It was on this weekend of All Saints, in November 1997, that Hathy and I "snuck in" to worship at a Saturday Service at St. Francis Church in Holden. We had driven up that afternoon from Westport, CT, where I was serving as Associate Rector, with our two sons, who were seven and three at the time.
The Search Committee was down to two final candidates. I had questions, particularly about the Saturday Service which had been described to me in so many different ways that it made my head spin. Some described the music as more "praise oriented." I know the Body of Christ is a "big tent" but I did not see myself as rector of a parish that leaned that way. In fact, I would learn in time that the parish was polarized around music questions and in fact there were some who did want to move in that direction. But what I found when we got there was something I felt much more comfortable with, even if it was less familiar to me than the Sunday Service led by the organ: the ushers handed out Gather Hymnals at the door and guitars and keyboard led us in what felt more like a Roman Catholic folk mass from the 1970s than a tent revival.
Hathy and I took the boys out for dinner after worship, and we sat and talked. We both realized that night that this was a place we could call "home." I think that most people who serve on Search Committees aren't usually fully aware that Clergy are "searching" too and have their own questions and concerns and anxieties. Most Search Committees I've met are comprised of very nice people who think their primary job is to find the right priest for them. And maybe it is. But they don't tend to be quite as aware that the process is more like a dating service (not that I have first-hand experience with those!) in that there are needs (spoken and unspoken) coming from the other side too. It's a hard balance to strike.
By the time we came to Holden that night I'd said "no" to a job offer that just didn't feel like a "call." And that was much harder than being told no, to be honest. I felt like I was letting them down. I was letting them down! It had not seemed to occur to that Search Committee that I might say "no thanks." But I knew in my bones that I wasn't right for them; and just as importantly that they were not right for me (and my family.)
I'd also been the second choice at a university chaplaincy I REALLY wanted, and at a parish on the north-shore of Boston that I THOUGHT I wanted. All of which is to say that it really did matter how that Saturday Service went. While the sermon preached by the interim ranked as one of the worst I'd ever heard, the music was lovely, and more importantly the spirit of the place was warm, and the people seemed "real."
I didn't know at that point that at the December Vestry meeting, I would in fact be asked to become the fifth rector of the parish. What I did know, however, is that if asked I would say "yes."
Like most marriages, I think the first seven years are perhaps the hardest. There were ups and downs including the departure of most of the staff I inherited, the tragedy of 9/11, the parish's celebration of it's fiftieth year as a congregation, General Convention 2003 (which led to the departure of several active families) and the reclaiming of the congregation's mission that followed. It's been quite a ride.
I am grateful for it all, especially knowing that as I near the completion of thirteen years that there have been way more ups than downs and that the "relationship" is strong. That doesn't mean that there are never challenges, any more than a marriage of thirteen years doesn't still have its challenges. But there is more authenticity; more patience with the other; more of a sense of humor and more of an awareness that there are no perfect rectors and there are no perfect congregations: just God's people trying to be faithful to God's call.
I am grateful that my family has in fact come to call Holden our home: both Hathy and I have lived in the rectory now longer than any other residence in the almost five decades of our lives. Our kids have gone through an excellent public school system. We have been blessed and are blessed.
I am grateful that I have been asked to walk with people in their faith journeys and tonight as we remember those who have died since last All Saints Day I am aware of all the funerals I have done over thirteen years. And as we Baptize five persons this weekend I am aware of all the Baptisms I have officiated at, as well as the weddings, confirmations, and everything else in between.
There are many challenges and even crises that the Church in our day faces. But most of them seem more like opportunities, and less like danger, when God's people are working together: when pastor and people share a vision and a sense of purpose. I am grateful to be in a place where that is so.