Thirty years ago this month, I sat in the balcony after the service of death and resurrection while the rest of the gathered community milled about in the adjacent social hall during the reception. We had just said farewell to Eugene Mitchell Forrester, my ninety-one-year-old paternal grandfather and my last grandparent to die. My brother Michael and I had spoken in the service.
The church was a small brick building with a sizable cemetery behind it surrounded by trees and a smaller confederate cemetery off to the side set in the rural farming and fishing community where my family had lived and worked for generations. My parents had been married in that church’s sanctuary, and I had grown up going to countless Easter sunrise services there throughout my childhood.
As I sat in the balcony, I was wrestling with something I had not shared with anyone: a call to pastoral ministry. I had been running from it for about two years and now, I was looking down at the chancel where my grandfather had just laid and the pulpit where I had just stood, imaging spending a life behind that sacred desk, and I prayed this corny prayer of surrender to God.
If you will keep your hand on the wheel, I will keep my foot on the gas.
And that, siblings in Christ, is how I began the journey to become a pastor. I was twenty-two years old.
I would preach my first Easter sermon from that pulpit. It is where I always imagined myself standing when I buried my parents. As an itinerant United Methodist pastor, I have learned not to grow too attached to places or things. Doing so would make it too difficult to pull up roots every few years. And yet, there is no holier place on earth for me than that church. It is my manger, my Gethsemane, and my empty tomb. It is in so many ways, my spiritual home.
And earlier this year, that church voted to disaffiliate and left the United Methodist Church. The grief and loss for my family has been deep and wide.
As I reflect on life in the UMC over the course of the last year or two, as I speak to clergy and laity in my role as a District Superintendent, and as I read the anguish in posts by clergy and laity on social media, especially in the Stay UMC Facebook group, I can recognize the collective trauma those who love the United Methodist Church have endured. We have seen our congregational families rent asunder, we have seen beloved clergy and lay leaders depart, never to return, we have even seen ourselves the victims of misinformation and slander. We have seen the very Body of Christ broken again and again in agonizing ways as we have attempted to forge ahead in what feels like a perpetual Good Friday world.
And it has taken its toll on us, often in ways it may take us years to realize fully.
October is clergy appreciation month, a thirty-one-year-old tradition that churches celebrate in a wide variety of ways, or (unfortunately) not at all. This year, I would like for all of us to consider how we can best minister to those appointed to care for our church and who, as such, care for us. Years ago, I was serving a church in a small town when my physician looked at me as I sat on the examination table and said, “I have come to realize that one way I can serve this community, Doug, is to keep you healthy.”
What follows is an attempt to pay forward that kindness.
CLICK HERE for Clergy Health and Well-being Resources
At its best, ministry is profoundly rewarding work. It affords one the opportunity to better communities, to rejoice when your people rejoice, and bless them in such a meaningful way when they are hurting, to know Christ and make him known, to teach, to preach, to care for the sick, dying, and bereaved, to be a local resident theologian and shepherd.
At the same time, no work can break your heart quite like ministry can. Clergy work so very hard to follow this mysterious calling that has been placed upon our lives by the One who created, redeems, and sustains us, and clergy generally take this work so very personally.
As such, this October (and always), I am asking you to check on your clergy. Pray for your pastors and their families. Ask them for ways you can support them as they support you. Excellent resources for their health and well-being are attached to this document. Share this with them. Put these resources in the hands of your Staff-Pastor Parish Relations Committee. We are all in this together, and I remain convinced that better days lay ahead, where Christ still sojourns with us, blessing, preserving, and keeping us and those we love, for the sake of the world Christ died and rose again to save.
Grace and peace, Doug
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. - Psalm 139:14