This is a Deeper Family, not a Deeper Church. I’m charged to write about family, not the work I do as a congregational pastor.
But sometimes the church is a family.
Sometimes it’s a family in all the wrong ways, replete with dysfunction. Sometimes there are controlling personalities and melodramatic martyrs and generational warfare.
And sometimes there is tenderness and mutual care and the simple joy of shared meals – bread and wine in the sanctuary, potlucks in the fellowship hall.
Sometimes they really do know we are Christians by our love.
I was twenty-four and more than a little scared when I began serving as the solo pastor of a congregation near the beach in Los Angeles County. Despite my self-doubts and anxieties, despite my youth and inexperience, they called me prayerfully and embraced me enthusiastically as their pastor. The church was small enough that everybody knew everybody else, small enough that it took me just two weeks to learn everyone’s names. It hadn’t always been so small; the dreaded “mainline decline” was taking its toll.
But it was a faithful church.
Every single Sunday before worship a small core of volunteers cooked up a full hot breakfast for the homeless community that populated the beach cities. It dawned on me at one point that between the thriving Korean congregation that rented out half the property and all the folks who came for pancakes and eggs, there were at least as many people there on any given Sunday morning as there were in the church’s mid-century heyday.
We even had our own missionary. His name was Dean, and he was seventy-eight years old when his twenty-five-year-old pastor led the congregation in commissioning him to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he worked for two years to establish a public relations office at the Université Protestante du Congo. He had served in the Belgian Congo in the 1960s and had always longed to return.
I am not their pastor anymore. I left nearly three years ago, prayerfully called to serve another congregation. I love where I am, happily ensconced in my native Midwest, and I love my new church. But I have continued to be deeply grieved by my role as a former pastor. In my tradition, pastors have a responsibility to truly leave when we leave. We aren’t to meddle in the goings-on of the congregation, aren’t to pop back in for big funerals, aren’t to offer pastoral care on the sly. Though I do subscribe to the minority philosophy that it is okay to maintain friendships with former parishioners, we’re supposed to cut any official ties.
I was part of the family. And now I’m not.
But I still love them. And that is why I burst into tears last week when I learned through a mass email that Dean had died unexpectedly. I suppose you can only sort of claim a death is unexpected when the person is well into their eighties and not in entirely good health. But still: he had planted his garden this spring and expected to be around for the harvest.
Dean was the patriarch of a large and loving family, many of whom were active members of the church. My husband and I were frequent guests at their Friday night family dinners. I never knew my grandfathers, and even though my primary responsibility to Dean was to be his pastors, I loved him like a grandfather. I grieve him like a granddaughter – albeit one who did a rotten job of keeping in touch, in part because I couldn’t discern how much I should.
And now, I am trying to figure out how to love and grieve the congregation itself. They are, according to their church newsletter, preparing to close their doors.
I will be the former pastor of a former church. What felt akin to an amicable divorce is increasingly feeling like a death.
It is a damn good thing I believe in life everlasting.
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.