It’s been exactly a year since my family and I packed up the parsonage, dropped the car off at the freight yard, and departed from the Long Beach Airport at the height of jacaranda season. We had tickets for a one-way flight to Chicago (one made quite memorable by my scrambling to get my last Called and Sent column written by deadline). We left California because we wanted to. My husband and I are both deeply Midwestern, and eight years in Los Angeles County was enough for us.
But we also left California because we were called. I felt the spiritual equivalent of an electric shock when I read the classified ad in the back of the Christian Century describing an associate ministry position in a suburb of Chicago. I paid attention; such jolts of knowing are few and far between. My gut-level response was confirmed throughout the long discernment process, and to my great relief and joy, the search committee came to the same conclusion.
As much as I loath to employ the Dickensian cliche, the move encompassed the best and worst of times. Being called to Western Springs meant being called away from Redondo Beach. Being called to become the associate minister of a large congregation meant being called away from my role as the solo pastor of a congregation not much larger than many extended families. Being called to serve these people meant being called away from serving those people. And I loved those people. I still do. And yet I still haven’t figured out how to live that love for them, from afar, as their former pastor. I’m supposed to stay out of the way to honor their new ministry – let alone their new minister (a remarkably gifted and well-suited interim, for the record). I miss them, and I miss being their pastor, and I always will.
But. I hesitate to even utter that “but,” as I once was told that the reader will presume that it nullifies everything preceding it. Please don’t presume that. What I claim is true: I miss them, and I miss being their pastor, and I always will… but I have never once doubted that this prayerfully discerned call was the right thing for me and for my family. Professionally and personally, I can’t fathom a more perfectly fitting context for ministry. If you’d told me in seminary that I’d end up happily employed as an associate, I would have laughed in your face. I fancied myself too much of a firecracker to work under a supervising pastor – that, and if I failed, I didn’t want any other professionals in the room to witness my fall. After five years of the often isolating experience of solo ministry, I’m reveling in the experience of having colleagues down the hall. I still think I’m probably too much of a firecracker to work under most supervising pastors, so I’m profoundly grateful to have a senior colleague who is, in addition to being a great boss, an excellent mentor and friend. Much of the work I do here is fundamentally the same as the work I did there – leading worship, offering pastoral care, facilitating conversations about the intersection of the Word and the world. Here, though, I’m not the liaison to every committee, and the buck mercifully passes by my door. I’m aware that all too many associate ministry job descriptions are essentially comprised of the tasks the senior pastor doesn’t want to do. That I experience as much – if not more – freedom as an associate as I did as a solo pastor is a blessing for which I give thanks, and a grace I try to honor. All that, and I love these new people, too. I still don’t know them all – there are so many! – but we are building relationships that I hope shall last for a good long time.
And in the meantime, I cling to the memories of my time at the little church by the Pacific. This week, to commemorate the year that has stretched between us, I finally watched the video recorded my last week in Redondo Beach. Our volunteer videographer had set his camera up during the farewell potluck so that members could stop by and record their goodbyes. The messages are lovely, and the in-between moments are downright invaluable. There’s at least a half an hour of potluck footage, people moving down the buffet table, eyes widening at the impressive dessert selection, stopping to chat with their sisters and brothers in Christ. At one point in the video, I notice a dear elder named Elaine struggling to balance her walker and her paper plate. I pop up to carry her plate back to her table. Elaine passed away last fall, the first saint to move on up in glory after my departure. I took it hard. Watching that video, and our exchange that I’d forgotten, I was reminded that we will be reunited. Even if I never do figure out how to play the role of former pastor comfortably, even if my heart never fully heals from the sorrow of having been called away from that place, the faith we shared proclaims that there will be a messianic banquet, a resurrection feast.
I think it’s going to look an awful lot like a church potluck.