My congregation has shaped me
Grace and Truthby Ron Adams
I have now completed my 10th year of pastoral ministry at East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church. It’s hard to believe. I can still recall candidating, the anxiety of discerning a call, the wonder of hearing that yes both from within myself and from the congregation. It seemed my predecessor had been at East Chestnut Street forever. I have now been here longer than he was.
That’s long enough to reflect on how this congregation has shaped me. We sometimes think pastors shape congregations. We talk less about the reverse. But there are many ways this congregation has shaped me, personally and professionally.
I came to East Chestnut Street with a clear commitment to protect my family life from the demands of ministry. While the leadership supported my commitment, I expected them to begin whittling away at it, asking for more and more of me and leaving less for my wife and sons.
Instead this congregation has encouraged me to hold to that commitment. At times they have even insisted I do so, when my perfectionism drove me to spend too many hours on congregational business. What a gift this has been to me and to my family, one given freely, not grudgingly. The congregation helped me stay true to myself and hold to my calling as husband and father.
In the early days of my ministry, I worried about those not-so-subtle expectations often placed on a pastor’s children by a congregation. I worried that our sons would be held to a higher degree of perfection, be expected to display their haloes upon entering the sanctuary. I braced myself to resist such pressures and protect my sons from such well-meaning oppression.
After 10 years, I am happy to say that our sons were not the objects of anything like what I feared. Instead they were treated the same as all the East Chestnut Street kids. They were nurtured, embraced, called to faith, sometimes tolerated and always blessed as the typical children they were. Their haloes were not expected to shine any brighter or sit any straighter on their heads. In sharing love so freely with our sons, our congregation revealed the grace of God and called me to a similar Christlike love.
It took me about two years to find my preaching voice. Part of that was my lack of experience. Part of it was the high value placed on preaching in this congregation. Sermons are actually listened to here, a double-edged gift. All preachers hope to have their words taken seriously and their efforts rewarded by an attentive body. At the same time, we worry that our reading of Scripture may be off the mark or missing some crucial detail or be flat and uninspired. We worry we may be wrong or, worse, irrelevant.
Over the years, I have decided that preaching in a congregation that listens is worth the extra worry. The congregation pushes me to strive harder to find points of application, to wrestle more fully with difficult texts. In the process I have not only found my voice but become a better preacher.
In these and many other ways, I have been formed by this congregation. I am a better person and a better pastor because of them.
I don’t need false humility to say that someday, when my time at East Chestnut Street ends, the congregation will easily replace me and keep moving along. I’d like to think my service will have benefited the congregation in ways that will last beyond my leaving. Only God can say.
But I know that I will carry what I have learned at East Chestnut Street to wherever God calls me next. More importantly, I will carry it in my heart and give thanks.
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