Her story begins as did many of ours.
They couldn’t really afford a full-time pastor, but they were determined to have one anyway.
In Maine in 2002, in Maryland a few years later, in Missouri and Mississippi right now, our stories begin in church council rooms and on neutral pulpit weekends, in conversations with judicatory staff and congregational meetings. The Rev. Barbara Melosh relates her version in Loving and Leaving a Church: A Pastor’s Journey (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018). A second-career pastor, Melosh experienced a midlife conversion and became ordained in the denomination of her childhood, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Pastor readers will recognize the idealism we bring with us from seminary, the sense that we have something unique to offer that will surely change the church that so clearly needs us. In this case, a declining congregation in a shifting neighborhood responds to attempts at outreach in ways that will resonate in many quarters. While Melosh is aware that she is unequipped – it’s the title of the first chapter – she must grapple with the facts.
They didn’t care about my degrees or my theological insights, my years of experience as a professor, my story of midlife conversion or my passion for language. At most, they were prepared to put up with it all, it that was what it took to get a pastor in place. (p. 32)
As Melosh grew into her call, she faced a familiar array of challenges: an inadequate budget, a neglected physical plant, competition between pillar families, a failure of hospitality to newcomers, and a church basement full of junk. The reader feels her cringe of disappointment when a visitor turns around and leaves with her child as soon as she sees the Sunday School room, and also shares her embarrassment when an urgent request is forgotten in the wake of an unrelated church crisis.
In all accounts of her ministry, Melosh is unflinching in her honesty about her own passions and failures as she recounts the events of her ministry with the congregation she calls the Saints. Through common trials and local peculiarities, the first wedding and the hardest funeral, she risks writing what many of us would rather not have to admit even though our stories contain similar chapters. Her equal frustration with and love for the people she served emanate from the page. The book reflects her academic background in her research about the community, and in her care to be truthful even though some names and locations are cloaked with pseudonyms.
I highly recommend this book for readers willing to reflect theologically and practically on the life of the church, the essentials of ministry, and the reality that all pastors and priests enter into it as Barbara Melosh did,
Unequipped. I had prepared for years, and learned more in my years with the Saints. But I was not equipped for what mattered most. Not equipped to deal with the deep questions. Not equipped to stand with people at the edge of life and death as they raged or grieved. Not equipped for the suffering or betrayals or violence that came without warning to shatter an ordinary life. No one is, and part of the work was learning to do it anyway, to come with empty hands and open heart, and let that be enough. (p. 154)
Amen to that.
In the interest of full disclosure, I used to be in a writing group with Barbara Melosh, and I read some of the chapters in earlier forms. I purchased a copy of the book for myself.
Martha Spong is a clergy coach and executive director of RevGalBlogPals. She is co-author of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) with Rachel Hackenberg (Church Publishing, 2018). She blogs at marthaspong.com.
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