Three years ago I walked through the doors of First Presbyterian Church with eyes and mind and heart wide open. I had no idea what to expect and no idea where to begin. I was the typical first-call, newly-ordained pastor, and I was naïve, nervous, and new. Like any new relationship, there were hopes of feeling loved and cared for and accepted and known. And hopes that I could offer the same care for those I would encounter. Three years later, having lived through three Advents and three Easters; having found a rhythm and a flow and finally living into my role with some comfort and confidence, I am aware that the comfort has dissipated. The ease with which I moved into a new season now seems more complicated. You see, I work with youth: Middle School and High School youth. And though this cradle-Presbyterian has always been aware that ministry means people come and go and Youth Ministry means students come and go (as I did once upon a time), for the first time I am feeling the effects of the “coming and going” cycle.
Little did I know that the youth might as well have been the gatekeepers into the heart of the entire worshipping community, and three years ago a group of rising sophomores welcomed this naïve, nervous, and new pastor into their hearts. I connected with the juniors and seniors but, understandably, they did not seem as willing to allow a brand new pastor to take up too much space in their hearts. But the sophomores offered love that welcomed me and made me feel at home. They were the leadership that welcomed this new pastor with open arms.
And now, three years later, it’s time to say goodbye. And once again I’m feeling very naïve, very nervous, and very new at this. I saw this coming and I knew this was part of the job, but every other goodbye I’ve experienced in ministry has taken place under the auspices of my own life transition or the end of an internship. But not this year. This year I’m staying and they are going.
Youth Sunday is upon us, and I sit at my desk reading drafts of meditations that our seniors have written and my cup runneth over. My cup runneth over with pride and love and heartache and admiration. Within their carefully crafted sentences I see a faith that has flourished beyond anything I could have imagined. I see the knowledge they have of a God who loves them and will never let them go. I see both excitement and nervousness for all that lies ahead. I see a spirit yearning for life outside the four corners of this small town and yet a spirit that clings desperately to the love and grace and familiarity they have known in their homes and in this family of faith. I see their enthusiasm and their hopes and their dreams and the reckless abandon with which they open their eyes and hearts and minds to all that the world has to offer.
And while I want to encourage them and support them and send them off with a Bible and “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and an appropriately Christian graduation gift tucked safely inside their rolling suitcase, I also want to tell them to keep their eyes wide open, but not so open that they might see more hatred and violence. I want to tell them to keep their minds open, but not so open that they might forget who they are and whose they are. I want to tell them to keep their hearts open but not so open that they get hurt by someone who claims to love them. I want to tell them all of this and so much more and I want to protect them and remind them day after day of the love that God has for them and I feel as if I’m running out of time.
As I have prepared to say goodbye, reflecting on the hole I can already feel forming in my heart and chiding myself for somehow assuming this would be easy to do every year, I’ve wondered (or perhaps hoped) if this departure is unique in some way. I’ve wondered if perhaps I will miss them most because they were the first to have really welcomed me. They welcomed me into myself and into my identity as a pastor in ways that I could never have dreamed. With the honesty of teenagers, they embraced my naïve, nervous, and new self and offered me care when I was struggling, challenge when I was wrong, grace when I was really wrong, and love constantly and abundantly. This group of sophomores welcomed me into my vocation and into a new part of my own identity and have stealthy dug their way straight into my heart. They have shared their lives with me, and I with them, and it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.
It has been a privilege and a blessing to walk alongside these youth for three wonderful years. I am hopeful and excited for their futures and grateful beyond measure for the ways that they have welcomed me into my own. It will be hard and I will miss them. But we all go forward with the knowledge of a God who goes before us and with us in all that we do.
To the sophomores who welcomed me…you know who you are. With you go my deepest love and hope that your futures might be infinitely blessed as you have been a blessing in mine.
Rachel Achtemeier Rhodes is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Haddonfield, NJ.