Post Author: Holly Smith
Two years ago, I stood in the pulpit preaching the hardest sermon I would preach to date. That sermon; my first “goodbye” and “I failed, I’m sorry” sermon, flowed from my mouth with sadness in my breathe and tears streaming down my face. “Hot Mess” and “Ugly Cry” describes this occasion. The congregation listened and cried with me that day, never pointing out how much pain they were going through. They and I both knew that I could not save them.
I preached from that pulpit for first time just fourteen months before this defining moment. My husband and I had moved our twin four-month old baby boys and our two year old daughter from my internship in South Dakota, to sunny Florida so I could become a generalist associate pastor. I moved sure of my choice, sure of my first call, sure that I could be a full-time associate pastor with three children under three. I grew up being told I could do anything I set my mind to. I remember thinking, “they know I’m a mom and an associate pastor call is much more doable than a solo-pastor or senior-pastor call”. I too laugh at just naive spirit now. I learned two things in the first month as an associate: I knew nothing, and churches give you as much responsibility as you are willing to take regardless of your family.
I quickly came to the conclusion that my position was a conglomerate of all the needs in the church: primarily youth, adult education, help in worship and pastoral care. As I quickly learned how to navigate the choppy waters of associate pastor-ship and youth ministry, my family at home began to fall apart.
My sweet innocent baby boys entered daycare for the first time in their lives. A small in-home daycare where I thought their fragile preemie immune systems were safe. At first it seemed if I they seemed to adjust well to their new daytime environment even though I struggled to leave them everyday. Their caregiver reminded me that they mostly just slept and ate, so I could free my conscience of missing much. Then their immune systems began to breakdown. I soon became good friends with the staff at the pediatrician’s office. A runny nose quickly turned into a wheeze and the wheeze into a full blow asthma attack. My worry became everyone’s worry when the boys were admitted to the hospital.
As the situation at home became rocky, the trouble at work began to surmount my ability to cope. I struggled with how to give the youth group the attention it demanded while accomplishing all of my other tasks. I attempted to seek help from within the church, only to be told that my only option was resignation. Comments like, “Someday, your children will hate you for leaving them” and “Did you not realize this job would be horrible?” still sting to this day. I like my boys began to feel like I could not take in enough air. Nine months in the little hope I had disappeared when the pastor that I worked under resigned. I remember him telling me ever so gently and thinking to myself, “Why can’t I be you?”
By the time the interim pastor arrived, I existed as just a shell of myself. Beaten and broken-down by the longest ten months of my life. The call that I longed for did not exist, the mentoring relationship that I craved never manged to take shape. I felt relieved when the nominating committee announced that the interim would soon join us. I greeted him hopeful that things would soon even themselves out. I quickly learned that he ran from his own demons.
He said and did things that made me uneasy, and I did everything in my power to avoid confrontation with him. I spent many hours visiting parishioners and reading at the library just to escape. My boys continued to struggle with constant lung issues and then it happened. I began to get physically sick and they both ended up in the pediatric intensive care unit. I held their tiny bodies as they struggled to take breaths. I promised them that mommy would get a grip, that I would figure out away to make them better. My prayer life and relationship with Christ was nonexistent.
The interim pastor scolded me when I returned back from the hospital saying that I took so much time off that he could never take his time. My boys in the PICU created an inconvenience. I realized that God called me to be a pastor but did not expect me to kill myself trying. I needed to keep my promise to those sweet baby boys.
With that promise in mind, I asked the session for sabbatical time to get a grip on my life. I spend an entire month praying and reading. I visited my therapist weekly to learn coping skills, and to heal. Then I went back, only to discover that no amount of change in me was going to change the situation. I resigned. At the time, a part of me died. I dusted myself off and went home to my three precious children. I read to them, watched Sesame Street, went for walks, and slowly began to heal. In time, I also took on a small stated supply position during the weekends. I learned that sometimes we need to fail in order to understand how to overcome. God’s strength lifted me up, dusted me off, and embraced the brokenness of my soul.
Eighteen months after that sermon, I once again entered full-time ministry. This time as a solo pastor of a small congregation with healthy children and realistic boundaries. It took being broken down to realize that I could do nothing without God. I cannot be all things to all people and that is okay.
Holly Smith is the pastor at First United Presbyterian Church, Atlantic, IA. She is a lover of Jesus and all things crafty. She is wife to Matt, and mother to Sarah, Gideon, and Micah. Holly graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Image by: Holly Smith
Used with permission