“When you belong to this church family, the family you belong to is bigger than just this church.”
That’s how I start out every new members class I teach at First Presbyterian Church of Dunn in North Carolina. I then point to the wall of portraits of the pastors who have served this congregation before me. “Sid Batts, he’s now at First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro,” I say. “David Sherrod is at Barbecue Presbyterian Church over in Sanford. David Bailey has been at a church in South Carolina. These pastors haven’t left us. They just now serve our sister churches, because when you belong to this church family, you belong to a family bigger than just this church.”
To me, the most blessed quality of Presbyterianism is our sense of connection to one another. Whether you call it the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses or the blessed tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, for me, Presbyterianism has always included deep sense of belonging to a greater faith community than just those I worship with on Sundays. Maybe that’s because my wife Meg and I are a clergy couple, and not the kind that co-pastors a congregation together. Throughout our careers, we’ve always served two different churches, as we do now. She’s the pastor of Bluff Presbyterian Church, a congregation about 12 miles down the road, which planted my church back in 1889. On Sunday mornings, our family of four goes in two different directions: our 3-year-old goes with one of us, and our 3-month-old goes with the other. Our family is a living testimony to the fact that when you belong to a church family, the family you belong to is bigger than just one church.
Not long after we found out we were expecting our first child, Meg’s regular Sunday robe started to fit a little too tight. Our friend (and fellow minister) Mary Kathleen Duncan had recently given birth to her first child, and offered Meg an invitation: “Join the Sisterhood of the Traveling Robe!” The next week a package arrived with a note from Laura Neely, welcoming Meg to the sisterhood.
Inside the package was a men’s Geneva robe, carrying a much looser fit than a slender fitting women’s robe, but been hemmed to a shorter-than-typical length, making it a perfect fit for a eight-month pregnant pastor. The accompanying note explained that the robe had once belonged to a male pastor in South Carolina. You could still see his monogram stitched in the tag. But now the robe traveled around the country, from church to church, from expecting pastor to expecting pastor. It was a clever solution to a good kind of problem, and another great witness to the fact that when you belong to a church family, the family you belong to is bigger than just one church.
Meg completed her first run with the traveling pregnancy robe during our first calls in Mississippi. She just completed her second run with the robe a few months ago, when our second daughter Julia was born in June. After a quick mix-up at the dry cleaners, the robe ended up hanging in my office a few days before Julia’s arrival, when I noticed the monogram stitched on it’s tag. DJB — the pastor from South Carolina. It took some piecing together, but Mary Kathleen confirmed it. Before it began its journey as the traveling pregnancy robe, this pastoral gown had belonged to David Bailey, one of my predecessors at First Presbyterian Church of Dunn. A few years back, David, now serving at Central Presbyterian in Anderson, South Carolina, had passed his old robe down to his intern, Laura, who passed it on to Mary Kathleen when she was expecting, and the sisterhood of the traveling robe was born.
Years later, the robe had made its way all across the country: from South Carolina, to Texas, to Mississippi, to Georgia, to North Carolina, and now the robe found itself hanging in the exact same closet at First Presbyterian Church of Dunn where it had hung years before.
It was a joyful surprise that shouldn’t have surprised me at all. After all, when you belong to a church family, the family you belong to is bigger than just one church.
HOWARD DUDLEY serves as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dunn, North Carolina. He is a North Carolina native, husband of Meg (who serves as the pastor of Bluff Presbyterian Church in Wade, North Carolina) and father of two daughters (Lindsay and Julia).