It’s been just over 3 years since my husband was ordained and installed at our church in Iowa. 3 years seems to be about the amount of time needed to really start putting down roots. We’re slowly making friends–or at least extremely familiar acquaintances–with people around town, becoming a bit more involved with the town happenings (we actually look forward to the town’s Independence Day festival now!), and getting a better feel for what my husband really needs to do in order to best shepherd our congregation for better or for worse. Aside from giving birth to 2 little girls since we moved, life has almost fallen into a predictable rhythm.
Or I should say, life had almost fallen into a predictable rhythm. Next week my husband starts a vacancy position at another small, LC-MS church 20 miles from our current congregation.
Now we will all pause to ponder the good Lutheran question of what does this mean?
What is a vacancy pastor?
For those of you who don’t know (which was me until some point during my husband’s seminary years), a vacancy pastor is essentially a long-term substitute pastor for a congregation who doesn’t have a called pastor of their own. The vacancy pastor leads the services, visits the shut-ins, teaches Bible studies, attends meetings, and so on, while the congregation works to call a new pastor.
How long does a vacancy position last?
It depends on the church. Sometimes congregation can’t really afford to call a pastor or can’t get their act together to put together call documents, and a vacancy can last for years (note: This isn’t really recommended). From my observation, a vacancy for a church actively seeking a new pastor usually last several months to a year. Calling a pastor can be a long process involving interviews, meetings, votes, etc., so it takes time.
While this congregation is wanting a new pastor sooner rather than later, they have the added complication of needing to be a dual parish with another congregation since they can’t afford a pastor for only their congregation. This means a dual parish agreement with another congregation has to be put together, which of course takes time.
How will my husband take care of 2 churches?
Vacancy pastors are picked in part of their availability. Sometimes a retired pastor will serve a vacancy, sometimes another pastor in the circuit will fill in. My husband was asked based on his proximity to this church and his schedule. Our church is on the smaller side to begin with, not to mention he currently only has a couple of shut-ins to visit, so he has more available time then some of the other pastors nearby. Of course adding another church to his workload will add more work hours to the week (not to mention travel time), but the new church is asking for about 8-12 hours of work a week from him. It’s not easy, but it is doable.
How does this affect our church?
Right now, the main effect of the vacancy means that our church service time changes from 9 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Likewise, Sunday morning adult Bible study will be temporarily suspended since my husband has to go to the other church for a 10:30 a.m. service.
How does this affect our family?
Currently, the vacancy position means that my husband will be away from home more often. It also means there is the added stress of starting something new (neither my husband or I are the adventurous type). He’s going to be more tired on Sundays after leading 2 full services. He will also have a few more shut-ins to visit.
So, there you have the down low on vacancy positions and the changes in our life. The moral of the story: You never know when life is going to change!
I’ve recently finished reading Katie Schuermann’s new book, The Harvest Raise. I enjoy Schuermann’s Anthems of Zion books because they aptly reflect the life of a Lutheran congregation in a small, Midwestern town (although seeing how Bradbury has a college, it would be much bigger than our little town here in Iowa). The books are good for a quick read with some clean laughs along the way (with sound theology!).
What I wasn’t expecting in The Harvest Raise was a peek into my parsonage life–but there it was. Several times I felt shock as Pastor and Emily Fletcher struggled to balance church and family in the same ways I struggle. Those were my struggles, my emotions, my sins. But clearly I am not alone in those thoughts and actions if they were in a book.
For example, Schuermann succinctly described the unique stress of a pastor’s job by explaining,
“Church Stress was [Emily’s] nemesis. It stole her husband’s thoughts and robbed her of his time and attention. It was an invisible thief, and she felt so helpless against its advances. Other than offering up prayers to God for mercy, all she could do was watch from the sidelines as it paralyzed her husband and ate him alive from the inside out,” (91).
Speak to almost any pastor’s wife about the difficulties of life in the ministry and one of the first thing she will mention is how hard it is to watch her husband struggle with things he cannot discuss with her. I know that pastor’s wives struggle with Church Stress but it’s refreshing to be clearly reminded of that.
