Today I am in ‘limbo’. Not purgatory, ‘limbo,’ as being in-between and not quite able to enter into ‘heaven’ yet. Oh well, the metaphor was worth a try. My point is that I have one Sunday ‘off’ between my last Sunday and my first Sunday. The Last Sunday was good but difficult.  I am looking forward to the first Sunday with anticipation.

My colleague Geneva said that the ‘goodness’ at my last call was about ‘fit.’ Not ‘fitness’ as in ability, but fit, as in does the pastor and his/her predilections fit those same inclinations of the congregation. I suppose that is at least partially right. But I also think that fit (especially good fit) can result in complacency. Roy Oswald and Barry Johnson talk about the dangers of this in describing Managing the Polarities in Congregations. I have studied such matters and believe that fit is not only some kind of static ‘match’ dependent upon personalities. Good pastors manage to make changes to facilitate ‘match’ to the extent that their leadership works. But, as Oswald and Johnson point out, focus on fit can result in nothing happening but warm fuzzies.

What has surprised me is people who have spoken to me about my departure from the community. An administrator from the school district (who is not a member of our church) noted, “the community is going to miss you.” Why? I don’t know. I do believe that my ministry requires contact and participation in the wider community but he has never heard me preach and I’ve never offered one moment of pastoral care to him. Other folks, the un-churched so to speak, have also said similar things. These comments are the most interesting to me. They express no particular expression of faith, no traditional practice, but express some regret that I am leaving.

This reminds me of an old sociological study on the church, by Bruce Reed, titled: Dynamics of Religion: Process and Movement in Christian Churches. In this study, Reed notes that there are various kinds of participation in Christian churches. The one that surprised me as I read this book as a young pastor was what Reed described as “Vicarious Participation.” This participant is who you think they are. They are part of the community but do not have any tie with the congregation in terms of membership or even occasional visits. Still, they would be one of those who would be grief stricken if the church closed their doors. When I first read this I thought that this idea was a product of Reed’s Anglican, English, imagination. Over the years I have come to understand that in rural and suburban communities like I’ve served in there are people for whom you are the ‘religious’ person with whom they identify although they do not participate.

The transition has reminded me that connecting with the congregation and its wider community is important, if not essential. But I also know that being a ‘beloved pastor’ is not an end worth pursuing. It is only valuable to the extent that it strengthens things given and earned such as trust and respect. These gifts allow pastors to serve, but more importantly to be effective in helping the body grow in faith and service.

I am really looking forward to beginning a similar journey at the new call, in a new year. It will be exciting as we together swing between pushing the envelope, taking risks even, in mission and ministry; even while we, together, get comfortable in the comfortable life of worship and fellowship they have come to know and love.

So I am approaching this “first Sunday” with great anticipation. But this isn’t as much about a ‘fresh start’ as you might think.

January 10th will be a service of ‘transition’ that will include the retiring pastor. Yeah, a bit unusual, but helpful I think. It will still be a time of ‘limbo’ of some sorts, and until the retiring pastor is ‘gone’ (if he ever is; at my first church the very talented pastor who followed me mentioned that I was “still there in more ways than I realize.”). But it is exciting to face new challenges and to begin the discernment process with others who seem eager to open this new chapter of the church’s life.

I am reminded, however, that there is not anything really ‘new’ in the church. When I say this, I am not reciting Ecclesiastes, but Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth where he says:

“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:10-11).

This truth is fairly clear. If the church ever was a real church, it was Christ’s church and it has been initiated, built upon the foundation that has come to us through the incarnation, the real presence of Christ in the early church, and in our church.

Paul Tillich remarks that there is a great ‘but’ in this discourse from Paul, yet not a ‘but’ that takes back everything that was given previously. This is a challenge, so says Tillich, “His sovereignty towards life should put to shame each of us as well as all our Churches. We are afraid to accept what is given to us; we are in compulsive self-seclusion towards our world, we try to escape life instead of controlling it. ” (Tillich, Paul “All is yours” from The New Being, Scribers Sons, 1955). Our problem, notes Tillich, is that we do not know what it means to fully believe we belong to God and that our foundation is secure.

This belief would open new and exciting vistas for each of us, if we could somehow believe this good news. It would mean new opportunities, but not without a long connection to all that is good and just prior to our arrival on the scene. It would mean new activities, that in no way disregard the old as worthless. It means that we maintain contact with the timeless ground of our being, and listen attentively to where and how we are called to act now. We do not ‘take back’ all that has been given to us up unto this point. We live with the same divine ‘but’ that St. Paul struggled with. I do not reject nor dismiss all that I’ve been able to share in this Christian life until now. All that is to come is not as radically new as I might dream it is.

So, look with great anticipation how God is yet to reveal His intention to me, and those who have called me to serve in their midst, in the days…months…and years ahead. So, let the excitement begin.

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