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“Pastors are people who stay.”
My husband recently attended the CRC chaplains’ conference in Grand Rapids and Professor Danjuma Gibson was one of the presenters. He teaches pastoral care at Calvin Theological Seminary and he told the gathered chaplains that this is the first thing he tells his students: Pastors are people who stay.
When the doctor leaves the room after giving difficult news, the pastor is the person who stays.
When the funeral director finishes going through the casket options, the pastor is the person who stays.
When others can’t hold quiet space with you because depression is too dark, too confusing, too boring, the pastor is the person who stays.
And when the controversies come and every conversation in the church feels like a difficult conversation and when people leave because the church is too liberal or too conservative or too contemporary or too traditional or too small or too big, the pastor is the person who stays.
For my dad’s first 20 years of pastoral ministry, he changed churches every five years. I often think that he (and his congregation) experienced the most growth and transformation when he finally stayed through the tough season. When pastors leave as soon as things get too hot or too tense or too conflicted, they miss out on the opportunity for growth. The best pastors are people who stay.
Sometimes the pastor is a person who doesn’t stay. Maybe he receives a call to another congregation or ministry or walk of life. Or maybe she experiences a call away from a congregation without a call to something else (more on that in my next post).
A call to leave a congregation is a difficult one to discern for lots of reasons (some of them particular to the CRC and her current season). I know that it was difficult for me to discern. Mantras like Professor Gibson’s resonate with me. The pastor is the person who stays – who stays through the hard things… who calmly stands her ground rather than fighting or fleeing. I thought that was me. And it was me. For a pretty long time.
I wonder if part of why it is difficult to discern a call to leave is because so many congregations see themselves primarily as a family. How could I, as a pastor, leave my family, whom I love so much?! One newer attender to my congregation said, “It seems like you really care for all of us. How could you leave us?”
Sometimes I wonder if the pastor-congregation bond is cherished too tightly, with almost-marital overtones. Interviewing at churches can feel a bit like dating (or cheating), a call can feel like a proposal, and the service of installation or ordination can have a wedding-ish vibe. (We do make vows to each other, after all.) One congregation I know of was so relieved when their long-time pastor decided not to take a call to a different church that they threw him a wedding reception party, complete with a vow renewal ceremony, a lavish feast, toasts, and a head table for the “wedding party” – the pastor, his wife, and other church staff. It was all in good fun, but the subtext of the event was clear. Please, don’t ever leave us! We are committed to one another!
Even when I was installed in my congregation ten years ago, I bought into the metaphor, posting on Facebook: “Going to the chapel and I’m… gonna get installed.”
Friends, it’s good for pastors and congregations to love each other well. It’s important that pastors do a lot of good staying.
But the church is the bride of Christ, and at the end of the day, pastors are servants and stewards of that most important relationship.
Ultimately, Jesus is the person who stays. Jesus is the only one who always stays.
And the pastor is the person who stays her heart on Jesus, and encourages others to do the same. Sometimes Jesus leads our stayed hearts and our steady steps to different kingdom work in different places. As I said to my congregation a few weeks before I left (echoing a song we sang in that service): “We will work with each other, we will work side by side… and sometimes there needs to be just a little bit more distance between us in our working side by side. And that’s okay.”
In my final service this past Sunday, the congregation and I spoke a litany of farewell and godspeed to and with one another. The litany honours both the history of staying and the reality of not-staying.
I thank you, my sisters and brothers,
for the love, kindness, and support shown me these past 10 years.
I am grateful for the ministry we have shared together.
With joy I recall what we accomplished with God’s help,
and with sadness those dreams not fulfilled.
I ask your forgiveness for mistakes made and expectations not met.
We offer our forgiveness
and celebrate all that God has accomplished among us.
We are grateful for your ministry
and for your influence on our lives.
We ask your forgiveness for mistakes made
and for expectations not met.
I receive your gratitude and forgive your shortcomings.
And I release you from the vows and promises made at my installation.
We release you from your promises to us,
and we offer you our blessing as you
leave to minister elsewhere.
Sometimes pastors are the people who stay. Sometimes they don’t stay. I am so thankful for my congregants– for their grace and understanding in this difficult time of discernment. And I am grateful to God who graciously watches over our coming and going– our staying and not-staying– both now and forever more.