It would not have been my choice. Visions of cows, open fields, and no Starbucks’ had never been appealing. What could I do in a place like that, too quiet, too empty, and certainly too slow. When I received the call I was in shock but that’s what I had been asked to do, and I said yes. As I sat in the sanctuary the next morning after the call, I was disturbed, I wanted answers from God about why I was being sent to this place, did God know my gifts, my abilities, my accomplishments? Did God realize that my family did not want to live isolated? Did God know that maybe a Hispanic pastor would not be welcomed in such a place?
God was not going to have any of my whining. As I was asking God these series of questions in the middle of the worship service, I hear the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Ezekiel:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’
(Ezekiel 37:1-3, NRSV)
I was hoping for another answer. I knew that my task was to proclaim life, to proclaim hope, to proclaim resurrection. I knew little about this congregation but it turns out that this word of the Lord did describe the work that lay ahead. Was I going to continue whining and complaining or was I going to say to them:
O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.
(Ezekiel 37:5, NRSV)
Pastoring your own church is a different experience. My three years as an Associate Pastor had been enlightening, revealing, and wonderful. There was much to learn, much to apprentice, but I was in a good congregation with a good Sr. Pastor and it was the perfect place for me to learn the basics of pastoral leadership. My Sr. Pastor at the time reminded me often that he was preparing me to become a pastor-in-charge and so the many experiences that I had as an associate did pave the way for my work ahead. Now as I walked into my first solo pastorate I felt lost. After three years at a staff filled church I walked into an empty building. The quiet was deafening, the emptiness claustrophobic, what was I going to do?
I did have “visions” for this place, for these people. After all I heard clearly God’s invitation to tell these bones that they could live! I could sense and see the movement, activity, and life that was possible. The emptiness served as a canvas for possibility and for dreaming. As I sat in my office I began to dream dreams and set a path for the years ahead.
Soon it became evident that my dreaming was not a “sign” of the dreaming of the congregation. After all they had been living life together for 30 years and knew who they were in this place. How could I hear their dreams, their hopes, their “vision” for their life together? I realized quickly that it was not going to be sitting in my office in an empty building.
So I took my pastoral work on the road. I decided to go where people were, where people gathered. The local convenience story, the local school, the beauty shop across the street, the post office, the small library. I began to have conversations and to learn more about the life of this community. I was a fish out of water but it seemed like everywhere I went people were patient, kind, and hospitable. This kind of ministry where people were was different than my days as an associate. There people came to me and programs were designed so that people would come to us. My view of pastoral ministry was slowly changing but it turned out that it was not going to change without a fight.