I’m the pastor of five congregations in Mason and Jackson counties in West Virginia. “You have how many congregations?” is usually the first question I’m asked after I introduce myself.
The next question is, “How do you pastor five congregations?” I usually answer: “I’m not sure about the how, but I try with God’s help.” But I’d like to answer with another question: “How do you pastor one or two congregations?” My answer is that I serve these five in the same way other pastors serve one congregation—with God’s help. I serve five congregations by the grace of God. There are daily challenges in ministry, but the rewards in serving folks from Appalachia far outweigh the challenges.
In Appalachia three things are extremely important to people: a sense of place, family and religion. Place, or land, is extremely important to folks in West Virginia, much like it was for the Israelites. Family is also important to folks in my congregations. Family always comes first, and it includes their congregation, the other four congregations and their pastor.
During the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod assembly in June, I learned that my father had unexpectedly died. In my grief I experienced a sense of God’s family that I had never felt before. Ten of my parishioners were at the assembly, and they saw a new side of their pastor. They saw their pastor reduced to a small child who needed to be held while she cried her heart out.
The day of the visitation came and in the midst of everything my best friend from seminary and some parishioners were there to support me and my family. The day of the funeral brought more unexpected visitors, more parishioners, lay leaders, and the bishop and several pastors from the synod. The cards, letters and expressions of sympathy were, and still are, overwhelming.
This story is still very fresh to me and brought home several things I’ve said to my parishioners over the last year, such as “Child of God, you are loved more than you know” and “God is present in our suffering even when we can’t recognize it at the time.”
God was truly present during this time. I saw God in the faces of my parishioners every time they expressed their sympathy, offered me a hug and especially when I saw their tears as they cried for me. The tears were a reminder that God cries with us when we are sad and laughs with us in our joy. In the story when Jesus hears of Lazarus’ death, he goes to be with mourners and weeps with them (John 11:33-35).
When people get up at 3:30 a.m. and drive six hours to be God’s presence to their pastor and her family, it reminds me of how special God’s people truly are in this world. When the people of God rise up and minister to their pastor, they are living out the gospel. So when I feel discouraged by the challenges of ministry, I’m reminded that how I minister to God’s people will be how they minister to me and others. To be the presence of Christ Jesus to others is the greatest gift one can receive.
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