After taking a few months off of attending a worship service each week, I found my way to a new church last November. I was hopeful that I would find a new church community – new friends, new classes, new worship. Although I liked the pastors, I never really made a connection with that church community. I tried going to a class, but most of the participants were retired and didn’t seem interested in getting to know me better. I tried going to worship each week, but the people around me didn’t introduce themselves and I just couldn’t seem to get connected. I attended for six months before I decided it was time for me to move on.
I thought I was going to start attending a church that I belonged to many years ago. I went there one Sunday this spring and felt very conflicted. On the one hand, the worship was still very similar to what I experienced in the early 2000s, which I appreciated. Although the leadership has changed, I really enjoyed the pastors who led the worship. On the other hand, the traditional service, which I prefer, has declined drastically in attendance so the large sanctuary felt bare even though there were probably a few hundred people in the pews. I recognized a few faces, but for the most part, I was a stranger.
One of the pastors, who is also a friend, understood my desire for community. She took time to consider where I’d best fit. When she met with other members, she had me in the back of her mind, wondering if I’d get along with that person. She told me about some small group options and summer get-togethers. In these moments, she was my pastor and I really needed that.
However, one Sunday in July I decided to visit a different church and right away the new pastor and her inspirational preaching drew me in. Because I was so moved by her messages, I decided this was my new church. I was so desperate to find a church home. I struggled though because neither of the services – traditional or contemporary – felt “right” to me. I know that’s not the point of church – I get that. But, I just didn’t feel at home. I wanted to make it work, so when I was asked to lead a college Sunday school class I said yes. I figured this was my way into a new community.
One of the first sermons I heard at this church was about what it means to be part of the baptized church community. She asked us to ponder whether we were putting our “likes” and “desires” ahead of the worshipping community. Immediately I thought about my preference of the traditional service over the contemporary one. I thought maybe I was focusing too much on the style of worship and not on the heart of it.
A few weeks later it dawned on me – that sermon wasn’t about my relationship to that church. I’m not a member of that community; I haven’t participated in the baptisms there or committed to support the lives of those being confirmed. I realized that sermon was about my relationship to my church – the one I left over a year ago when I resigned from my job, the one where my membership remains. The one where I participated in baptisms and laid hands on middle school students as they joined the church. The one where I took communion to the homebound and visited people in the hospital. The one where I cried and laughed and celebrated and grieved. That church.
Working at a church is a complicated experience. It was both my career, the place where I received paychecks and my church, the place where I connected to God in community. When I resigned, I wasn’t sure I’d ever go back because isn’t it weird to go back to your place of employment after you quit? Yes, it is. At the same time, it’s really hard not to return to the people I’ve known and loved for nine years.
This past weekend I decided that I’m ready to go back home. I will honor my commitment to teach the short series in the college Sunday school class where I’m currently attending, but after that I’m going back to the place that fills my soul with peace, comfort and love.
I’m going back to the Sanctuary that holds our wedding vows. I’m going back to the people who know my name and who hug me and welcome me back with no questions asked. I’m going back to the pew where I sit with a parent turned volunteer turned friend. I’m going back to the place where I know the stories of most people who walk down the aisles to receive communion on the first Sunday of the month. I’m going back to the place where the choir sings with such beauty that I often cry. I’m going back to the place that still honors the legacy of the hymns and the tangible blessing of the hymnal. I’m going back to the place full of people who have been praying for me because they know me, they know my story, they know my heart.
The last year has been challenging in many ways. I wonder if I made it harder on myself by not returning sooner. Maybe, but I think I needed to get to this point – the “distance makes the heart grow fonder” point. I know it’s not going to be perfect – no church is. I know there will be new faces who have no idea who I am. I know there will be new staff and new ways of doing things. I’m okay with that because there are enough things that haven’t changed that will bring me joy and peace when I walk into that space.
I’m eager to go back, but I know it’s not time quite yet. It’s like the end of a vacation – there are still a few more things to do, but when it’s time to go home it feels just right.
I’m grateful for each of the churches that I’ve attended over the last twelve months. Each offered something I needed – whether an inspiring sermon or a caring pastor – that helped me through this year of transition, healing and growth. These churches helped me understand what it feels like to be a visitor in a new place. They helped me return to sitting in the pew with no obligations or expectations of leadership. They helped me ease back into life in front of the pulpit rather than behind it.
I’m also grateful that those churches led me back to the place where I belong.