I recently left my first call as associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Rockford, Illinois, to take my second call as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey.
About two weeks before I left, I received a gift of a jar of pickles (the good kind: Milwaukee Dill Pickles) from a dear member and friend in my congregation. And it made me realize something.
After four years of being their pastor, my congregation does really know me. I struggled with letting everyone in. Westminster is a large congregation (900 members), so it was pretty overwhelming in the first weeks, months, maybe even year. And I am quiet when you first meet me. So, it was a challenge – balancing their sincere desire to know me – and my reluctance to share.
I don’t think of myself as closed off, but I’m also not an open book. I would think that getting to know me is a little like learning to snowboard. At first, it is really awkward, unnatural and forced. There are clumsy, clunky moments (hopefully people can at least laugh at them). And there were some really not-so-great moments in the beginning for me with my congregation in my first call. I would “only sort of answer” sometimes or I would cut them off a little. Or, they would ask me something that I wouldn’t even tell my closest friends, and I would be appalled and try not to show it. They made assumptions; I made assumptions. We struggled. And you struggle the first couple times on a snowboard (if not more than the first couple of times); it just doesn’t feel quite right.
But then, there is this sweet spot – this short period of time where you have this feeling that you’re starting to catch on. One edge starts to feel comfortable even if the other one is still a little awkward. Certain turns feel like you might even look good while you’re making them. You expect to fall, but then you don’t. And I got there with my congregation too! There were some safe subjects (like running or knitting) that they knew they could ask me about. And most of the time, I delivered. And I found some safe subjects to ask them about, and most of the time they delivered too. We knew certain things about each other.
But the gift of the jar of pickles – not just any pickles, but the kind I actually like/love/will miss in New Jersey – symbolized for me, how it feels when you really know how to snowboard: how you just throw on your boots and strap on your board and enjoy it! It’s easy, carefree, fun! And, all praise to God, that is how I felt with my congregation over the past year. It finally felt natural, fun, easy. They knew me and I knew them. They knew me well enough to know I wasn’t really into running every single local 5K, but I love the longer races. They knew that I love to laugh and you can talk football with me every day, any time. They knew I love my family and have a special connection with my twin that can almost bring me to tears. They knew I learned as much from them as they (supposedly) did from me about what it looks like to follow Jesus. And they knew me well enough to get the exact type of jar of pickles I liked, to plan a farewell reception with green and gold (go Pack!), white cake with white frosting (the good kind!) and that I would cry on the way home in the car, but not necessarily that last Sunday.
Westminster taught me that it is okay to let your congregation love you and to love them back, especially if it looks anything like the love Christ has for us. And it is a beautiful thing to be known and to know another. “To love another person is to see the face of God,” Victor Hugo said. Or more intimately, to love someone is to look into the face of God. I am so grateful to the congregation of Westminster who pushed me to let them love me, and who I could not help but love back. With each pickle I have left, I will think of my God who brought us together and of each of them.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.