"I don't understand this at all," I said to one of my own pastors as I began to plan my future. "I grew up in a place like this, but I haven't been back for more than a few days at a time in forty years. I've lived in cities since I was a junior in college."
"Inclusio!" she chirped.
I love my little church, but my presence there remains a compete surprise to me. It's located in a town so small that a figure-8 walk of a mile covers almost all of its geography. My first funeral, a couple of weeks ago, was a graveside service in the town cemetery, and the cows belonging to the deceased's family stood guard in the adjacent field. Many of my congregants farm; the pace of life is slow and people are genuinely and consistently attentive to the needs of their friends and neighbors. Most of them are in their sixties and older, and two younger women were widowed in the past few years, which is to say that as a congregation they have a deep acquaintance with the vicissitudes of life. When I came to them with breast cancer surgery looming, they willingly accepted all my plans to manage my almost immediate absence, and opened the church for a day of prayer while I was in the hospital.
"Did you think about not coming?" one of the women asked me some weeks ago.
"Of course I did," I responded. "I wondered if I were being completely irresponsible in accepting this call."
"We're so glad you did," she breathed in relief.
I do believe I know other churches in which the response would have been quite the opposite.
My folks love their God, and their church community, and they long for the days when the pristine little building was packed every Sunday morning and children's voices filled the air ~ but they are by no means wedded to the past. Taize' music, Lenten compline and healing services, an Easter vigil complete with an outdoor fire ~ we've added those to our lives of worship without pain or trauma. It's been an intriguing challenge for me to introduce a few new things. I've come from a world in which people are excited and enthusiastic about experimenting with worship and music, but I've entered a world in which many fear the introduction of the "new" as criticism of who they are and what they cherish. I think that as we've worked together these past months, they've learned that I can be trusted to honor who they are and that I try to tread gently where change might be warranted. Increasingly, the response to my suggestions is one of good-natured willingness to "give it a try." In fact, the Lenten play was entirely their idea, and it was the pastor who had a great deal learn! I am most definitely not ready for Broadway, as either playwright or director.
(Of course, my optimism about change might be premature. We're making a couple of alterations in worship this Sunday that might doom my ministry entirely.) (The key word there is "we." The worship committee raised concerns first and is in full support of the effort. A lesson in patience. And another from Montessori days: The less you impose, the more likely it is that transformative growth will emerge.)
Pastoral care is of big time importance here. And it's not a matter of the congregation wanting the pastor to do it all; often as not, when I show up at the hospital or nursing home, someone else is already there. It's a matter of their wanting the pastor to make their most personal needs a priority. And it's harder than I thought because . . . I forget things. Sometimes I forget big things. I've accepted that some of my grief-related cognitive deficits are permanent, but that's not something I can parade as an excuse. I'm working constantly on tools to compensate for the reality that, sad as it is, you can tell me a story that grabs my attention and stirs my compassion and the next day ~ gone. I'm beginning to think that the mind and heart can absorb only so much sadness, and I have been on overload for far too long.
The most fun thing? Maybe it's how much I am growing in my ability to lead worship and to preach. I am so much more relaxed in leadership as I've come to know the congregation and found worship to be an event of relationship more than it is anything else. My sermons and delivery have changed as I've come to know the lives and needs and communication style of my congregation. That movement became dramatically apparent to me this week as I prepared to make use of a sustainable sermon, one preached three years ago in seminary. I have a long way to go before I find the meeting place in which my own approach to exploring Scripture and the context in which I'm offering those explorations merge into something beautiful, but the challenge is a satisfying one. I'm finding that people often compliment sermons or portions thereof with which I am the least satisfied, which is just a little unnerving ~ but gives me plenty upon which to reflect.
The most troubling issue for me: How to address the matter of gay ordination. There are certainly other theological matters of import, but that one does seem to be the litmus test. I knew when I arrived that I was not coming into a call in which the majority of people share my views, but I have yet to figure out how to deal with that in a pastoral way. (And I'm nowhere close to a prophetic way!) Years ago, spiritual director emeritus said, "I want to tread carefully and not say anything that makes it difficult for people to pray." A good standard, I think. Except: Which people? I was deeply saddened when it dawned on me that I have dear friends whose presence as guests in my pulpit would create divisions in my congregation. On the other hand, I was stunned when someone of whom I never would have expected it expressed anger and frustration that parallels mine. And on the third hand, I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that people who are clear about their disagreement with me on that and other theological issues are also able to respect my leadership and offer themselves as partners and loving friends in ministry.
It seems that I have been invited to learn how to be in community with folks who are on every page in the book.
I have a third post in the mix, but an extremely busy few days ahead. I guess I'll get to it when I get to it.