Nothing like having someone looking over your shoulder to make you more mindful of your actions. To make you measure your motivations, anticipate your words. All in a way you would not if you were acting alone.
I’ve spent most of the summer so far with a shadow: Our church’s Pastoral Intern, Travis, who has just finished his first year in seminary at Duke Divinity School. Travis’s job this summer is to watch and learn. To try on the identity of being a pastor and see how it fits. He has lots of wonderful gifts that will serve him well in ministry, including the gift of asking tough questions. More on that later.
In our first few weeks together there was one day in particular packed with appointments. It was one of those days that makes ministry both rewarding and exhausting. We finished the day around 7 P.M. and drove back to the church together, which gave us time to process a few of the day’s events:
Coffee with a man in his fifties who is sensing a call to serve in full-time ministry and asking questions about seminary. Leaving a successful career to follow God’s calling is tough. It feels like both a blessing and a challenge that God only provides us with enough “light for our feet” (Psalm 119:105) – showing us the next step and asking us to take it without necessarily knowing where those steps will eventually lead us.
A non-appointment (drop in) from a young mom with her two boys who showed up at the church requesting financial assistance. When turned down by the secretary for legitimate reasons she asked to see a pastor. This usually means trying to manipulate a pastor to go over someone else’s head, but I met with her with an open mind and tried to hear her needs. The most troubling part of her story, to me, was that her car had run out of gas in our parking lot. It was approaching 100 degrees outside, and she said she and her boys would have to walk to the next town to get home. I told her I couldn’t offer her cash, but that if she would bring the gas can in that was in her car I’d send Travis to fill it up with gas. I was also planning to have him pick up some food for her young boys, who were alarmingly quiet and still for their age while we talked. She left, promising to go out to her car and get the gas can. Thirty minutes later she still hadn’t returned. I really wanted her story to be true.
Time spent talking with a twelve year old girl and her parents. She’ll be baptized in our church this month along with her newborn half-brother. Since our baptism preparatory class is really for parents of very young children, I meet one-on-one with children who are at an age where they can understand for themselves what their baptism will mean. We all took turns (Travis included) making things out of Play-doh that related to baptism (a gift, a vessel for washing something, a family) and talked about what she was looking forward to about the special day before her. Sometimes I think kids “get it” even more than adults do. We ended our time together in the sanctuary standing where she and her baby brother will be baptized and praying with them and their family.
Finally, the last appointment of the day. The hardest. A family who lost their one-year-old daughter last November, and a neighborhood grieving with them. This young couple and their two children had only lived there for a short time when a car accident at the entrance of their neighborhood took the life of their 17-month-old little girl. They’ve since moved out of state to be closer to family while they grieve, but returned for a ceremony that evening where the neighborhood dedicated a park bench in the little girl’s honor in her favorite park.
I didn’t know the family, but one of our church members on the neighborhood council asked me to facilitate and speak at the short ceremony. No one was comfortable. No one knew what to say to the family. The family didn’t know what to say to their ex-neighbors. I had to say what needed to be said for all of them. It was a little like a funeral but more awkward, since I hadn’t met the family before that evening. At a funeral everyone is still numb because the loss is so recent. No numbness here. It was tough.
It was 7:00 by the time Travis and I left the neighborhood park and began driving back to the church. I was trying to be a good mentor and ask him questions about the day and what he had learned from our different interactions, but I was emotionally exhausted. We talked about the difficulty of remaining flexible in ministry: the struggle to be able to go from one setting to another, from one dramatically different conversation straight into another without blinking. Every person has to feel that they have your full attention. That they are the most important part of your day. Travis asked: How do you make those transitions? How do you let go of one conversation and step into the next? I answered him the best I could, not knowing if I had done the best job of it or not.
As we approached the church he asked: How do you make the last transition? My brain was garbled from the day. I didn’t know what he meant. He asked again: How do you make the last transition? How do you leave all this behind and go home to your family without carrying it with you? How do you stop being a pastor at the end of the day?
I don’t think I had a good answer for him. I had already called home and asked Jim to keep Drew up past his bedtime so I’d have a chance to see him for just a few minutes. Selfishly I think I wanted that more for me than for him. I needed to hug him. To hold him tight. To try hard to leave that family behind, back in the park, watching their one child play and knowing there should have been another. A little one almost exactly my little one’s age. Drew had been on my mind throughout the ceremony where we talked about their little girl. I had taken him with me in my thoughts while I talked about her. Now I was bringing her home with me while I rushed to squeeze the last few minutes out of the day with him.
How do you leave it behind? Some days I’m not sure I can. But I have to keep trying to find a way. Travis isn’t the only one looking over my shoulder. Drew needs a mommy, not a pastor. He’s watching me. Shadowing me. He needs to know he’s the most important part of my day. He’s going to be looking to see if part of me lingers back a the church or if I am fully his. Fully present while singing him Jesus Loves Me. Gathering the stuffed animals that will accompany him safely to sleep. Squeezing him extra tight.
Is it easy for you to leave work behind at the end of the day? Or do you find yourself bringing it home with you?