It was only my second day in the parsonage of my rural, three-point circuit of churches when the phone rang and a voice on the other end of the line informed me that John Ben Varga had died. John Ben was, in many ways, a patriarch of that small community, and his death in the middle of the week meant that my first sermon in my new pastoral appointment would be a funeral sermon for someone known across the county, just not by me.
Almost immediately after I received the phone call regarding John Ben, I received another call from the pastor who was my predecessor in that appointment, offering to return and help in any way I needed, or to allow me to handle things myself. I told him I appreciated his generous offer but felt comfortable handling things myself.
So, I drove up the long, dirt road to the old farmhouse that had been John Ben’s, where his widow and children awaited, and the process I have known a hundred times began: experiencing the life of a saint of God through the eyes and stories of those who loved him the best as together we began the sacred work of planning worship to glorify the God who had given and redeemed this life so well lived.
It is difficult to overstate how important experiences like the one I just described are in forming the critically important relationship between pastor and parish. As time passed in that appointment, I was able to witness those three congregations accomplish frightening yet heroic tasks, ministries I am to this day proud to have experienced with them, humbled by the trust they placed in me, trust which began to be cultivated on a cloudy summer evening in an old farmhouse with sisters and brothers in Christ on the worst day of their lives.
As time has passed, I have only grown in my appreciation for the space provided to me by my colleague and predecessor in that appointment; space to begin forming the relationships that enabled those frightening and heroic tasks to come to fruition. Had he not, everything could, and likely would have been different. He humbly and graciously enabled me to begin my ministry in that context in the best way possible.
This is why, in our United Methodist tradition and practice, your pastor cannot come back.
So much of the relationship between clergy and the people we are charged to serve is forged in exactly the kind of settings for which we hope former pastors will return, settings which include baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And yet, allowing your new pastor to walk these sacred paths with you is in so many ways the means by which they truly become your pastor, not in title alone, but in reality.
When that rural appointment ended, one of the people I felt closest to was Jon Ben’s widow. In so many ways, the pastoral care I was able to offer when that pastorate was in its infancy set the trajectory for everything that followed, as did the hours I spent in hospital rooms, funeral parlors, living rooms, and my study, hours God used to bind our hearts together in Christian love.
As someone who has lived half of his life under the obligations of our United Methodist itinerant system, I can attest that this is not easy. Not long after I became Reveille’s pastor, I returned to my study after Sunday worship to find the voicemail light blinking on my phone. The message was from a member of my former pastorate immediately prior, a woman who was one of three generations of a family in that church. In her message, she told me that her father, also a member of that church, was dying and was calling out my name, asking for me. “Could you please come to the hospital and pray with him? Please?”
And I confess to you that it took every dutiful bone in my body to call her and assure her that her new pastor would gladly come and minister to her and her mother and father in their time of need, and that he would do so with great love and grace. I truly wanted to go.
That is, until my mind went back to a dusty road on a summer evening that led to an old farmhouse where the Varga family awaited the arrival of a young pastor who they did not know but who they would graciously allow to walk with them through all that was to come.
It is truly a great kindness to be able to say to a congregation we love and have served well that when we are gone, we are not creating space for its own sake, and we are certainly not doing so because we have stopped caring for the congregation. Instead, we are doing so because we are making space that our successor will ably and lovingly fill as she or he walks with the church in this new appointment through all that is to come. When the first of July rolls around, your new minister will be their pastor, their prophet, and their priest. As they come to know one another, invite the congregation to give this servant of Christ the grace to inhabit that space in their life created by the joy and heartbreak of living, for it is in that sacred space that she or he will become their shepherd, your guide, and a caretaker of their souls.