Learning to Love (No, Really Love) “My” Congregation

Post Author: Jennifer Creswell

Churches are full of people who behave badly and make poor choices and screw things up for themselves and for the whole community.  There.  The cat’s out of the bag, right?

I knew this going into ministry.  I learned all sorts of helpful stuff in seminary and field education about family systems, healthy communication, and how to manage “pastoral issues.”  And I was so busy trying to remember how to solve everyone else’s problems that I forgot to learn that I bring my own problems into the system.

Last month I celebrated my fifth anniversary at my church.  And I’m giving great thanks for the gift this has been to me.  The gift of rootedness: staying put when things are shitty, great, boring, too busy, exciting, tragic, hopeful, messy, embarrassing, abundant, and a little stodgy.  The gift of relationship: being with people over time, moving into, and out of, and sometimes into again, different conflicts.  Making peace with a person because neither one of us is going anywhere and, grrrr, God has called us both into community together. I’m not just their rector: I’m a learner-in-residence

One great gift this community has given me is understanding ministry “with,” rather than ministry “for” the beloved community.   As I’m starting to understand, I am not in this place to bring health and sanity and spirituality and modern ideas to a congregation.  I am here for the same reason we are all in the community: because God has called us to believe we may just be better off together than apart.  And I don’t think God is stupid.  I don’t think God forgot how wretched we can be to each other, and I don’t think God overlooked the fairly obvious theological and aesthetic differences that sometimes exist between members of the community.  No, the funny thing about God is that, somehow, in spite of it all, God shows up in massive ways when we come together.  And I do share my gifts—my crazy ideas, my youth, my experience.  And I make it a point to be intentional about receiving gifts from the community as well.

Another gift from this community: new vocabulary.  The words I used when I first came here don’t really feel comfortable anymore.  New words have crept into my vocabulary that, I hope, describe our relationships more accurately, relationships with people who nurture and encourage and guide me as much as I do the same for them.  I used to visit “parishioners” or “congregants” in the hospital.  These days I tend to visit “members of my community,” or “members of my church” or often just “friends.” I’ve given up on “trying to make them understand” (did it ever work anyway?) and now “invite” my friends to join in experiences that have been meaningful to me and to others.  I used to be fond of “my people,” and while I still appreciate the intimacy (and the Biblical reference) of this term, I cringe when I hear myself say things like, “oh, my people would never go for that.”  I can’t really claim any ownership of this diverse and brilliant community.  And I find that when given the chance to hear and be heard, to try, to experiment, to evaluate, to pray together and apart, to be in conversation…“my” people will try just about anything, God bless them.

Another gift: forgiveness.  I screw up in my community life all the time.  Ask my congregation.  With the grace in this community I’ve ventured again and again into the realm of confession, apology, and forgiveness.  I have received forgiveness.  I’ve offered forgiveness. And in forgiveness, I’ve started to understand that there’s no such thing as perfection; only living, and loving, and screwing up, and being forgiven, and forgiving again.  I have the power to forgive, and I’ll have opportunities to forgive the same person 17 more times for the same thing.  And as long as they’ve got me, the dear people of this community will keep forgiving me for forgetting that prayer request or not asking that person’s opinion, or always showing up with lame, store-bought food for the potlucks.

This community I serve with is not a hip church.  We are not large.  We aren’t cutting edge.  I don’t know that we’ve ever been the first to do anything.  But I still think we’re the best-kept secret in town.  Because inside and outside this building, together with these people, I’ve experienced grace and belonging and being full and being healed, like nowhere else.  It is in, and through, these people that Christ visits me on a daily basis, and there’s no way I can own that.  But today and every day I can say  “thank you, you surprising and crazy God!”


Jennifer Creswell is giddy that she has the opportunity to serve with the people of St. Luke the Physician Episcopal Church in Gresham, Oregon.  She also serves at home with her spouse Ian Doescher and their two boys who are in elementary school.

Image by: Erica Schemper
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    I love that I saw you recently and heard you say all of these things out loud. They are good to read. And it might be said: you inspire me.


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