Likewise, Schuermann has her characters tackle the balance of one man being a pastor and husband. When Emily comes home crying after an altar guild meeting, Pastor quickly tries to figure out the best way to comfort her because,
“He also knew better than to say anything too pastoral in the first inning of the game. Nope, an early swing would most definitely result in a foul ball and an irreversible call made from his ump of a bride: ‘I need you to be my husband, not my pastor!'” (147).
I have certainly shouted at my husband before to stop “pastoring” me because I needed him to be my husband.
One of the biggest surprises I learned from the Fletchers is that pastors and pastors’ wives having fights on Saturdays is actually a “thing”. Schuermann writes,
“The spiritual battle in the parsonage was real. It often was on Saturday nights. Whether it was the devil and his minions sabotaging the upcoming Sabbath with attacks against Pastor’s peace of mind or simply the sinful humans in the house indulging their nefarious natures, there was no doubt that powers and principalities and even people–small and tall–were opposed to God’s servant of the Word having a good night’s sleep before preaching in the pulpit,” (318).
I am not a patient woman. Far too often I lose my cool as church work eats away at our Saturday and my anger flares up while making dinner (apparently the witching hour isn’t just for children). I honestly thought I was just the Worst Wife Ever for letting my temper loose on the one evening a week I know my husband is preoccupied with fine tuning his sermon and Bible study. Nobody ever mentioned that this is a common struggle, yet here it is in print proving that I’m not the Worst Wife Ever but just your average sinful pastor’s wife.
These are just a few examples from the inside of the Fletchers’ parsonage that are oh-so-common for pastors’ families. I am so thankful that Katie Schuermann wrote The Harvest Raise–I desperately needed the reminder that my parsonage life isn’t so unique after all.
Yesterday I took both girls to a midday service for Good Friday at another church in our circuit. Generally I try not to get too worked up about circus act that comes with bringing two little children to church. However, Good Friday services are so somber and quiet that the girls’ inevitable antics seem especially jarring even in the most child-friendly churches. Why? Because while people are reflecting on Jesus’ suffering and death, things like this are going down in our pew:
- 4 month old Sweet Pea grinning like a fool in the silent sanctuary.
- 2.5 year old Babykins slamming her water bottle against the pew.
- Sweet Pea needing to eat during the sermon.
- Me realizing that Babykins is pooping right before communion (I left her in the pew to finish her business while I went up).
- Babykins loudly annoucing, “All done pooping!” as the rest of the congregation silently leave the sanctuary.
Needless to say, the feeling of piety was pretty low after that. At least the children keep me humble.
My husband gets 3 Sundays off a year. While 3 Sundays off is more than some pastors get, we still have to consider carefully how to best use these Sundays. Last year we used 2 of the Sundays for vacations (because we’ve found that a vacation isn’t really a vacation when he still has to write a sermon) but saved the third Sunday for after Sweet Pea was born. That way he could take a full week off as we tried to settle into our new normal.
Unfortunately, the week Sweet Pea was born was a Sunday that my husband hadn’t lined up an “on call” substitute (it was Thanksgiving weekend and his go-to subs were either already booked or out of town). My husband suggested that he take the following Sunday off but I was anxious to get Sweet Pea baptized on that Sunday. I came up with a different solution: He get a substitute pastor to preach but he would do the rest of the service, including the baptism. My rational at the time (which was just a few days postpartum, so not thinking clearly) was that not writing a sermon would free up time in his schedule during the week and that Sunday could still seem vacation-like. It made sense in the moment. :p
At any rate, the night before the baptism we were under a winter storm advisory. Several inches of snow was predicted to fall overnight and continue until late morning. I spent that Saturday fretting about the possibly of church being cancelled and not being able to get Sweet Pea baptized. I started asking my husband if we could still do the baptism even if church was cancelled. One of the in town elders could witness it for the sake of good order and whatnot. Worry, worry, worry. Fret, fret, fret.
Sunday morning arrived and while the roads weren’t great, members who lived in town could still safely get to church. The service was still on!
