After nearly seven years of being a pastor, I thought I had experienced or endured most of the “firsts” of ministry. I had preached through the lectionary twice, presided over weddings of all kinds, celebrated the lives of the saints at the graveside, prayed in hospitals, schools, homes and food pantries. Until this year, though, I had yet to experience one of the hardest parts of ministry: saying goodbye.
I had no good reason to leave my first call, except one: God was calling me to something new. The church I was serving was more active then ever, out in their community and, after struggling, finally in a stable place financially and spiritually. Leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a pastor precisely because things were so good between us. It’s not that I wasn’t excited for what was next. I had accepted a new call filled with possibilities and hope, a call that I knew would help me to grow as a pastor. Goodbyes are bittersweet; the emotions of grief and loss mingle with the joy and hopefulness of new life.
I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions that would occur, both internally and externally. When I announced my leaving there was shock and grief, dismay, concern and even anger. When asked why I was leaving, I wanted to give the break-up answer: “It’s not you. It’s me.” Friends and colleagues would remind me that these emotions were present because of grief, and that it was better than the church being excited that I was leaving. I had to remind myself that while I had been in prayer for over a year about what was next in my ministry and had been through months of conversations with churches in the discernment process, they had just received the news. I tried to explain that leaving was my best attempt at trying to do what God was asking of me. But I also learned that what we both needed was to love each other well in the final weeks, to give thanks and to grieve, which is what we do when we have been in relationship with another.
A few months into a new call, I’ve been reflecting on this recent transition. Part of that is offering prayers of thanksgiving and joy for the gift of what I experienced in that first call. I’m grateful for Heritage Presbyterian, the place that taught me how to be a pastor. Before I accepted the position at Heritage, I called their interim pastor as a reference. She told me that what the church needed most was a pastor to love them and for that pastor to also let them love her. I didn’t really understand what that meant then. I knew it was my job to love them or at least try to, but I had no idea of the breadth and depth of the love they would offer me. Heritage and her people showed me the definition of love. Love that bakes cookies and kolachi, love that shows up with a casserole in hand. A love that walks beside people in hospital rooms and on the way to the grave, love that doesn’t just welcome the stranger, but embraces him. A love that is shown in a conversation in the kitchen or playing with children in the church parking lot or in joyfully ringing hand bells to the glory of God.
As I left Heritage, I tried to take mental pictures of the small, blessed moments. The laughter over shared memories of the trip to the winery at the women’s retreat or the blessed chaos of the rummage sale or the profound holiness found in singing hymns as we accompany a saint to the grave. I also listened to a lot of “Hamilton,” especially the song, “One Last Time.” Now, I’m no George Washington, but when I read or listen to “Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors, I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will view them with indulgence …” I too pray that the mistakes I made as a pastor will be forgiven and that above all they will know that I loved them.
On my first Sunday as the pastor of Eastminster, my new call, I looked out into the congregation and realized that for the first time in a long time I didn’t know all the faces and names in the pews. I didn’t know their hopes and dreams, their sorrows and pain. Six months later I still don’t know all of those, but I do know most of their names and I’ve gotten glimpses and pieces of their stories. I’ve also learned that there’s always room for more love. I will always carry Heritage in my heart, as well as their stories. There’s a reason Jesus always told stories in the Gospels — they stay with us, and we remember them. But our hearts have room for more love.
Saying good-bye is one of the hardest things we do as pastors, but as Christians, we know that new life and resurrection are always around the corner. Last Sunday, friends of mine from Ohio were in worship with me. After the service and the coffee fellowship, they told me how good it was to see me in this new place and to see that I loved my church and that they loved me. It’s true. God has given me new people to love, in a place called East Lansing, in a church called Eastminster, and thank God there is always more room for love.
KRISTIN STROBLE serves as the pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in East Lansing, Michigan. She enjoys coffee, books, running and spending time outdoors.