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Quietly unfolding: A tribute to pastors

Photo by Biegun Wschodni on Unsplash

Novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote in appreciation of her pastor, “There is no way of reckoning the value good pastors bring to the lives and communities that are privileged to know them, or the extent of their influence, which is usually quiet, unfolding over time.” I wish to pay such respects, first, to my father, then to all faithful pastors.

Dad recently announced his intention to retire this fall after more than 40 years of ordained ministry, including the last 37 years in the same congregation. Many parishioners have only known the Moravian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, with him at the helm. “Helm” refers to the tiller or wheel of a ship. It is an image for steering and my father has certainly guided the congregation over the years. Over his career, Dad led capital campaigns to pay off the sanctuary and build the new Christian education building, envisioned the preschool, and most recently developed livestream ministry during the pandemic. I could list many more accomplishments. But the work of a faithful pastor includes countless intangibles.

“Pastor” is from the same root word as “pasture.” Ancient Israel likened both mortal kings and the Lord God to a shepherd. Instead of standing at the wheel or the pulpit, this image entails walking with the sheep. It is not always easy or glamorous to be in the moment with the flock. Think of what sheep drop along the way! Yet, my father recently preached, “Can we be at peace where we are? Or must we constantly be looking ahead?” He and his congregation will appreciate the holy moments of this final leg of their journey together. I also consider the same questions in terms of my ministry, which started out not too long ago.

It is true that my role includes taking the helm and planning for the future. Yet, when I look at the pastors whom I consider to be the most faithful shepherds through these challenging times, I see them coming beside people and trusting what will quietly unfold. This quality of peace in Dad’s pastoral leadership is what I would hope to emulate.

There was a Youth Sunday years ago when my younger brother stepped into the pulpit wearing one of our father’s suits and proceeded to mimic Dad’s mannerisms. The congregation roared with laughter! As adults, I’m the one who has modeled my career after Dad’s example. Not as much in the public roles of ministry, like preaching style, but in his pastoral habits — writing notes, making visits, and above all else listening. What I learned from my father, as well as other mentors, is the ministry of presence — the very quiet yet radical work of a pastor who walks and lives the faith, by being present and faithful, and also by trusting in those moments of hardship, struggle, and conflict that we are not alone. The Lord is our shepherd, and a pastor practices radical acceptance and nurtures relationships.

How can we be at peace where we are? Preachers know that folks may not hear what is said from the pulpit or fully grasp the vision of the strategic plan. Yet, many will always remember when a pastor was present. It is those quiet, intangible moments, often private, that have a profound impact even though they may seem so simple and insignificant. A parishioner once said of her former pastor, “She always knew just when be there.” I’m sure there are many in his flock who would say the same of my father. I can think of no greater tribute.