I miss the congregation I pastored.
I miss the space and the voices, the community as a whole and the congregants individually. Sometimes I wonder how the church is doing. Sometimes my throat tightens with loss and I have to distract myself before crying.
The loss hits home for me in predictable moments (receiving communion in an unfamiliar church gets me every time) and in some very surprising moments … like shoe shopping. I bought purple boots recently, my concession to the severity of Cleveland winters. They’re warm and practical, but most of all they’re purple, which makes them fabulous!
You know who would crack up over the fact that I bought purple boots instead of settling for regular old boots? My former congregants. Across every generation in that church, there are some folks who would both tease and admire these fabulous purple boots of mine, just as they teased and admired and shared my delight over a pair of ridiculously fabulous red heels that I wore occasionally while leading worship.
And now I can’t figure out what to do with this keen awareness that I used to be in a relationship with a 150-odd people, in which we noticed everyday things together like shoes and coffee and births and deaths and even budgets … except to be aware of it, and to hold up the church to God’s light, and to keep tissues close at hand.
I read with interest and resonance Trudy Cusella’s recent column lamenting the departure of her pastor. She writes about sitting in the pew and waiting — just waiting — for her grief to run its course. Yup. I’m doing that too.
It seems important to note that I kept very appropriate boundaries with the congregation I was serving. And I don’t second-guess or regret the call that led me to resign my pastorate. At the same time, I miss the habits of worship we shared, the life stories continuing from one conversation to the next, the children hiding under the pews and growing too quickly, the hard work together over how to live as a church. Even with professionalism and boundaries, the very nature of the pastor-parish relationship is intimate — she is called to love her congregants and to witness to the heights & depths of their lives; when she leaves, the routine of those relationships is interrupted … not only for the church, but for the pastor too.
When we talk about it, my kids acknowledge that they miss the church as well. Despite the dubious distinction of church = mommy’s work, this community was their church home. In the congregation’s support of their pastor, people connected with and invested love in my children. There’s the couple who took my son to a soccer tournament that conflicted with Sunday worship, the woman who taught my kids a trick for cracking eggs, the friends they would sit with in a pew, the homebound member who would make sure that I took cookies home to my kids.
Of course, the pastor-parish dynamic is different for every minister and congregation (in the long-run, perhaps I’ll be surprised to discover that the dynamic is quite similar from one church to the next); in any case, the grief at the end of a pastor-parish tenure varies according to the relationship. I don’t mind knowing that some parishioners may be relieved that I’m gone. 🙂 Certainly I’m aware that, in my remembrance and grief, I gloss over the difficult days and the long hours of that work.
What stands out for me at this moment, half a year later, is that I lost my church home.
Two weeks after announcing my resignation as their pastor, I preached a sermon on how we can’t go back — not to who we used to be, not to how life once was. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples tried to go back to fishing; without Jesus around to fill their days, what else were they supposed to do? On that Sunday, I encouraged: “But there is a voice calling across the water, calling us not to be afraid in meeting the changes of life, pointing us toward an unimagined abundance that will take us beyond our boats.”
I’ve been rereading that sermon lately, trying to pay attention to the ever-calling voice and remembering that we are continually called to love anew. Although it’s still hard for me to imagine, for me this call means learning to love a new congregation (and from the pew rather than the pulpit). For the church that I pastored, this call means learning to love a new pastor. Welcoming someone new into our faith journeys does not dishonor those who have already shaped those journeys; rather, it trusts God’s abundant ability to multiply our love and faith.
It may take me awhile to love a new church and call it “home”; between you and me and God, I’ll just admit that. I may cry through a few more Communions. But love will come, and I will trust in that hope while I grieve.
And I will continue to wear fabulous shoes.