As we prepare to welcome a new pastor among this Sunday – The Reverend Rebecca Kirkpatrick – we are called to consider again the unique relationship that exists between a congregation and its pastors. There is nothing quite like this relationship in any other organization. Sometimes the calling of a new pastor seems to take excessively long – I’ve heard more than a few complaints about the seeming lugubrious Presbyterian process of replacing a pastor! And, frankly, there is some merit to those complaints.
At the same time, replacing a pastor is not the same as replacing a CEO. Replacing a pastor is like replacing a member of the family. The relationships that are built over time between people and their pastor are deeply ingrained in the heart as well as the mind. Loss is felt keenly when a beloved pastor leaves – and time is required to build up those feelings again with someone new. But all of this mix of feelings enriches us in our faith journeys.
In a recent issue of The Christian Century, the editor and my friend, John Buchanan, retired just three years from a long pastorate at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, reflects with keen insight and great feeling on the relationship between a pastor and the people he/she serves:
“The pastor lives and works close to the heat: the passion, tragedy, and exultation, the pain, loss, and indescribable joy of human life. People invite us into their lives at a level not accessible to anyone else. They tell us things they tell no one else, things we must never tell anyone (even our spouse), things we carry around the rest of our lives.
They call us when they lose their jobs or a spouse dies. They tell us that sex is no longer interesting, that they can’t believe in God any longer, that their teenage daughter is doing cocaine. They want us at their bedside when they are critically ill and invite us into the most intimate space in all of life when life comes to an end.
They turn us into addicts with their postworship compliments, and then devastate us with criticism when we’re most vulnerable. They know our salaries, what kind of car we drive, and where we go on vacation. And, remarkably, they also come week after week to sit quietly and listen to us talk. If there is a more astonishing fact and more unlikely honor, I cannot image what it might be. I’m not sure there’s another job in which professional identity and sense of self are so intertwined.”
My own experience as a pastor in one congregation for over twenty years attests to the accuracy of John’s thoughts. And I trust that I share with the rest of your pastoral staff his feelings about the honor of serving all of you in the profession to which we have been called.
May all of us – people and pastors alike – prepare to greet Rebecca this Sunday with a special joy and a sure and certain hope grounded in the Providence of God for the wonders that will come about through all the time we have with her in days and years to come.