Yesterday I went on a pastoral visit to two of my longest tenured church members, a couple who joined the church in 1952. He is eighty-seven, and she is eighty-nine. She has been fighting kidney failure off and on all year, and he wanted to tell me that he has inoperable cancer. He told me with tears in his eyes, “I’ve lived a long life, and I am at peace.”
Given the choice of radiation treatment with chemotherapy or simply letting things take their course, he chose the latter. “I may have a month, six months or a year,” he told me. It was hard news to hear—it always is hard news to hear.
“I taught fifth grade Sunday school for twelve years,” he shared with me. I realized that I wasn’t even born when he was gathering with his Sunday school class in the early days of his teaching stint. “They needed someone to fill in, and it sort of stuck,” he said with a grin. Both had served as elders in the church. Both served during times of crisis. During one of those crises, they told me, the church lost over 300 members. Through it all—the good times and the bad—they were faithful.
They raised three daughters in the church. He told me that he sat with them in what he called the “Amen” corner, which is the farthest you can get from the front of the sanctuary while she sang in the choir. In fact, she sang in the choir for 35 years until she could no longer stand long enough to sing.
As I sat in their modest home, surrounded by sixty-plus years of memories, I was overwhelmed by a clear and certain knowledge—an epiphany, if you will: This whole thing—this being a pastor thing… it’s pretty incredible. And it’s in moments like the one I experienced with this lovely couple that I feel the full weight of how incredible it truly is to be a part of God’s great story of redemption.
I think that us pastors often run the risk of developing a revised sense of history when it comes to their role in the congregations where they happen to be called to serve. It’s far too easy to paint the time before our time in a poor light so that the present we inhabit seems all the better for our being in it. In the same way it’s often far too difficult for us to imagine our congregations without us. I mean, how could they possibly survive without our leadership, right?
I have a very small role to play in the life of the congregation I am currently serving. Out of the 21 pastors that have served here I am slowly moving into the upper echelon when it comes to tenure. There are only a few who have served longer than my five and a half years. Long before I arrived there were faithful people serving, worshipping, sacrificing, enduring… and there will still be faithful people serving, worshipping, sacrificing and enduring when my small role in our church’s history comes to an end.
All that I long for is that I will be remembered as a pastor who loved his congregation, who showed them Jesus as best he could and who did everything he could to pass the baton on to the next shepherd wisely and well. And I think that will be more than enough.
Leon Bloder is a preacher, a poet, a would-be writer, a husband, a father, a son, a dreamer, a sinner, a pastor, a fellow-traveler and a failed artist. He is talentless, but well-connected. He stumbles after Jesus, but hopes beyond hope that he is stumbling in the right direction. Leon has been married to Merideth for 22 years, is the father of three awesome boys, and serves in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis in Eustis, Florida.