When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago I did so proclaiming that I would never serve as a parish pastor. I, arrogantly I now see, proclaimed that "real ministry" wasn't done in churches. It was done in hospitals, schools, battlefields, and the streets. I then headed off to a pediatric hospital where I spent the bulk of the next two years with the families of traumatically injured children.
But two years ago the winding course of my vocation brought me to the front doors of not one, but two churches nestled in a small community in the mountains of Vermont. Here I was, an urban, Southern, gay minister in my early 30's whose most recent address had been Provincetown. I think my friends may have been taking bets on how long I would stay.
There was good reason. By the time I arrived in town I had been well Googled. Despite the fact I was met with a congregation of parishioners who are immensely good and fair people, there were plenty of occasions for self-doubt. One local clergy member refused to co-officiate at a service with me. A local supporter informed me of an angry Scripture-quoting man who had been yelling about the new gay minister in the 7-11. I began to wonder if my presence in the community was an unnecessary burden upon my congregations.
On the darkest nights I told myself, "I think I made a mistake."
I didn't leave, though. In the church we believe pastors are called, not hired, and we believe the process of uniting pastor and congregation is vastly different than a secular hiring process. By the time a pastor starts serving a congregation an intense period of discernment has taken place with the church, pastor, and denomination all affirming that it is God's will for these parties to join together in ministry. I trusted that faith, and I stayed.
I'm glad I did. Because in the past two years I have seen God's love become incarnate in more ways than I could have believed. And along the way I've learned that real ministry does in fact take place in the church too. The young seminarian who saw parishes as the territory of the privileged and comfortable is gone, replaced by a pastor who understands that crisis and pain know no boundaries. I've learned to look out on Sunday mornings and understand that everyone in the room is facing something they'd rather not. Doctors call with bad news. Loved ones die. Kids fight. Marriages get rocky. And in the midst all of these things, those who come and fill the pews on Sunday mornings look for God. Every week. The reality of that is sobering for a preacher who once thought they'd learned all there was to know about pain in a trauma bay.
I've learned about pain, but I've learned other things as well. I've learned that congregations are full of human people with human faults. The stained glass can hide the very real pain inside a church. And yet, they are also places of celebration and life. A few months after I arrived, I baptized a baby. During the service I felt joy welling up inside of me. I didn't understand why it had affected me so much until later when I realized I'd never baptized a child who was not actively dying. That made sense. I figured that I'd find the pain when the funerals started coming. But to my great surprise, even in the midst of very real mourning and grief, I saw the promise of the Resurrection in families' laughter and the triumph of goodness in the hope of friends. My parishioners have taught me to find joy even in the darkest places.
They've also taught me to find grace. I've learned over the past two years that no matter how deeply I may disagree with someone in the most fundamental of ways, there is always a place for us to connect. I've played golf with people whom I'm quite sure have never voted the same way as I do in November. I've learned to appreciate the self-sufficiency of hunters despite the fact I've never picked up a gun. I've come to respect the honesty of those who can't quite wrap their heads around the fact a pastor is gay, yet who still love me and try to understand anyway.
I've even come to love Yankees fans.
But more than anything, I've learned this: being a pastor means finding the holy in the most unexpected places. I've done ministry at the counter of the local diner. I found grace while blessing a parishioner's 900 lbs. pig who was about to be euthanized. I've witnessed new life in the stories of people in recovery. And I've seen resurrection happen in a town that was devastated by a flood and that, through the efforts of a community united, rose again.
It sounds cliche to say that being a pastor is the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's true. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, I'm challenged everyday. The calling requires sacrifice in every sense of the word, and pastors are not immune from the proverbial "dark night of the soul".
And yet, I can't imagine doing anything else. Not because I couldn't do anything else, (clergy generally do not embrace the calling due to lack of other options) but because I can't imagine feeling right doing anything else. Two years ago I never imagined how hard parish ministry would be. And I never expected how much I would love it.
I suspect that if I went back in time and met that newly minted seminary grad from eleven years ago, they would never have believed they would end up a small-town pastor in Vermont. But that's the beauty of calling. The holy is often found in the unpredictable. Every day I get to serve I'm thankful for the divine nudge that calls us out of the places we think we belong, and into the places that have already been prepared for us.
Follow Rev. Emily C. Heath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emilycheath