There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged
to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
You can’t go home again, but we do anyway. In fact, it’s all we want to do. The old place exerts a powerful draw. The impulse to return home is driven by some inner need to make our bearings certain: Do the old people back home still remember me? Am I still accepted there? Despite all that has changed about me, is there yet some deep part of me that still belongs?
Last Sunday I was invited back to my old church. It had been almost four years. For those unfamiliar with such protocol, for clergy departing a congregation there is an explicit rule disallowing any contact with members of the congregation. When you leave, you leave. It’s a good and necessary rule, meant to ensure a healthy break with the old pastor, so that parishioners can form a bond with the new one. Going back, then, after a necessarily abrupt departure, I wondered what it would be like.
After more than fifteen years in the congregation, I had developed strong relationships with many people. Pastors meet people at their best and worst, in times of celebration and moments of crisis. That makes for deep bonds, but the pastor-parishioner relationship is tricky because it’s based in the role the pastor fulfills in the congregation. The pastor is called to serve a congregation as a designated spiritual leader, and the ministry she or he offers is done in that role. That is, it’s not personal—or not completely personal.
Anyone in a helping profession—doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers—knows how critical it is to tend the boundary between the personal and the professional. It’s important because when you’re dealing with precious human lives, only a very poor doctor or therapist would approach their work solely as a dispassionate professional. If you don’t care deeply for those given into your ministry, you can’t experience what is profoundly human and offer a resonant response. But, on the other hand, if you get too personally invested you don’t have the emotional distance necessary to make sober, rational and wise judgements. You have to let yourself be personally touched by depression, grief, fear or joy, but in every moment of ministry you must be saying to yourself, silently, “I am personally touched by this, and I am aware of that; I am watching that boundary.”
What this means is, the relationship I had with all those splendid people at Saint Luke’s was partly personal and fully in role. And going back after four years I no longer had a role. Or so I thought.
What I discovered on Sunday is that I have a new role. I’m a former pastor. Whatever relationships and encounters I had with people over those many years are not erased, they are simply preserved in the history—the story—we wrote together. Now my role is not to lead and engage but to marvel at the new, to pray for the congregation, and to cheer from the stands.
And yes, this is still a home for me. I still belong, if I can lay down something old and take up something new.