In the United Methodist Church, the District Superintendent is charged with, among other things, acting as the pastor to the pastor. (After all, a good portion of us are stuck in the middle of nowhere, leading churches by ourselves, with precious little support save a spouse or partner, if we're lucky). But that's not always the case. As in many heirarchical structures, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and if the DS isn't busy putting out a fire at your church then you may not hear much from him/her. If we're really lucky we're part of a "clergy cluster" or some such group that meets on an at least semi-regular basis and provides a place to vent frustration and get fresh ideas. Those of us who are still in the candidacy process and on probation are assigned mentors with whom we are encouraged to talk regularly. But if the gods are smiling on us we find that one person who is willing to take us under a wing, to speak frankly and honestly to us about life in the local church, to answer the ridiculously mundane questions about Charge Conference and Church Council, and to help us navigate touchy the politics of the whole system.
I was fortunate to find that person in the church that I attended before I received my first appointment. When Jay and I made our home in lovely Joliet, I had a new question every minute. And of course I addressed them to my pastor. E-mails were answered in a matter of minutes, even if I sent them on a weekend. Phone calls were always taken. I never felt that there was a question that I couldn't ask, or that he was going to be guarded in his answers for fear of how it might affect him (or me) politically. He knew the system and he was going to help me through it, from my first Church Council meeting to my interviews for probationary membership. There was simply nothing I faced that he couldn't walk me through. He was a friend and a pastor and a cheerleader. When I left the bounds of the Northern Illinois Conference I knew I wanted to keep my membership in the conference until I figured out what I wanted to do next (which is still up in the air). So I am lucky enough to still be a member of that church. He is still my pastor.
And now he is sick. And he has turned all preaching, teaching, and pastoral care over to the Associate Pastor. And she is wonderful and will do a fantastic job. But it is still such a huge loss. The congregation, as far as I know, has always been a progressive and welcoming group. But it is the pastor who has managed to let everyone know, from the immediate community to the whole country, that anyone and everyone is welcome inside those four walls. The institutional church has done an awfully good job of making Christians look like finger-pointing, hate-spewing bigots, but I can't imagine that there is one person in that entire neighborhood that doesn't feel totally comfortable walking into that church for any reason.
One of my favorite events each year was the Pride Parade that passed right by our church and the parsonage. I liked sitting on the parsonage steps to watch. It was unbelievable to me how many folks marching in that parade would look for my pastor as they walked by...from city and state elected officials to PFLAG members to high school students to people he has never met before. And as they caught his eye they waved, or nodded, or mouthed (or even yelled!) Thank You.
It never ceases to amaze me how fortunate I am that he is my pastor. He is wise and articulate. He is compassionate. He is absolutely secure in who he is and what does. He saves lives daily. He makes people squirm and feel uncomfortable and question everything they thought was true. He makes people want to say Thank You...to him and to his Creator. And at the end of the day he's never happier than when he can sit around with the people he loves and share a story and a belly-laugh.
And he is my pastor.