God bless you for taking the call to serve these two faithful congregations. I’ve come to believe that a person never really knows what they’re getting into until years later when you look back and think to yourself: Wow, I have been so blessed to be here with these people in this place. These two congregations—sisters for the past century and a half, though alike, each unique in their own regard—were absolutely nowhere on my radar when I was first told of them. Yet, it was exactly in this place that the Spirit sought to bring about the greatest transformation. No matter what I may or may not have accomplished there, your people accomplished far more in what they taught me. Their words, actions, and lives are gifts I continue to carry with me. If it can be said that I’m a good pastor, it is only because I was planted in such good soil there and nurtured to grow into who I am today. It was told to me when I arrived that these were some of the best first call churches—not just in the synod, but altogether. All flattery aside, hear me echo that word hundredfold. I found great joy in serving there, and leaving was one of the toughest decisions I ever made. There along the gravel country roads, between the rows of corn and soybeans, in the dirty backyard shops, at the tables and on couches of parishioners’ homes, in that giant parsonage and those quaint Swedish-built churches, my faith took root and bore fruit.
For the mistakes I made while there—causing you who knows how many unforeseeable troubles, great or small—I apologize. I’d be lying if I was to say I didn’t screw up at least a few times. A wise mentor more than once said to: Boy, what the hell were you thinking?! I pray your mistakes are fewer and farther between. Regardless, you’re in a vocation that has been given good news to speak—good news which its own leaders daily need to hear: forgiveness of all your sins. One of the toughest things you’ll need to do is show yourself that very grace which you have been commissioned and sent out to share with others. Dwell in it daily. When I was there, one of the early temptations I fell into was that of scapegoating my predecessor. Hearing stories and forgetting that our perspective is always biased in one way or another, I sought to be the very opposite of the person before me—in misguided belief that I could do it right or even better. Though we are two very different leaders, I was wrong in letting and perpetuating that idea. I confess to you, it got the best of me and was not what I had been called there to do. She sought to be faithful in her own regard and made her own mistakes—just as I did, just as we all do. If you fall into that same enticing temptation with regards to me, I understand. Just be careful to not let it go to your head—take it from me. There will inevitably be those who were hurt or upset by me, something I said, did, or maybe even something they perceived as my fault. Listen to them. Comfort and care for them. They need that from you. No matter who is right or wrong, be their pastor in that moment—not the past. They need and long for someone to meet them in the present and to guide them into God’s future with hopefulness and newness of life in Christ.
If I may offer but one, single piece of unsolicited advice: love these people. Throughout seminary and my time serving, perhaps the most common chorus I heard among professors, bishops, and colleagues alike was to love those whom you have been called to serve. It sounds simple, and yet somedays it can be the most difficult task. Don’t disregard it as simplistic, it can mean the difference between great joy in ministry and overwhelming dissatisfaction leading to burnout. Faithful ministry, marked by life-giving relationships, is built on a sturdy foundation of loving ALL those whom Christ has given you to tend. Don’t worry. These people here will love you—they’ll love the hell outta you. In our short time together, they loved me and my family more than we could have ever imagined coming in. Their love made for the absolute perfect place to have our family grow with the birth of our second son. They may not always speak it aloud, and sometimes their words may even sound quite the opposite; but they truly love their pastors, through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Careful not to betray their love and trust. They are a family, in every sense of the metaphor—they love as deeply and fight as passionately as any ole family does. Every face in that place—no matter how active or likeable—is a beloved member of the family. But more than anything, they just want to be loved by their leader and reciprocate it back.
As you begin this new journey there, I promise to do my best to stay out of your way. Honestly, I never had that problem with former pastors. Those who served before me never infringed on my work or relationships. When I was still brand new there, I had a beloved parishioner pass away unexpectedly. I still remember getting a call on the phone one morning from another pastor who had served there many years before me. He asked if it would be alright with me if he came and attended the funeral out of love for the deceased and respect for the family. I was stunned by the call because he respected me, who he had never met before, enough to ask for my permission before showing up. Out of that experience, I gained a caring and wise colleague and gracious friend. I hope to be as wise and pastoral one day, if ever a similar situation arises for us. I won’t lie, it’s hard to see them be led by another—but you’re in good hands. These two congregations are like children to me. We had lots of fun together. We laughed and cried together. We rejoiced as one and bore one another’s pains. We wrestled with each other. We learned together. With the Holy Spirit guiding us, we did some great ministry together. Now, they are yours to serve, lead, and love. Even if we never meet or talk, you remain in my prayers. May Christ Jesus bless you in your time there and make it an exceeding joy as much as it was for me.