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Last week I was gifted the library of a local, retired pastor. Rather than donate the books to a bookstore, he wanted them to go to a young pastor he could meet personally. I was touched that he and his friends thought of me. Naturally I jumped at the chance when he emailed me about it a few weeks ago.

I was a little less enthused upon discovering his library was at the top of a narrow, winding staircase. My friend and I spent four hours packing up books and carrying them down said narrow, winding staircase, certain that each step would be the one where my foot slipped and I’d fall to a tragic and early demise.

Thankfully we got all the books off the shelves, into the car, and into my church office, to be sorted and stacked. That remains an ongoing project. It’s a lot of books.

As I pulled books off the shelves or rifled through them in my office, I couldn’t help but feel like I was handling incredibly precious material. As this pastor sat and watched us work, it felt as though we were boxing up his friends. He’d say things like, “There’s a lot of mileage in these books,” or “That one was a gamechanger for me.” There were hand-scribbled notes or relevant articles stuffed into many of them. I asked if he’d ever culled his collection of books before. “Nope,” he said. “These have been with me basically since I started in ministry.”

Wow.

The First Time

I’ve already inherited another library, this one from my childhood pastor.

Pastor Peter is the minister who baptized me and watched me grow up, quite literally, as my mother was our church’s administrative assistant and I spent many hours at church as an infant and young child. He took a call to a church in Oshawa, Ontario when I was twelve, but I still think of him as “my pastor.”

Twelve years later, I did my summer seminary internship at a different church in Oshawa, vacant at the time. Pastor Peter was assigned to be my mentor. Rather a remarkable thing, sitting across from him in his office and talking about ministry, him gently admonishing me to respond more frequently to email. Not all the lessons you learn about ministry are theological, turns out. As he was set to retire the following year, he sent me back to Grand Rapids with boxes and boxes of books, now lining my own office shelves.

I’m quite sure I’m never going to read all the books these two pastors have given me. Even so, I’m grateful to have them, to be surrounded by these “friends of the faith” that have provided the fodder for decades of rich and vibrant ministry. To have Calvin and Barth and Niebuhr and Nouwen and Bonhoeffer and Bavinck and Buechner staring down at me from those shelves, a great cloud of witnesses dressed in gold-embossed leather and worn, dusty pages.

The Lineup 

On the wall by the mailboxes in my church are pictures of the fourteen former pastors of Second Christian Reformed Church.

A few of them are still around – I’ve gotten to do a couple funerals with them for parishioners who have always thought of one of these men as “my pastor.” When I sit next to one of them before a service, I feel myself a part of a line, each minister bequeathing the role of pastor to the next. It feels holy. It feels comforting. It’s a great cloud of witnesses.

There are days when being a pastor is a lonely, overwhelming task, especially for a young pastor in her first charge. And it’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety, in the “what if I don’t get this right,” in the need for approval, the need to stand out as a success.

And on those days, I’m grateful that I can swivel around in my office chair – or take a stroll down to the mailboxes – and be reminded of the great cloud of witnesses who have experienced God’s grace and guidance in their own ministry, who had their moments of anxiety and lived through them, and who attest – over the centuries and around the world – that it is Christ who builds the church.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong serves as pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

5 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    “My pastor.” I think it’s the most precious thing you can hear if you are one. I had served at the Maranatha Reformed Church for four years in Wainfleet, Ontario. It wasn’t an easy four years. I felt I wasn’t a good match, and we had controversy, and though I had made good friends and deep connections, I felt I had to leave for another charge. A year and a half later, I happened to come back to Ontario to teach a week in Ancaster, and I stopped by at Maranatha for the Sunday morning service. As I was walking through the parking lot, an elderly man named Rik Van Ee spotted me. He quickly came over and said, “My pastor!” I was so moved, and it still chokes me up. There’s another part to this story. My predecessor at that church retired, remained in the congregation, and he left all his books on the shelves in the study, assuming, without asking, that I’d want them. I didn’t want a one of them. His theology and approach to the Bible were so different than mine. (Partly why it wasn’t an easy four years.) When I asked him to remove his books so that I could put my own in he was quite offended, but he did it, and he never did support me in those next four years. Ah well, thirty years later, no hard feelings.

  • The Theological Book Network in Grand Rapids will happily take books and then pass them on to seminaries across the world. My husband donated 14 boxes of books a few years ago when he retired and they went to Ethiopia. We are downsizing and moving and once again, TBN came to pick up 20 boxes of books–destination unknown at this point.

    • Rowland Van Es says:

      Some may come to Kenya, as Theological Book Network was just here visiting and taking requests for books to add to our library and to the smaller libraries of some of our diploma level colleges (that train the majority of pastors here). Books are still precious even in this day and age.

  • Jim says:

    For a while you study history, then you realize you’re part of history, buoyed by it, passing it on, and yes confined and burdened by it too. But the ‘buoyed’ is so sustaining.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thank you for your article, Laura. It touches me. I am someone at the other end of the ministry journey. I have felt the urge to get rid of some of my books and it is one of the hardest tasks I have ever faced. At this point I aspire to be of service to my youngest colleagues just starting out. Those with whom I serve have earned my deepest respect. I am afraid that the churches they will serve through the years will not have the numerical and financial strength the churches I served had. For that I respect their dedication even more. I have a feeling that you are your peers are buoyed on a chorus of prayers lifted up by us who are “long in the tooth.” For your call and ardent service we praise the Lord. And I hope when your day comes long from now you will have the same reluctance to let go of those books I feel!

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