Post Author: Katie Callaway
My final Sunday at that church came as every other Sunday in my career has come: with a little anxiety and a rush of responsibilities. But this time, it felt as though more was at stake. I was leaving. Every Sunday, I wake up at 5:00 a.m. First feed the dog, make coffee, sip my coffee. For those few moments, everything is peaceful.
I give myself until 5:30 every Sunday. Or rather, gave. At 5:30 sharp, I’d stop mindlessly scrolling or pause my Wordle fixation for the day and get to work.
First, I’d pull up the worship guide to get my bearings straight. Then, I’d write the prayers of the people. They needed to strike a strong balance with the homilies but also bring their own sense of comfort and grace. This was the kind of writing I enjoyed, although it never quite felt sufficient enough for what I knew the congregation was carrying into worship.
After the prayers, I would put the rest of the worship elements into place and turn my attention to my homily. Typically written a few days prior, Sunday morning would afford me fresh(ish) eyes on the words I was hoping to say. Most of the time, a majority of the words would remain largely unchanged. Some words would fall victim to the 6 a.m., 2 cups of coffee, sleep-deprived gauntlet. By 7 a.m., I would come to realize that as much was done as was going to be done — a rather incomplete satisfaction — just in time for my daughter to waltz into the living room, half-asleep, ready for snuggles. As the 11 o’clock worship hour approached, I would feel rushed but never stop to scrutinize this time spent on the couch, wrapped tightly together under a blanket, watching Dino Dana, and telling her how much I loved her.
This particular Sunday, when getting dressed, I wondered, “What does one wear for a day like today?” I generally thought long and hard about what I wore to avoid those comments. I could have gone with the trusty black jumper that someone once called “sexy,” but I’d worn it often recently. The polka-dotted tailored dress was dirty; I’d sworn to clean it but it had been forgotten under a pile of other more pressing issues.
Then I laid eyes on the dress, one I’d been avoiding. Long, black, and white, it looked like something someone with sophistication would wear. “No, I’m not doing that again,” I thought to myself. The last time I’d worn it, a man in the church commented to his friends in front of me, “Well fellas, we know she isn’t packing!” He was referring to the dress being tight. I was embarrassed and retired the dress to the recesses of my closet.
As the memory arose in my mind, I knew that was the exact dress I needed to wear—not only to redeem it but to reclaim me as the agent I was, a feeling I had lost gradually over the years.
I slipped the dress on only to hear my daughter gasp and say, “Mommy, you look beautiful.” Together, we drove to the church one last time, to preach once more, to worship with beloved people once more, and then to say goodbye.
Typically, around 10 a.m. every Sunday, I begin mingling with people as they enter the sacred space. “How are you doing?” “Tell me about your week.” “Long time no see.” Simple conversations, nothing too deep.
But this particular Sunday, I couldn’t bring myself to do so. The weight of grief barred down on me. A few beloveds came into my empty office to offer their support and love. Tears were shed.
Leaving is hard, I’ve learned. This is the side of leaving people rarely see. It may be difficult for the congregation to grasp that even in the best of circumstances, it is difficult for a pastor to leave beloved people she’s lived life with over the years. My situation, though, was complex.
Many of us, including myself, didn’t fully comprehend how we had gotten to this moment. Time crawled as 11 o’clock approached. At 10:37 a.m., hand-in-weary-hand, my husband and I walked across the street to the Sanctuary to lead our final service in this place as co-pastors. We donned our robes and purple stoles that reminded us of the loneliness of Lent’s wilderness journey. As we waited for the hour to chime, memories flooded my mind.
Memories of our installation service when the chair of our search committee opened the service by saying to us, “Welcome home.”
Memories of coming alive with the creative challenge the pandemic brought.
Memories of people loving my kid.
Memories of meals shared, hearty meals, where we always took leftovers home at
the insistence of the hosts.
Memories of that first service back in person as the pandemic waned: tears filling my eyes as the gathered congregation sang, “The Church’s One Foundation.”
The familiar chiming of the hour jolted me out of my walk down memory lane. And just like every other Sunday, we walked out to face the congregation. This time, however, there was a heaviness in the room.
Like the rest of the morning, the service both flew by and crawled. Then, we recessed out of the church, offering the same benediction we’d offered weekly for the better part of the last three years. As we walked out to “The War March of the Priests,” we tearfully looked into the eyes of our congregants. All of us wore the last three years in our eyes. Where there was once joy and life, we saw grief and despair. How would we go on? A reception was lovingly awaiting us on the steps of the church, allowing us to share in one last hug with the people who had become like family.
Some offered words of benediction, blessings for the journey. Others expressed their grief and confusion. And still, others apologized, taking responsibility, often unnecessarily, for what did or did not happen. By 1:05 p.m., the crowd had cleared, tears dried, and I loaded my daughter back into the car, driving off from that place one final time.
As we drove off, I was keenly aware of the lightness—the relief, the possibility, the opportunity for rest—that awaited me. But I also held the heaviness that wouldn’t go away simply by handing back my key or picking out the perfect dress to wear for the day. It was a heaviness that will take a while to wane and will never fully disappear.
Since that day, I have replayed every interaction of the day in my head. I have asked myself, “Did I do the right thing?” I have cried. I have revisited conversations in the years past, trying to examine how I could have better predicted this conclusion. But maybe, more importantly, I have lost track of time reading a book. I have walked on the beach with no pressing schedule to attend to. I have had soul-nourishing conversations and meals with no agenda. I have gone to bed early and woken up late. I have had lunch dates with my husband and taken long walks with my dog.
Now at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, I sleep. At 11 o’clock, a part of me feels as though I am in the wrong place. But I am learning that I am in the exact place I need to be, as difficult and unscheduled as it may be.
Katie is currently between calls. She served for 3 years as Co-Pastor of First Baptist Church of Savannah, GA. She co-pastors with her divinity school sweetheart, John, with whom she parents, Sophie (kid) and Lily (German Shepherd).
Image by: Katie Callaway, Aisle leading out of the church
Used with permission