You did the thing! Good job. Seriously. You learned the languages (though, fair warning, you will forget most of the words, so maybe keep up with those flash cards), you wrote the papers, you preached the sermons, you did the internships, you made a fool of yourself at Christmas Around the World (you’ll keep the whale from that performance in an upstairs closet in the parsonage, FYI), and you passed your Oral Comps. Oh, and speaking of which: those posters you slaved over with all the important dates and theological terms and Reformed theologians? Take pictures of those, because you’re going to lose them when you move and you’ll really wish you had them when studying for your Classical Exam. Also, make sure you know the Fruit of the Spirit before your Classical Exam. Seems a simple enough thing, but you never learned the song in grade school and that puts you at a serious disadvantage.
A lot is going to happen in the next year and a half, and I guess I just wanted to give you a heads up about it all. And maybe some encouragement. Because let’s be real: you, oh-wise-seminary-grad, ain’t seen nothin’ yet (though, truth be told, slightly-older-you hasn’t really seen anything yet either).
You’re going to receive the unofficial call to ministry at Second (not the real call, cause that can’t happen ‘til Synod, in case you haven’t heard that a million times yet) at your parent’s house in Canada. Home. You’re actually going to receive the call while hanging around after the service at the church you grew up in. And you’re going to be surprised by the fact that you cry later that afternoon. Don’t be surprised. That little ache you feel inside you isn’t going to go away. You’ll always feel just a little off kilter, living in a country that isn’t yours. You’ll try to brush it off or tell people, “Oh, but I’ve lived here for eight years already,” or “Well it’s so much like Canada anyway.” It’s not Canada. It’s not home. It’s different. And it’s allowed to be different. You don’t need to understand why or how it’s different, you don’t need to make sense of everything, or try to feel at home here, you just need to be here and allow a little piece of yourself to stay in Canada. The heart can manage this. So let yourself live with the wee bit of melancholy and get on with it.
The good news is there is going to be a whole heap of people trying to help you feel more settled, more… kiltered? On kilter? At any rate, they’ll help this little town of Grand Haven feel like home. They’ll show up with the movers to drop off chicken salad and artisan bread, and then take you out for dinner to Fricano’s to experience the best (or worst, depending on who you talk to) pizza in town. They’ll discover you’ve got a bicycle theme going in your office and give you a cool metal bike straight off their own shelves. They’ll introduce you to all their friends, who will, sooner than you expected, begin to feel like family. They will–every last one of them–cautiously offer you a glass of wine when you go over for dinner and then smile and breathe more easily when you accept. They’ll watch your cats when you go on vacation, they’ll get to know your family, and they’ll invite your dad out for coffee at Christmas (which will make you both warm and fuzzy inside and a little terrified at what questions they might be asking him).
And you will come to a point, on Easter morning, eight months after your first Sunday, when after preaching the Good News, you’ll stand in front of them with a communion cup and be delighted at how many of them you can call by name as you declare that this is the blood of Jesus, shed for them. And you’ll be fighting back tears because these people are your people and that Good News is for them all.
Somewhere in that group of people–sitting at the back of the sanctuary–is the director of the local funeral home. Go find him as soon as you can and introduce yourself, because your church is old, old, old. And that first funeral is going to come at you faster than the vote to adjourn Council on a Michigan vs. State game night. But don’t worry. Seconds after you shoot off a frantic email to your mom–“How do I do this?! Do I call the family? Do I wait for them to call me? Should I visit them now?”–the funeral director will call and say, “Alright Laura. Let me tell you how this happens.” And everything will be okay. Also, make sure you have In Life and In Death on you at all times. That’s your lifeline, right there.
Remember when you were watching a funeral online during college, listening to the minister praying, and that’s when you knew you wanted to be a pastor? That is only going to be affirmed in this first year. You will quickly discover that funerals are one of your favorite aspects of ministry. Yes, they’ll be awkward at first, especially when you don’t know the people. But what an experience to learn about someone from their eulogies. What a privilege to be welcomed into a family’s grief, but also their hope. You’ll laugh and cry as you listen to people talk about their husbands, fathers, wives, aunts, sisters. You’ll marvel at their character and their faith in God. And every time you sing, “This is my story, this is my song,” you will hear the resounding strength of the saints of all times and all places in the voices of those gathered in the pews.
