Twenty five years of pastoral ministry has brought me in contact with several amazing groups of people. Of course, there have always been a few people that didn't appreciate me (or us) fully at all times, but when I speak in generalities I can truly say that some of the best people on earth have been parishioners that I have grown to love.
We are now on our sixth appointment as a clergy couple, four in Minnesota and two in Virginia. It all began in 1995 when Bart was appointed to the Belgrade-Hawick two point charge in Central Minnesota. We had some very good people who took care of us so well. Bart arrived as an engaged single seminary student and left married with 7 kids. The people there were so patient with all of our changes and embraced our children, even though at times they we not lovable.
Then we moved to Luverne where we were for 7 years. Oh did we develop some friendships there. Deep, significant friendships with folks, many of them whose kids were the same age as ours (we arrived with 7 kids ages 3-13 and left with 10 ages 10-20). We watched (and helped) each other raise our kids through middle school and high school. Our eldest graduated from high school there. When we left.... oh my goodness the tears. I was sobbing that last Sunday. I wasn't sure I would make it and grieved the loss of those folks for years.
Loss? You may ask? How can it be a loss when you just go to another church full of new people and exciting fresh starts? Well, I've been thinking about that a lot the last six months.... so keep reading and I'll explain what I've concluded about all that.
But back to the next appointment. Mankato. The years where we had way more teenagers than anyone who knows how to plan well would ever have. Just as happened in the other churches, we were introduced to loving, caring supportive people who put up with all of the shenanigans, illegal activity and unplanned pregnancies of that era. I found myself again loving people profoundly and they loved me well. When we returned to the church this past year for their 125th anniversary I was reminded once again of the intensity of my feelings for some of those folks. My closest and dearest friend, Sue, I met in that church and she died this year., way too young. I miss her so much.
Six years later we were in Twin Cities where we began pastoring the Brunswick United Methodist Church. The singing group Testify and my Saturday morning women's group were lifesavers. I had never been good enough to be in a band before, but I was welcome and those people and playing with that group was one of the highlights of my life. I did life with those folks -- weekly, daily sometimes. They were my people. Other people in the congregation became deer friends as well.
But then God interrupted it all and found this job offer for me across the country. Surprising to me was Bart's decision that we move and we ended up in Danville, VA uncertain as to whether or not people in Virginia would be as loving or accepting as those in Minnesota. And of course, they were. Three and a half years later and it was time to go yet again and we found ourselves in a familiar place.... saying goodbye to people we loved. Again a couple of my absolute favorite people, Tom (that I wrote a blog entry about) and later his wife Betty, both died before we left and they are folks I miss every day.
Many times as we have moved I have fantasized that the relationships would continue, especially if we moved less than a hundred miles away. But it doesn't quite work like that and I've been struggling with that lately as we are at our new church.
After much thought I have a theory. With pastors and their spouses relationships work a little bit differently. When we are appointed to a church we have a special pass into people's lives. People who already have enough relationships between their family and friends and don't need any more -- give their pastor and his/her family an open door. We share life with hem as they experience high highs (birth, baptisms, confirmations, weddings) and low lows -- job losses, children's rebellion, illness, and death. We dive into the depths and do life with them while we are there. And then we move on. And whereas I view them as some of my best friends in this life, I was their pastor's wife. A friend yes, but as I move on it's time for them to invest in a new pastor and his/her new spouse. I don't say this to complain nor am I resentful. I have just had to recognize that this is the way things are. We are there to love and be loved for a season. The love doesn't end -- and if we go back to visit, as demonstrated when we returned to Mankato after being gone for 7 years, it's still palpable.
We have moved again and now there are lots of loving amazing people in our new church. But I ask myself, will they just become like all the others ... people who I have loved so deeply who within months after we leave have moved on to the next clergy couple, investing in them, and connected to me only through an occasional Facebook like or post? If I invest now, will it be worth it?
I wish time and distance wasn't an issue. I wish that I could simply say "beam me up Scottie" and be out to lunch or dinner with each of these folks from our prior five churches. I wish we could talk about the "good old days" and catch each other up face to face. I wish I had time to explain to them how much they meant to us and to our kids and to our kids kids. But now the list of these people is so long I'll never have time to make it happen. And many of them are no longer living so that would be impossible.
As I was thinking about this the other day I realized that this is pretty much the definition of heaven. In heaven there will be no time. There will be no space constraints. I don't know whether we will remember much of what happened here, but I do hope we remember enough to do what I mentioned above... spend an eternity investing in relationships that never have to end.
Today in the book "Invited" by Leslie Verner, she asks the same kinds of questions. She asks if it is worth investing in new relationships when you know that they will be over. If we know a friendship is for a season, should we bother?
Her answer is yes and she gives a profound example. She equates our love as sourdough bread starter. God's love is the essence of the starter. No matter how many times we pull some of the starter out to give to someone else, the love grows back. There's always enough to invest in others, no matter how much time we get with them.
So if you are one of the parishioners we have loved before -- know that you are still loved. The time you invested in Bart and I and our kids and grandkids will never be forgotten. You might be surprised at how often you are thought of and talked about in our home. We often long to reconnect, but know that the space in your heart now needs to go to your current pastor. Love him/her as well as you loved us. I know you will because that is just the kind of people that you are. Thank you for giving us that special pass into your hearts and lives for a season. Can't wait until we have all eternity to catch up.