I have been the solo pastor at my congregation for almost three years. This is the first place I have really invested in for the long haul. This is new to me; after being a transient student for so many years, a pastoral intern for a year, at my first call for a little over two years, and at interim gigs in between, I’ve always been the one leaving to new adventures. I was the one who received the goodbye blessings during worship. I was the one who packed up my office and left some of the messiness behind. I was the one who always said I would write and visit, but then got busy with new responsibilities and relationships. Yet now I am the one being left behind.
Soon after I started my call here, I was tasked to hire a new youth and education program director. It was my first experience with human resource work in the church, and I was nervous about hiring a full-time person to work with me. The staff here is very small and we work very closely together almost every day. Yet when the search teams and I decided on a final candidate, I felt in my gut it would work out very well. And it did, for two great years.
The new youth director and I worked together splendidly, and she became my right-hand go-to person. She was considering seminary, so I knew her time here wouldn’t be long. When she announced this fall that she was ready to pursue seminary full-time, I knew it was right. It was time for her to leave, and the congregation embraced her transition with grace and encouragement. I was so excited for her, and proud of the church for shepherding her call. It was time for all of us to move on.
Yet I was also experiencing something very new. I was the one left behind. I was left to assure the congregation that things won’t fall apart without our beloved youth director. I was left to comfort the grieving families and children. When she packed up on her very last day of work, I was left to look at her empty office and grieve the quietness in her absence. We spent two years forming a working relationship, and it would not be replaced quickly. She got married while she served here, and her wonderful husband became an active part of the congregation, so I would miss him too. I was overwhelmed with the responsibilities thrown at me in a short amount of time. I wasn’t sure how to navigate dealing with my own sadness while supporting the church’s anxiety in her absence. I felt I needed to keep it all together for them—to be the non-anxious presence.
Then All Saints Sunday came. It was our youth director’s last Sunday with the congregation, and I knew the families and kids were sitting in the pews feeling the grief of goodbye. At the beginning of worship, I read aloud the names of those whose funerals were held at the church the past year. As I read their names, the weight of it all started to break me. I have been at this church long enough that I really knew the people who died. I walked with many of them and their families and presided at their funerals. As I spoke their names that morning, I saw family members anxiously listening and pulling out tissues. I then spoke names people submitted of other loved ones who died, and as I went through the long list, with the poignant silences between each name, I began to fall apart. Finally, when I read my own mom’s name, who died 15 years ago this fall, I couldn’t go on. I motioned for the assisting minister to finish the list, turned around, and burst into tears. The combination of it all was more than I could carry, and something had to give. That something ended up being my composure.
I kept crying—and not the demure, pretty crying as we all wish we could do in public. No, I cried and hiccupped, blew my nose time and again, and ruined my makeup. I cried through the rest of the litany, through the choir anthem (which I attempted to sing—silly me), through the readings, and especially through the hymns. When it came time for my children’s sermon, I had the presence of mind to talk with the kids about expressing sadness and how it is good, all the while wiping my eyes and pausing for deep breaths.
I work very hard to keep good boundaries. I’m aware my position of power could be used to force people to listen to me vent or process my pain, and that is not fair to them. I am careful about using personal stories in sermons or sharing too much. I worry that crying may be considered a sign of my feminine weakness, whether that’s fair or not. Yet my experience on All Saints Sunday brought me to a new understanding of my relationship with the congregation. I realized we walk together through transition, grief and change. My tears that Sunday were real, honest, and a reflection of the way the people in the pews were feeling. I don’t plan on crying in worship on a frequent basis, but to be their pastor means to feel what they feel, and I can’t keep the boundaries neat and clean anymore. This must be what it feels like to be invested.
I received lots of good feedback from that worship service. Many people told me how meaningful it was to them. I realize now how meaningful it was to me too. I needed to feel the grief and change in my heart that day. The church didn’t fall apart around me because I shed a few tears while leading worship. It was a reminder that I am not holding up this congregation by myself—they are my partners in ministry. It’s also a good reminder that God is holding us all up, especially in times of change and uncertainty. We move forward together as we step into a new phase of our ministry, and I am excited for the future. And next year, I will have someone else read the names on All Saints Sunday.