In this season of Christmas parties and celebrations, Nicole offers some thoughts on balancing the need to gather with parishioners and the need for personal space.
I suppose the jury is out about whether it is uncouth or inappropriate to ever have parishioners over at a pastor’s house. But I have never been one who aims toward conformity. When I began my ministry in Small Town, USA, I was the first in many years to be interested in a parsonage. Even with a housing allowance, I couldn’t have lived near the church, so I jumped for joy at a newly renovated home and a generous equity allowance. The church invested hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars, and donations from the community to make 868 Main Street come alive. I wanted to reward and honor their efforts, and the only way that seemed appropriate was to have them over.
The second coffee hour in the fall was the perfect chance to open my doors wide enough to fit the silver-haired saints and the raucous kids. Norman still made the coffee, but he agreed to cart it across the green, around the corner and onto the pink countertops in my “new-to-me” kitchen. Valerie covered my coffee table with mums and the Spirit did the rest. I wasn’t thinking about the precedent I might be setting; I simply wanted to extend my heart as much as they did theirs for me.
The response was so full of joy that I made a mental note. “For super special occasions, reserve the holy grail, AKA the parsonage!” I learned that scrubbing the parsonage until it shines and emptying the trash so that parishioners can feel at home is something like a reward. In the over two years since I arrived, I have offered this prize on just a few occasions. Every single time, the holiness of the gathering has long transcended the hours I spent preparing the place. I held a Trustees meeting in the living room to say thank you. I hosted the first Newcomers’ Gathering while my favorite Michael Jackson record soothed the younger prospect’s nerves. I invited the worship planning team to dream up summer themes while we enjoyed shrimp on my lawn furniture. Every time my home was the prize, it turned out holy.
Now that I am married, this parsonage-laced reward has become something like a gold medal. I know that I cannot even ask my husband for the house to be turned over to God, unless nothing less than the possibility of new disciples of Jesus Christ is at stake. But God’s faithfulness has meant that there are times when I still must cash in my wife chips and offer up the parsonage in love.
Because of this, I have learned a thing or two about “parishioner-proofing” my pad. For the most part, I am some sort of neurotic nerd. I watch public television with regularity. I subscribe to my local paper. I thank God out loud for things like birdsong, and I am convinced that my dog Stella will eventually speak to me. And yet, there are just some things that I don’t want my parishioners to be forced to contemplate. I don’t want them catching a glimpse of my recycling bin and wondering if it has been a month or a week since I last unloaded my wine bottles. I don’t want them to see the side of the fridge, only to notice our wedding gift of a sex night planner, with all variety of magnets to indicate one partner’s hopes. I don’t want them to stare at a piece of art hanging on my wall and question my sanity. It’s not as if I am ashamed of who I am, but I guess I don’t want to have to explain it.
At first I felt guilty about my need to parishioner-proof, but then I realized that my beloved ones do the same thing for me. When I call to schedule a visit, it is not uncommon for me to hear, “Oh, well if you are coming by, I better clean up.” We all do it. Sometimes I wonder if this need to put on a good appearance is just an ancient human pattern, where we forget about what ultimately matters—our hearts—and spend too much time on the things that will fade. Instead of “putting on Christ,” as Paul invites, it appears that most of us are driven by our need to “pretty up” our lives, especially if they might be inspected with a magnifying glass.
When we are vulnerable and the place where we spend most of our time is up for the world to see, perhaps we need to remember what God says in our baptisms: “You are my beloved, and with you, I am well pleased.” I have been into enough homes and welcomed into enough dark corners of hungry hearts to know that there is not one of us that would come out perfect, but I am still tempted by the thought of being perceived that way, even for a moment. Our homes will never be completely perfect, no more than we will, but there is still an important element of hospitality in taking the time to prepare our homes for company.
In the future, I am sure that I will still take the time to tidy up when the reward of my home is shared. Even if I am human, I am still the pastor!