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Surprised by the Joy of Interim Pastoral Work

Margaret marsh light

A year ago, it never occurred to me to go back to work—in the sense of being employed. I was happily retired after more than forty working years. I was free to set my own hours, to follow leadings, and to volunteer. I always felt free to stop doing those things at any time, because I was, well—free. But then I got The Call. Oh, my.

I had heard that, in seminary, you should never say” I’ll never be a pastor.” Because that is when God smiles, and before you know it… Well, I had said it, but that was more than 20 years ago, as I watched classmates prepare for Sunday Morning. But I ‘knew’ that whatever my religious service was going to be, pastoral ministry was not it.

And here I am, six months into my service as an interim pastor. I started off thinking that, with God’s help, I could do it. But now, when people ask me how it’s going, I say “I love it!”

This is a really hard month, with two memorial services and a wedding in the space of eight days. Nancy, one of the people who died, had welcomed my daughters and me into the meeting 23 years ago by taking us out for ice cream. Roland, the other, had called me last November to offer me the position here. I have to deal with my own grief and questions while being a steady presence for everyone else.

There’s a lot of ‘being’ in this work. Being present; showing up – and a lot of doing. In addition to being part of the planning of worship, and preparing for, and giving the message, I go to quite a few things, mainly because they happen in the meetinghouse. Yesterday I stopped by to check on a group of cyclists who were sleeping in the building overnight. Students at the University of Illinois, as part of Illini 4000, they are cycling from New York to San Francisco to raise funds for cancer research and gather narratives about cancer.

Richmond Friends School (an independent body, founded by one of our members several decades ago) is located next door to the meetinghouse. They are adding a Middle School department this fall, and one of our classrooms has become the middle school room. The school has paid for the dreary basement social room (typical of so many church buildings) to be turned into the ‘multipurpose room’ – used by the school during the day, and by the meeting at other times. The school holds worship in our library once a week, and the member who started the school told me that she is usually the only person from the meeting to go. It is more of an assembly or gathering time than a corporate act of worship, but I think it is important for me to go when I can, as part of the meeting. If the school continues to grow, will it need more of our building? Maybe repurposing is a good outcome for a hundred-year-old building that was originally described as an ‘auditorium.’ It’s the kind of change that no-one would have anticipated when this was a meeting of several hundred, and the school was very tiny.

I attend a regular Friday evening coffeehouse, held in the multipurpose room. I would really prefer to be at home on the couch, but it’s something that is organized by faithful volunteers. It provides family-friendly live entertainment at no charge, and, in addition to some West Richmond people, it draws in a handful of people who would otherwise not come into the building. It’s outreach.

There is something about the early spring and new beginnings. I was asked to serve on a couple of clearness committees for people in the meeting in transition. I clerked both of them (each met twice) and the people who requested them seem to feel well supported. One of them is leaving the relative safety of her teaching position. Her eyes are shining.

I went to see a longstanding member, living alone at the isolated farm that she shared with her deceased husband. Her first question, almost as soon as I sat down, was what I thought happened to people when they die. She said that when they first attended West Richmond more than forty years ago, the meeting was having difficulty about asking the pastor to leave. No one ever spoke openly about the problem, but she had a suspicion about what it was. Aha. There’s a pattern here. In my estimation there have been three occasions when the match between pastor and meeting was not working out, and the resolution was lengthy and difficult. Amazing what you find out when you sit quietly and listen.

On Maundy Thursday I went to the Church of the Brethren’s love feast, held, ecumenically appropriately, at Richmond First Friends. Easter fell early this year. One of the advantages is that sunrise was relatively late in the morning (7:15 a.m. here.) I asked Chris if we could have an Easter Sunrise service by the pond at their farm, as it used to be. A member of the Church of the Brethren organized most of it. Jim played the trumpet, and more than 30 people came, including neighbors whom Chris had invited. Apparently she had spent some of her preparation time knocking on doors.

God gave me yet another challenging message to deliver at the 9:30 am Easter worship about principalities and powers. I also spotted the friend who was living alone , quietly sitting near the back. So glad she is worshiping here again.

I did another hospital visit. Thanks to the fact that, early in my time here, I had been with someone having day surgery, I knew exactly where to go. Felt like a pro. Another successful day surgery. Then 91-year old Betty broke her hip, so I got the opportunity to visit her in the hospital, and in two different rehab centers. Getting used to this rhythm. There was a crisis; Betty’s survival was touch and go for 24 hours, but she’s still here, and she tells me about how Sunday school was at West Richmond in the early 1930s.

I had the opportunity to volunteer at the interfaith food pantry, which has been run by a circle of volunteers from various congregations since before I was in Richmond in the 1990s. I got to see three of our members in action at the front desk and joined another member who, like me, had been called in by Louise as they were short of volunteers, fulfilling orders. Poverty here has not abated. The only new thing since I was a volunteer chaplain in the county jail, more than twenty years ago, is heroin – cheaper than over-the- counter medications and easier to buy. Despair is what feeds the need to dull the pain. And there is plenty of despair in this rust-belt city.

On April 6 I went to see Nancy, the retired teacher and librarian who had taken us out for ice cream all those years ago. “Your messages are improving;” she told me, from her reclining chair. “You’re not as nervous as you were back in January.” The next day, Lois called me. Staff at Friends Fellowship had found Nancy dead in the reclining chair. It was a good death, but quite unexpected. She was the first woman clerk that the meeting ever had. I went over to Friends Fellowship to give Lois a hug. Then we went to break the news to Clarice, Ed and Jocelyn.

Last Saturday afternoon, Nancy’s memorial service was in the morning, and Robin and Scott’s wedding, under the care of West Richmond Friends, but in the Stout Meetinghouse on the Earlham campus, which her grandfather had helped to build. They asked me to read the words of the certificate. Just wonderful.

The Facilities Committee organized spring-cleaning at the meetinghouse. I cleaned the kitchen while Van put up the curtain rods and curtains that I had bought for the office. Finally, the office transformation is complete – something that I can leave for the meeting.

Every month, for about an hour, after a very short business meeting, I run a ‘transition session.’ Yes, Friends can complete business in 15 minutes if they are determined, and issues are well seasoned. So far, I have focused on developing a timeline for the meeting. Lots of trends and issues emerge when you approach transition this way. Issues (like conflict avoidance, or why the meeting has such difficulty terminating its pastors) can be addressed. I love organizational patterns and systems and supporting people and groups as they work through ways in which they want to change. Did I ever tell you how much I enjoy being an interim pastoral minister?