Philippians 1:1-6 (New Living Translation)
This letter is from Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus. I am writing to all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the church leaders and deacons. May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.
I am in the midst of packing, saying goodbyes, and wrapping up final details as my husband and I prepare to move from Alexandria, Virginia, to Plantation, Florida. Finding that I needed a spiritual booster shot in the midst of the chaos, over the past few weeks I’ve turned to what I think of as the happiest book of the Bible: Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
Philippians is a letter chock full of joyful proclamations, faith-filled wisdom, and encouraging words. It was written from the confines of a prison cell — not generally considered conducive to upbeat thoughts and notes of hope. Paul wrote to this church, which he had helped to found, filled with people he had once shared with deeply. Many years had passed since he last saw them, but his love for them had not waned.
One of the (many) strange things about being a pastor is that when we leave a congregation, we are expected to leave: to not maintain contact with our former parishioners. And this is for a very good reason: to protect the ministry of the pastor who follows us.
We take this quite seriously in the UMC. There’s even a warning in our Book of Discipline, the “law book” of our denomination: ¶ 2702.3.j: “A professing member of a local church may be charged with the following offenses: … relationships and/or behaviors that undermine the ministry of persons serving within an appointment.”
Why make such a big deal about it, you ask?
A friend recently commented that it’s like keeping in close, intimate contact with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend for whom you still have feelings. Any new relationship is hampered by — or even doomed by — the active affection for the former. That lingering connection doesn’t give the new relationship space to grow and deepen.
It’s the same for pastors. If a former church leader continues to contact church members for pastoral care, that can get in the way of the new leader creating meaningful relationships.
So when we leave… we leave.
But that does not mean that it is easy. Most pastors are wired to love deeply. It’s just kinda part of the package. It’s hard to pack up and move away, knowing that this means the close of important relationships.
I have been blessed to have been a part of several communities of faith over my years as a Christian.
There’s the church where I first fell in love with God: Clinton United Methodist Church in New York, led by Rev. Dick Barton. That congregation showed me such grace and patience as I asked a million questions about faith, and were beautifully open with me about their own struggles and victories. Rev. Barton was the first one to encourage me to become a candidate for ministry.
Then, Rockefeller UMC in Syracuse, New York, where I interned with Rev. Dr. John Fulton during my first seminary classes. That congregation had to endure my first attempts at preaching, when I grasped the podium so tightly that the whites of my knuckles could be clearly seen from the back row.
Christ Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, my first fabulous appointment as an Associate Pastor, under Rev. Phil Roughton. I was fresh out of seminary and overflowing with enthusiasm. During my six years there, they not only did not dampen my excitement, they fueled it!
And my current church in Alexandria, Virginia, Aldersgate UMC, with Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Dennis Perry. From the very first weekend this congregation felt like home. A vital family of faith, focused on helping people in need, the people of Aldersgate have been a joy to work alongside.
Each congregation is filled with people I loved — and continue to love. That doesn’t end when my packed boxes are loaded onto a truck, and my office is empty behind me.
As I prepare to take the pulpit at a wonderful new church in Florida, Plantation UMC, I continue to pray for the congregations where I have been before — and for the pastors who now serve there so faithfully!
Each person we come to know makes an impact on us. I give thanks today for the men and women in the churches who have nurtured me, challenged me, supported me, and then lovingly stood with me at the door as I stepped out into whatever God had in mind next.
I can declare with Paul: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God!” And I can rejoice that “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.“
Who will you pray for today, with thanksgiving in your heart?