We arrived at church about 20 minutes prior to the service. I rushed to get Babykins settled and Sweet Pea dressed in her baptismal gown. However, since family members were there to help, we were actually settled into the pew in time for the pre-service announcements. As my husband read through the announcements, he casually mentioned, “Well, Pastor M. hasn’t arrived yet, so let’s hope he gets here in time for the sermon. Otherwise, I’ll be preaching off the cuff!” Since I have a terrible poker face, my husband glanced at my face and stated,
If you read the title of this post, you can already guess what happened: Pastor M. didn’t make the service. So my husband preached a five minute sermon without any preparation. I missed most of the sermon because I was feeding Sweet Pea but apparently the congregation liked the content. Definitely not a Sunday off for him, but it made for a memorable service!
Note: Pastor M. was fine and had a legitimate reason for missing the service (as could have been assumed since pastors don’t just forget to go to church). His car had slid off the snowy road and got stuck in a ditch. He had texted my husband to tell him this but my husband had already locked his phone in his office.
Looking for a great baptism gift for a little one? Have I a book for you!
God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It illustrated by Jonathan Mayer shows the lifelong gift that baptism provides through the text of the hymn “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It.” The book journeys through a boy’s life, from the baptismal font as an infant to the end of his earthly life and start of his eternal life in Heaven. The illustrations are beautiful and engaging and the hymn text is the same that is found in the Lutheran Service Book.
We got this book for Sweet Pea for Christmas. She’s rather indifferent towards it (as she is to most things since she’s only 2 months old), but 2-year-old Babykins loves it. She asks me to sing it 3 or 4 times whenever she pulls out the book. A good bonus to this book is that I’m in the process of memorizing the hymn just from sheer repetition (I find this much more useful to me than memorizing Chicka Chicka Boom Boom). Likewise, my husband used the book while teaching about baptism to his confirmation students. He said that they actually enjoyed having the hymn illustrated so clearly despite them being in 6th and 7th grade and past the age of picture books.
God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It: Buy it, sing it, enjoy it!
Babykins has made some huge language leaps the past month. One of her more recent skills is actually being able to answer what she did during an activity without me supplying the answer. Her ability to answer open-ended questions and supplement details to yes-no questions certainly make for some interesting conversations! Last Sunday, we had this discussion:
Me: Did you like going to church today?
Babykins: Uh-huh. I play phone.
Me: Yes, you played with Mrs. C.’s phone during Bible study. Did you do anything else?
Babykins: I sing.
Me: Yes, we sang hymns. What else did we do?
Babykins: I pray.
Me: We said prayers. Anything else?
Babykins: I play phone.
I’m glad she enjoys going to church but we may have to work on her priority of reasons for liking it. 😉
I’m going to regret writing this but. . .
Church with Babykins and Sweet Pea has been going much better than I anticipated.
Please note that I described the service as “going much better”, not that it is “easy”.
When I was pregnant with Sweet Pea, I would sometimes leave the church service and think, “How am I going to do this with 2?!” I would think about trying to catch an escaping Babykins while holding an infant or trying to slip out of the service to nurse Sweet Pea with a toddler in tow. It seemed impossible, especially since we sit up front.
Thankfully, Babykins is currently at a cooperative stage for church attendance. She likes hearing the music and flipping through the hymnal. She also likes being able to see the congregation, hence the reason we sit up front. And somehow I’ve managed to convince her that apple slices are an acceptable snack during the service and she’ll happily munch on those.
Likewise, Sweet Pea is proving to be an easier baby than Babykins was. She isn’t nearly as prone to crying fits as her sister, nor does she have the same intense need for movement when I wear her (I can get by with rocking her in the pew instead of marching around the back of the church). She is also a better nurser and I’m able to feed her in the pew. Sometimes she even sleeps in her car seat! About the only time I’ve left the service for Sweet Pea is when she needed a diaper change.
Of course, I’m still far from consciously getting anything from the service. I sing the liturgy mostly from memory as I awkwardly hold a hymnal open for Babykins. I half hear the readings while trying to get Sweet Pea ready to nurse. I less-than-piously stand for the prayers while keeping one eye open on Babykins lest one of her mischievous hankerings take hold of her. And there are moments throughout the service that I have one child strapped to my front and another child balanced on my hip. It’s exhausting, but manageable.
