One of the best-kept secrets in ministry is how much pastors love their congregations. The best pastors always get a bit personally attached, no matter how good their boundaries are, because ministry is an all-in endeavor. When you’re sharing meals and life, praying at hospital bedsides, baptizing babies, officiating at weddings, crying at funerals, working alongside your parishioners on teams and committees and clean-up crews, you really get to know them. When you get to know them, you get to loving them. Even the difficult ones, the ones Eugene Peterson lovingly refers to as “the faithful opposition.”
If you didn’t love them a ton already, sometimes they surprise you in incredible ways. There’s the hard-nosed parishioner who extends compassion to a rival faction, and you get to witness the miracle. There’s the young child who drags his mom to her first worship experience in decades because he decided they needed to “Go to the house a’ God.” There’s the older couple who offer a homeless man an overnight stay at their house because they see him as a person Jesus loves, not just a homeless person.
Back at the church I pastored in southern Wisconsin, a few months after our son was born I found a gift card to Macy’s hanging on my office doorknob. Struggling as I was to reclaim some sort of a waist after having a baby (not a small task!), this gift made me well up with tears. I used it to buy a teal blazer that hid my baby pooch and made me feel like a million dollars. Every time I put it on I think of that winter day and wonder who extended such love to their postpartum pastor.
There are the congregants who send sweet Facebook notes just because. The ones who notice when you look rushed on a Sunday morning and hold their thought for a Monday email. The matriarchs and patriarchs of the church who have heard a thousand sermons, yet still sit and faithfully listen to you when you’re 28 years old, fresh out of seminary.
There are the people who invite you into the most intimate moments of their lives – births, illnesses, deaths – and those who let you see their most tender places of fear, worry, grief, and hope.
It’s such an honor that some days it leaves me breathless.
Sure, there’s a flip side, too. Pastors get hate mail. There are days when we feel like we’re making no difference at all, that our careers are silliness or vanity, an outdated profession in a modern world. There are afternoons when reading one more email about how someone really didn’t like that hymn make us want to apply for a job at Home Depot. There are marathon evening meetings that make us wonder did Jesus really die for this?
But those are by far the exception.
Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver wrote a great book about pastoring titled This Odd and Wondrous Calling and indeed it is. It’s an honor to be called to a particular people for a particular season, to stand with them and proclaim things you know to be true: That Jesus is alive. That he is the hope of the world. That we are called to love one another and care for the world. That there is hope beyond this life. That we need not be afraid.
So when, for whatever reason, God calls a pastor to a new place, there is joy and wonder but there is heartache, too.*
Paul opens Philippians with some of his warmest words for any church:
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
Paul has moved on to plant other churches, to preach the crazy-incredible story of the Gospel in new places. But he holds Philippi in his heart.
I get it.
From 2011 to 2014 I pastored a church in rural Wisconsin. That congregation took a chance on a brand-new pastor, someone who had only preached a handful of sermons and knew nothing about balancing a budget or moderating a meeting. They welcomed me with open arms, laughed at my jokes, repainted the entire manse in colors they invited me to choose. They ordained me on a snowy January day and one of the elders wrote a song to welcome me.
[Yeah, I cried through pretty much the entire thing.]
They were so patient as I learned. Our Clerk of Session would stop by my office after I’d skipped a point of order or just plain messed up a meeting, and say, so gently and kindly, “You probably didn’t know this, but…”
The congregation and I hung Advent greens together. Buried saints together. Led youth trips together. Sang our hearts out together. Weathered brutal winters together.
Then, in 2014, I was called to California, to the church my husband and I currently serve as Co-Associate Pastors. We knew the call was from God and have never doubted it. We love this new church and we adore our new congregation. Yet a small part of my heart will always live in that church in southern Wisconsin.
Back in November I posted a picture of our California sanctuary on Instagram. Below the picture I wrote:
It’s a heavy day today.
Just got word that a dear, beloved member of my former congregation in Wisconsin died suddenly and unexpectedly this morning. Her husband died only a few weeks ago, and I have a card for her sitting on my desk. A card that tells her how much I loved him and love her.
They invited me into their home when I was brand new in ministry and in town. They bought me my preaching robe – an incredibly generous gift for two older people on a fixed income. They carried a deep kindness within them, and all they ever asked of me was prayer and to sing the Navy hymn on Veteran’s Day, for he was a WWII vet.
The world is a little sadder today, and I am too. Grateful for a moment to cry and catch my breath in this holy place.
If you’ve ever had a pastor move on to a new ministry and you’ve wondered if he or she remembers you, trust me – they do. Pastors change churches, but each congregation is nestled deeply in a pastor’s heart.
For the congregation in Wisconsin and the one here in California, you are in my heart.
Thank you for letting me into yours.