One thing you learn when you have a yard sale is that the people who regularly attend them are an eclectic bunch. They are scroungers, deal-getters, skeptics of anything “new”; they love a bargain, and they despise the negligently overpriced.
I love them.
I discovered this new love this past month when my wife and I hosted our own yard sale. We’d recently decided to leave Portland, Oregon, for the Silicon Valley, for the sake of my wife’s medical residency—but it wasn’t until a middle-aged man leaned his entire body weight on my reasonably priced side table and complained of its “flimsiness” that it actually hit me: I, a pastor, really was leaving my ministry behind.
Since that day, we’ve sold most of our stuff so we could fit into our new (much smaller) apartment, and we’ve been practicing the Christian virtue of detachment. It’s been cleansing. But in the process, I’ve been surprised to find one of the things I had to detach from was one of the things that mattered most: the title of “pastor.”
For nearly all of my adult life, “pastor” has been an essential part of my identity. I was ordained at a very young age (probably too young) and have grown used to the beauty—and the awkwardness—of the job. I have had the privilege of marrying couples, walking families through deep pain, baptizing and serving congregants and community members, teaching God’s Word, and doing all of the other life-giving (and life-taking) work involved in ministry.
And now, I’m sitting on my balcony in California. I am no longer anyone’s pastor, technically; the responsibilities I have now are to my wife, my home, my writing, my speaking. Although I am still technically ordained, I have no flock, no congregation to teach and administer sacraments to, and no community to “pastor.” No coffees, no regular staff meetings, and (praise God) no emails.
Absences like these can be instructive, though. They remind us of who we are, why the titles we bear as ministers carry so much weight. To be a church leader is a tremendous honor, and to minister is an overwhelming experience. Being away from it can bring a strange grief that’s mixed with relief and excitement.
As I prepared to move, many people in my old community asked me the same question asked of many a departing pastor: “What are you going to do?” (By which most of them mean, “What job will you have?”) But being a pastor is so deeply tied to a people and a place that those questions are hard to answer—you cannot possibly be intrigued by a job description on a piece of paper. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus cries in Matthew 23:37; his burden, like ours, was for a city, a place, a people. Ministry requires a particular kind of devotion to a geography—a demographic.
Moving has taught me all over again how central people and places are not just to ministry, but all of Christian life. My role now is to be a follower of Jesus in my new city, to relearn the simplicity of loving my neighbors and my God without any church programs. It’s freeing.
It’s also a little terrifying. In our increasingly digital age, it’s easy to forget that we are here to serve communities—people with faces, names, stories, houses, and children. Learning those things—that’s the longer, slower work God must do if and when we relocate. I’m counting on him to show me the people and places he desires me to serve and love—especially if they enjoy nothing more than a good yard sale full of cheap, flimsy tables.