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.
Recently, Babykins has started to notice the crucifixes in our bedrooms. My husband and my bedroom has one hanging above our bed, the nursery has one hanging above the closet door. Whenever she points them out, we talk about how Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins.
However, in the guestroom we have a decorative cross. Babykins was looking at it the other day and we then had this chat:
Babykins: What’s dat? (points to the cross)
Me: That’s a cross
Babykins: Jesus no on that one!
Me: Well, yes, um. . . That’s because it’s just a cross. When Jesus is on the cross, it’s called a crucifix. Can you say “crucifix”?
Pastor’s kids can have the oddest vocabulary.
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.
During the school year, Wednesdays are my husband’s long work day. Confirmation every week and most weeks there is a 7 p.m. meeting. During Advent and Lent, he’ll often have confirmation class, followed by evening service, followed by a meeting. Yes, Wednesdays are long days.
By the middle of Lent this year, I was feeling the drain of the extra work and long Wednesdays. There needed to be a bit of excitement in the evening. So I declared Wednesday night to be Popcorn Night for Babykins and me.
Now, after dinner is cleaned up and Babykins has finished her bath, I pull down my trusty Whirley-Pop and pop up some popcorn. Babykins gets a small bowl for a treat and I have a large bowl set aside to eat later as a reward for getting through bedtime by myself. Bam! A little excitement for those long Wednesday nights.
Despite not having a summer break anymore, it’s hard not to feel like life will be a little less chaotic when we flip the calendar to June. The town becomes alive with happy children pedaling their bicycles to the pool and neighbors taking longer walks around town. Even my husband’s schedule gives the appearance of calm. Confirmation is on break for the summer and he doesn’t have monthly chapel duties at the Lutheran school 20 miles away. And, for a moment, we think that we’ll have a little reprieve from the rigors of pastoral life.
But June is a trickster month. While children are on summer vacation and confirmation class isn’t a weekly obligation, June is the month of VBS and weddings. Illness and death also don’t take a summer break and still strike when they please.
So, here we are, midway through June: 2 funerals completed, a wedding and VBS still coming. My husband and I are giving each other frazzled looks asking, “How did June get so busy?!” And I would like to say that we were naive and didn’t know to expect this, but the June did the EXACT same thing to us last year. In fact, I remember telling myself, “Next year we’ll know that June isn’t a quiet month.” How could I have forgotten?!
Now, don’t worry about us. We’ll survive June and we’ll go on a family vacation later in July (because nothing says “relaxation” like driving across 3.5 states with a toddler). The end of July and August do promise to be our calmer time of year (it was last year as well), so we’ll get our reprieve. And next year we’ll remember that June isn’t a quiet month and it won’t lure us in with its false claim of summer calm.
The last funeral my husband had occurred the week of Thanksgiving. And can you guess what happened a few days ago? Yup, another member died, meaning there’s a funeral Saturday, church Sunday, and the start of Lent next Wednesday.
I hope this isn’t the new trend for the start of midweek services.
Babykins is a toddler. She does toddler things like move constantly, yell at random times, and destroy things. She does not stop being a toddler when we go to church. Consequently, Sunday mornings can often feel like an exercise in futility as I try to keep her quiet and still during the church service.
However, the last few weeks Babykins has started to surprise me with her behavior in church. She’s gotten a little less loud and a little more interested in watching what is happening the service. So what changed?
1. Sitting up front: Despite past failures, we gave sitting up front another try. I realized that a lot of her antics were attempts to see people and things better (this wasn’t always the reason for her squirming in the past). Plus, we were getting blinded by the morning sun beating through the stained glass window in our pew in the back. So, despite my solid Lutheran upbringing to avoid the front at all costs, Babykins and I now troop up to the second pew on Sunday mornings. She still does toddler activities like yell at random times, walk on the pew, and toss her toys in the pew behind us. Likewise, she still freaks out sometimes because she wants to go to her dad, but we’re learning to deal with that.
2. Letting go of Babywearing: I finally gave up on the ring sling in church. Babykins was making it clear to everyone that she was not happy being confined and the sling wasn’t making it any easier to hold her with all her thrashing around. Some people are able to wear their children in church throughout the toddler years, I am not one of them.
3. More interest in books: Babykins has developed a love for books in recent weeks. This means that she’ll actually look at a book during the sermon, cutting back on her chatter and wiggles. My favorite book to bring with us is My Church Words Book. This book is printed by Concordia Publishing House, which means that many of the pictures inside are from LC-MS churches. This makes it easier to connect what is happening in the service to the pictures in the book. It’s fun to point to the pictures of things like the hymnal and pew Bible in the book and then point to the actual hymnal and pew Bible.
4. Practicing with a hymnal at home: A couple of weeks ago I was attempting to play some hymns on our piano. It didn’t go very well since Babykins is very insistent that she plays the piano with me. However, during this time I wound up letting her look at my hymnal on the floor. She surprised me with her gentleness with it! No torn pages, very few crinkled corners. Consequently, I decided to let her have a hymnal during church. For the last couple of weeks, she has contentedly flipped through the hymnal throughout the service. She’s not always perfectly gentle with it–I’m seeing a hymnal donation to the church in a couple of years–but she stays quiet!
I’m not expecting Babykins to keep up this behavior indefinitely. Babies and toddlers grow too quickly for any routine to stay around too long. What has worked for us the last couple of weeks may very well not work this coming Sunday. But for now, I’ll enjoy another sweet spot of Sunday mornings.