Cherishing the gift: Thoughts on leaving the pastorate

Until April 22, Betsy Headrick McCrae is pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Lakewood, Colorado. After that date, she and her husband, Bruce, will close up shop in Colorado and move to Rwanda where they will be based as Area Directors for MCC programs in Central/West Africa. Betsy is grateful for Skype which will keep them in touch with their two daughters and four grandchildren while they are gone.

 I never expected to be a pastor.

Back in 2004 when I started seminary as a “mature” student, my husband, Bruce, and I fully expected that we would be returning to international work with MCC. That’s what we did, after all. I expected to use my M.Div. degree in that capacity.

However, God had other plans. During a time of ministry discernment, it became viscerally clear to me — through a “jumping” feeling in my gut — that I was being called to be a pastor. Change of plans. For both of us. My dear long-suffering husband followed my lead — or God’s lead — and we eventually ended up in Colorado. In September 2007 I became pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver.

Now, ten and a half years later — following another “jumping in the gut” situation which confirmed our calling back to MCC — I am looking back on this time of being a pastor. It feels like a time-out-of-time in terms of my life trajectory. Something so unexpected. A marvelous, precious gift.

How has it been a gift? Let me count the ways …

In seminary we were told, the best thing you can do as a pastor is to love your people. Okay, I can use that as a strategy, I thought. I came into the job determined to love. What I didn’t anticipate was how real, how deep, how very God-inspired that love would turn out to be. These dear folks at GHMC have become “my people.” I know them. I care about them. I enjoy them. I hurt with them. I struggle with them. This is my job, yes, but it is so much more than that. It is my heart. And though my heart will break when I leave, this love is and has been a precious gift.

It is a reciprocal love, of course. These dear folks have also loved me! They have held me, supported me, encouraged me and opened themselves up to me. It is a wonder how, as a pastor, one is invited in. You are supposed to show up and when you do, you are welcomed. It is meaningful that you are there. At first I was uncertain about this. But time after time, whether I sat with people   in a hospital room or around a kitchen table, folks would say, “Thanks for being there, Pastor.” It meant a lot of me. I began to trust that in these situations God was and would be working through me. What a gift it has been to be God with skin on.

I have received the gift of gratitude, pressed down, shaken together, running over. One thing that plagues us pastors, or at least it plagued me, is uncertainty about who will show up, who will participate, who will be present. Church is a voluntary organization, after all. And of course there were times when it became obvious that whatever it was I was trying to do, was not a high priority. But for the most part, folks here at GHMC are all in. This is their church; they own it. I am grateful for their willingness to say yes! For their creative thinking about our life together. For their generosity. For their commitment to being here — most of the time. I am grateful for their participation in worship and in service together. At GHMC I received the gift of providing leadership for folks who value and are personally invested in this joint venture of being a faithful community of Jesus Christ. For this I am very grateful.

And, oh, the sweetness of being able to spend time immersed in scripture and prayer. As part of my job! Of course this is directly related to the fact that each week (almost) I need to prepare a sermon. At first I wondered how on earth I would do this. How would I find something fresh and inspiring to say week after week?  I didn’t know then that the freshness and the inspiration would happen to me. It’s true: It did — over and over and over again. At first I was amazed when just the right story or article or event or inspiration would show up as I was thinking about where I would go with a passage or a theme. But this happened so consistently that after a while I began to trust that it would, and it has. I received the gift of knowing very concretely that God’s Spirit is and will be at work in me, in my work, in my life. Glory be!

I never expected to be a pastor. But I thank God that’s what I became for these past 10 and a half years. What a wonderful gift it has been.