church. With most jobs you typically cut your ties and eventually move on. But I walk into my former place of employment every Sunday. I see my co-workers and I see the people I served as an employee of the church. So I’ve had a difficult time getting a sense of closure.
You mention that “rough day,” and yeah, it was rough. It’s never fun being the one getting “voted off the island,” and, yes, when it’s your friend and pastor making that decision, there’s a whole other level of emotion and relational messiness to sort through. I’m sure that was a factor in how I perceived and processed things in the following months. But I think that particular day may have actually been harder for you than it was for me. You had been very upfront with the staff all along about the financial situation, and we knew cuts were coming. I had already engaged with God about “What if it’s me?” and was at peace with your decision. I really do believe that God has good for me in moving me on.
It was what followed that has been harder for me. Communication was almost non-existent, and a lot of hurt and anger began building in me. I felt like my whole 15-year career at Summitview was just swept under the rug. You guys didn’t celebrate it, and as a result no one in the congregation did either. I felt like I was not valued, my service was not valued by the men who are my pastors or by the people I served. Some of that was on me: God has been showing me how much value I get my from what I do instead of who I am. So my own insecurities and wrong thinking fed into that. But I also didn’t feel like I was cared for by my church family. The hope of God bringing good out of a situation can, and often does, co-exist with grief. I still experienced a major loss and I think that the hush-hush nature of the situation kept others from grieving with me when I really needed that support.
And then as I started reflecting on 15 years of vocational ministry through this lens of not feeling cared for or valued, I found a lot of unresolved hurts beginning to surface. Things I had pushed down for the sake of forgiving and forgetting, promoting unity, being on mission with others. That, too, began to play into the mix for me. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a gift from God that he’s allowed some of this stuff to rise to the surface. God gave me a verse a couple of months ago. “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline” (Revelation 3:19). As I meditated on that, he said, “Vanessa, I love you and so I’m not going to give you what you want in this moment, because I want you to engage with me on these things.”
Mitch: Ugh. Even though you and I have already discussed the lack of communication and the pain it caused, I read your words with regret. Your tenure at Summitview — those years were a labor of love for the members of Summitview and that labor should have been recognized. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s famous sermon The Weight of Glory, where he observed that the child-like desire to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” is an integral part of our humanity. God will one day praise us, and this praise will contribute to our eternal joy. You (and others) and your years of service to Summitview should have been honored last October. It would have been right and good for your soul and it would have encouraged the church to be present with you in a time of grief. It grieves me that you weathered those months in relative isolation without the comfort of the church. I’m grateful that you have since forgiven me this error, but the results are still real and painful.
Certainly, God has used this to teach me to be more diligent, complete and transparent in communication but, greater still, he has taught me to be ever watchful for the right time to celebrate individuals in our church. I’m hoping to grow in this as God is active in our midst and there is much to celebrate.
Aaron: Mitch and Vanessa, thank you both for your honesty and vulnerability. I really appreciate how you have processed through past hurts in a productive and God-honoring way. It’s a great example for all of us. But before continuing, I did want to interject a few quick thoughts on behalf of the other pastors that might add some important context for those reading this.
First, much of this conversation took place initially between the two of you for a couple reasons: (1) Mitch’s role as Directing Pastor included staff oversight, so he took the lead in communicating with Vanessa and others regarding their employment, and (2) Mitch and Vanessa had worked together at Summitview for the past 15 years, meaning they had both a long employee/employer relationship and a long friendship.
Nevertheless, we do want to be clear that decisions related to Vanessa’s employment, along with the subsequent failure to celebrate her tenure at Summitview, were the responsibility of the entire pastoral team. In fact, this situation and others have caused some deep reflection by us as a team. In many ways, the five of us other pastors tasked Mitch to handle a disproportionate number of these kinds of difficult situations and expected him to see them through to their appropriate conclusion. It was a responsibility too great for anyone to handle well, and it betrayed our stated goal of pastoring in plurality. Much of what transpired with you, Vanessa, was in large part due to our collective failure to appropriately distribute pastoral responsibilities, in addition to a plain insensitivity toward you as a coworker and friend. All of us regret and apologize for our lack of initiative and lack of pastoral care for you in a very difficult situation, and it is our intention to learn from these mistakes and to grow in a Christ-like compassion for both our staff and the church as a whole.
Nathan: Vanessa, as I look at the pain and isolation that you had to endure, I am remorseful that our team and I were not more in tune with your heart and how it was being missed. That obviously created compounding, snowballing pain and hurt. In talking with you, you admit this accumulating effect. But in our conversations, you’ve actively chipped away at it, as well. I deeply admire that vulnerability to keep coming back to the table to discuss and aim for deeper oneness in our church and your relationships. I desire to grow in spotting those compounding hurts in my and others’ hearts with more care and discernment, and through our conversations, you’ve helped set that example for me.
But really I’m just so thankful that Jesus can help us peel back those layers and bring restoration. That’s unheard of in this world! How did you decide to remain a member here at Summitview despite the relational challenges and hurts you’ve experienced?