These are the moments that will carry you. The funerals, the baptisms, each time you utter “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Because–if you can believe this–it’s not all fun and games. Remarkably, somewhat bewilderingly, this group of people is going to make you, a 27-year-old, head of staff and chair of council. That first year it’ll be fine. Frankly, I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t heed the warning we hear so often of, “Don’t try to change anything in your first year!” The permission to not change anything is the greatest gift you could receive. Because it means you can relax, hang back, listen, observe, and not really be responsible for anything.
But then you’ll enter year two. And all of a sudden, things will change. People will expect you to do things, to start moving on strategic plans, to have visions and dream dreams and make decisions. There will be weeks where you walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders. Now, you know the answer to this problem, but allow me to remind you again in case you forget:
- The fate of this church never has, and never will, rest on you. If the fate of any church rested on people, the Church would’ve collapsed in 37 AD.
- If you feel like you’re doing something in the church all on your own, it’s probably not the right thing to be doing. Share the vision, share the responsibility, and listen to the people around you.
- There are people in your life with far more wisdom than you will ever have. Go call them.
- And when all else fails, your friend makes a mean peanut butter tart, and usually has one in the freezer.
There will also be the little things that will worm their way under your skin over time. The old man who tells you as he shakes your hand after church that it sure is nice having someone pretty to look at up there. The plumber who asks if your husband is working at the church, and when you tell him you’re the pastor, replies with the standard, but not less-annoying response, “But you’re too young!” The people who tell you what you should wear, who tell you, “That baby looks good on you!” after a baptism, who tell you the music isn’t upbeat enough, who tell you the music is too upbeat. All of them (well, almost all of them) mean well. None of them know that their comment might be the one that sends you home for the day in tears.
So. After a year and a half, knowing quite humbly that many have far more experience dealing with such things than I, here’s what I think. I’m not going to tell you to just persevere, to let these things slide off like water from a duck’s back. Things sting for a reason. Pay attention to why they sting. Pay attention to the fact that it’s hard being single in a church full of families and couples. Pay attention to the fact that all your friends have children, and you go home to two cats (who you’ll buy in your first month at this job and love more than you can believe is possible, but who are still just cats.) Pay attention to the fact that so often you feel helpless to effect any real change. Pay attention to the fact that you want to please everyone. Just like you don’t need to reconcile why there’s a little ache at living in a foreign place, you don’t need to “get over” the things that sting. But you do need to notice them, and unpack them a bit, and ask what’s there. Find out something about yourself. And see what God might do with it all.
I suppose that’s really the best advice I can give you right now. Just pay attention. Pay attention to the ways in which God is at work in the lives of your people and through the ministries of your church. Look for the small, simple gifts when you get overwhelmed by big-picture planning. Listen to your emotions and wonder at them. And every Sunday when you walk up into that pulpit, be alert. You’ll need your wits about you on the day you flip the page while reading from John and a spider darts out across the Bible. It is crucial not to swear in surprise here. And you’ll want to notice when someone tapes “Sister” across the “Sir” of “Sir, that we would see Jesus.”
But mostly, you’ll need to be alert because when you read that Gospel on Sunday mornings, it’s a Gospel for you, too. It’s Good News for you, too. And it’s too easy to study that Gospel and dissect that Gospel and preach that Gospel and not hear it as your Good News. And you, like all your people, need Good News.
So today, on this day when you embark on this journey, and on all the days to come, I guess I’ll leave you with the words you utter every Sunday to your people, and which are words for you, too:
May God go before you to guide you.
May God go behind you to protect you.
May God go beneath you to support you.
May God go beside you to befriend you.
Do not be afraid.
But may the blessing of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit settle in around you and remain with you always.
Do not be afraid.
But go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
And all God’s people said:
Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.