However, I’m not naive enough to think that pew wrangling will stay at this manageable level. I know handling both girls will probably get harder at some point (like when there’s 2 mobile kids in the pew. Oh my!). I’ll get frustrated and wonder what’s the point of going to church. Then it will get easier, then harder, then easier, and then someday the girls will be old enough to not need my constant attention during the service. And then I’ll be by myself again and remember with laughing fondness of this time in my life–at least that’s what the church grandmas seem to do.
Now, getting to church on time–well, that’s a different matter entirely. :p
My Sunday morning at church usually goes like this: Babykins and I arrive at church and set up our pew. I feel optimistic about whatever new pew strategy I’ve created during the week. Snacks, no snacks, a little toy, no toy, crayons, pencils, books, and so on–I’ve tried all these things. Whatever this week’s plan is makes me feel like I can do this pew-wrangling gig.
Then the next sixty minutes proceed and whatever plan I’ve implemented completely falls apart. Snacks are tossed on the floor, crayons are chucked two pews behind us, hymnals are walked on, and Babykins is yelling because I won’t let her stand by Daddy. By the closing hymn I’ve called it quits and tell myself that I should just expect everything to go wrong in the pew on Sunday.
But time heals many wounds–or at least allows memory to fade–so by next Sunday I have a new plan and a new sense of optimism.
And yes, this coming Sunday will go well, I can just feel it.
After a few days of acting off, Babykins woke up vomiting this morning at 5:40. That made it clear that she and I would not be going to church today. She went back to sleep at 7:30 (because who really wants to be up for the day at 5:40 a.m. when they are sick?) and now I’m watching this quiet Sunday morning unfold from the living room.
It’s strange having time like this in the morning, it’s even stranger to have time like this on Sunday morning. There was no rush to wrestle Babykins into her dress, there was no panic to make myself presentable. By now, I would be wrangling Babykins into her car seat and grabbing everything we need to get through the service (have you ever forgotten a child’s beloved pacifier and then try to keep them calm and quiet? I did, once. Never again).
I should probably do something to make up a little bit of missing church, but sitting on the couch reading my Bible–which, truthfully, is sorely neglected in these days of pregnancy and toddler-wrangling–really isn’t the same as singing the liturgy with others and hearing God’s Word spoken to me. Well, hearing as much as a can between hushing the toddler and stopping her from escaping.
At any rate, I guess I’ll turn on some hymns and clean up the kitchen. There’s a puke bucket that should probably be rinsed out as well.
In the ebb and flow of pew wrangling Babykins, we’re in a bit of low spot. Babykins isn’t being particularly naughty; she’s just being a toddler in church. But a toddler in church means wiggles, kicks, yells, and an occasional toy tossed over the pew.
Palm Sunday wasn’t any different for us. Before we even got to the sermon, Babykins managed to chuck several toys behind us while staring directly at my disapproving face and had a couple of good yells during the Bible readings. Even though I know her behavior is developmentally appropriate, it’s hard not to get frustrated. I got a moment of peace during the sermon hymn, but only because Babykins was taking out the entire contents of my wallet.
The sermon hymn was “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” (LSB 443). The first verse caught my attention,
Hosanna, loud hosanna,
The little children sang;
Through pillared court and temple
The lovely anthem rang.
To Jesus, who had blessed them,
Close folded to His breast,
The children sang their praises,
The simplest and the best.
I was reminded of Jesus’ love for little children and babies, His call to, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Despite Babykins’s seemingly disruptive behavior, she belongs in church with her family in Christ.
I can’t claim to have seen many glimpses of Babykins’s growing faith. All she shows at 18-months-old is folding her hands (briefly) when we pray and a love for flipping through the hymnal. However, I believe her faith exists because she is a baptized child of God and has therefore received the baptism’s benefits–forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and the gift of eternal salvation. Therefore, I bring my loud, wiggly toddler to church week after week so that I may not be a hindrance to her growing faith.