Vanessa: We live in a throw-away society, and too often that includes our relationships. There may be good reasons to change churches, but relational conflict is not one of them.
That’s a conviction we each need to have settled in our minds before conflict happens, and it’s a conviction we can only maintain if we are deeply convinced of the character of our God. He is trustworthy, and that trustworthy God asks us to have a higher standard for our relationships with one another. I’ve written Mitch a number of snarky letters in my head in recent months terminating my membership at Summitview. And this isn’t the first time in the last 20 years that I’ve wanted to leave. None of those letters ever made it to your desk (unfortunately, more than one snarky email has, but not an “I quit” email). Every time I went to write that letter, I ran into the conviction I made many years ago to be committed, to live out relationships in a radically different way than the world around me — because I want to be like and bring honor to a Savior who lived out relationships in a radically different way than the world around him.
Mitch, do you remember about 10 years ago having the “Euodia and Syntyche talk” (Philippians 4:2) with me and a woman I was having conflict with? (Two strong-willed women who don’t typify how many people would define “quiet and gentle spirit,” and there was a guy in the mix.) Today I consider her a dear friend, and even though God has moved her elsewhere and we don’t talk often, that friendship has been a huge blessing to me in the past several months. She has probably expressed more accurate empathy to me in this than anyone else. I got off the phone with her a couple of months ago and was struck by the thought of how much glory God must get from the fact that we even have a relationship, let alone one that can be a comfort in hard times.
A couple of years ago I had a prayer time where God said to me, “I love that you want to be on the front lines of ministry. But you have to understand that if you’re going to be on the front lines, you’re going to get shot at. I’m not the one shooting at you.” You men are not the ones shooting at me, either. We both have an enemy, and he wants to destroy the image of God wherever he can. Destroying relationships in the church mars the image of our relational God. I don’t always do relationship well. I let anger fester, I hold grudges, I say and do hurtful things. But I’m committed to fighting for unity within the body, within this local body that God has called me to for now. If there was never conflict, if relationships were always easy, it would be a sign that our enemy no longer sees us as a threat.
I’ve been a Jesus follower with a heart to be on the front lines for 37 years, so most of my profoundest life hurts have happened within the context of the body of Christ. We’re broken, sinful people and we’re going to hurt one another. That doesn’t mean any of us, when wounded, should just bail. We follow a God who cares deeply about those hurts and even stated that his mission was to heal the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1). As I take some intentional steps to seek that healing, I am going to take a break from Summitview for a couple of months to get a bit of space and perspective. I’ll be attending one of our sister churches, but my intention is for that to be a temporary situation while I seek God both for healing and for direction in where to go from here in ministry and career.
Mitch: How do you see your story and the story of Summitview weaving together in the years to come? What part of the body will you be?
Vanessa: I think I will continue to be the same part of the body I’ve been for awhile now — the pinky toe of the left foot. You know, that awkward part that doesn’t seem to have much of a function, but might actually be providing a bit of added stability. What I mean by that is, 40-something single women aren’t a majority in probably any church. That can make church an awkward place for me on a number of levels, and it can feel like I’m not a necessary or even wanted part of the body. But God put me here for a reason, and if the church was made up exclusively of families with two kids, a dog and a white picket fence, at least 50 percent of America would have no place in church. I’ve been the voice for many of the pinky toes out there for awhile and I don’t intend to stop anytime soon.
Practically, I’m not entirely sure what that will look like. As I said earlier, there are some things I need to engage with God about to get some clarity for the next steps in my life. I do have some ideas related to bringing our post-college single women together on a regional level and helping them move from that pinky-toe awkwardness to feeling cared for and able to discern what they bring to the Kingdom table. What I do know is that God has something really good planned.
Perry: Vanessa, as a pastor, I know that certain gifts in the church are wrongly deemed more important than others. This imbalance has caused many dear saints to feel devalued or inferior, ever since the first century. Paul took pains to address and correct this in 1 Corinthians 12. He essentially says to us, “Praise God for pinky toes! Such members of the body are all the more necessary and are to be honored.”
Despite our abundant blessings, gratitude is not a strong trait in America today, and celebration is often viewed as superfluous. The church should be counter-cultural in this and set the example. The New Testament is filled with recognition and commendation for both churches and individuals. Clearly, Jesus deems it important, as he promises to reward even the smallest service done in his name (Matthew 10:42). Clearly, we should never seek the praise of men (John 5:44), but neither should we neglect to give honor to whom honor is due (Romans 12:10, 13:7).
Vanessa, your contribution to Summitview has been long and significant, and we want to celebrate the many years of ministry you have invested in our midst. May we all grow in our appreciation for one another and follow our Lord’s example found in Hebrews 6:10: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.”
I hope that what people glean from this blog is the example of candor, grace, faith and hope being expressed in the midst of an offense. Jesus said in Luke 17:1 that offenses are inevitable. Each of us will hurt others and be hurt by others, without exception. It’s how we deal with those hurts that will bring God glory and set us apart from the world.