On last Sundays

A traveling preacher himself, when John Wesley came to Bristol, England, he organized a Methodist Society and started Class meetings to help people grow in their discipleship. ~umcom photo

Every appointment has a first Sunday and a last. A traveling preacher shares his joy.

JACK HARNISH
Retired Pastor, Detroit Conference

Depending on how you count them, yesterday was either my seventh or eleventh “last Sunday”. I had seven full-time pastoral appointments before retirement and I’ve done four interim gigs since I retired. Yesterday I said farewell to the congregation at the Church of the Dunes in Grand Haven after six wonderful months together.

My longest appointment was ten years in Dexter and the shortest was three months in Frankfort, but long or short there is something special about last Sundays. I’ve been watching preacher-friends across the country post the photos of their last Sundays on Facebook as they get ready for the quick turn-around to “First Sundays” in new churches or as they move on to retirement. As the TV commercial says, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two”. Here are a few of the things I’ve seen and learned on last Sundays:

  1. Churches which love their pastors love their pastors. Frankly, I was a bit amazed at how attached I became to the folks in Grand Haven and how attached they were to me in only six months. I think it is because congregations who have loved one pastor will love the next one and as long as we preachers don’t mess it up, they will go on loving.I’ve seen churches like this one go out of their way and beyond the call of duty to welcome a new pastor, offer their support, then send the preacher on his/her way when the time for leaving came with grace and gratitude. On the other hand, churches which have a basic distrust for the pastor, or churches which have been damaged by a pastor will have a hard time trusting and loving the next one.  I give thanks for congregations who love their pastors.
  2. I found strength in knowing I was sent, not hired. Here comes my personal bias about being a United Methodist. When I had to leave a church to go to a new one, I had this strong sense that I was responding to a call with a commission from the Bishop to go and serve. I wasn’t hired by the congregation, I was sent on a mission. It also helped in saying goodbye to know that it wasn’t because the church fired me or because I was jilting them, it was because I was answering the call from my Bishop (and hopefully from God) to go.
  3. I love being part of the connection of traveling preachers. John Wesley spelled it with an “x”–the Connexion–and it was his way of describing the band of preachers who had committed their lives to serving together for the sake of the mission of the church. For Methodist preachers, the annual conference truly is our “church” because this is where our membership sits. We are not members of local churches, but rather we share in this wonderful connection of traveling preachers where our ministry is part of an on-going line. Yesterday Eric Manger stood with me for the benediction at Church of the Dunes. Over the past few years, Eric felt the call to ministry. He is now leaving his current job as he and his family move to Newago as the appointed local pastor. It was a wonderful moment symbolizing the clergy connection as I said goodbye and he prepares to say hello to a new congregation. We are all literally in it together for the sake of Christ’s church.
  4. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. That’s how St. Paul described it and I believe it. We preachers, if we have any sense, will come to a new place and try to build on what our predecessors have done. I love visiting a church and seeing the photos of former pastors. At Birmingham, I was constantly reminded of the pastors who had preceded me by the names of the rooms–Ward library, Thomas parlor, Wright parlor, the Ritter Hall– and yesterday I was humbled to see that the folks at Grand Haven had included my photo in the line of their former pastors, even though I was only a short-time interim. Each of us does what we can to move the mission of the church forward, we build on what others have done, and in the end it all depends on God’s spirit at work in the church. To God be the Glory.

So yesterday I said goodbye to another congregation and in July they will say hello to their new pastor. I hope I have done a good job of preparing the way for him and I pray that God will bless him and the congregation as they move into a new future together.  Yesterday I closed my sermon with the song we used to close our concerts when I sang in the Asbury College Men’s Glee Club. As we moved down the aisles we would sing until the last words echoed from the narthex:

My Lord, I’m on my journey, my Lord, I’m on my journey, my Lord, I’m on my journey, on my journey home.

If you get to heaven before I do, just tell my friends I’m coming too, for I know his grace will carry me through and I’m on my journey home. 

Still a traveling preacher, still on the journey.

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