Everyone else gets to date their church first. They show up a few times looking cute, see how they are greeted or whether the music sets the right mood. Not pastor’s wives. We’re in an arranged marriage with the church before we even step in the door, practically. We do our best to surveil the church before we go, but we go in more or less blind. It started with a blind date but we were already engaged.
My husband and I walked into this church over eight years ago with nothing but an outdated website to prepare us. We met a few people. Paul preached his heart out (in a suit and tie!) and we left again to wait.
I cannot claim credit for what happened next. My husband and I simply didn’t know enough as a fresh-out-of-seminary couple looking for his first job. We had two churches offer Paul a job on the same day (that’s a story for a different day!), but ultimately the choice between the two felt as casual as a roll of the dice. Who knows what the future holds? We went into this church wide open and hopeful. We picked Gateway and prayed we had found a good church.
We had. We just didn’t know it yet.
We wanted to see the best in this place but we couldn’t help noticing the things we wanted to change. (I suggested we start by getting rid of all the lace tablecloths and dusty fake plants. Paul agreed.) I wished there were more young moms. I wished there were more kids. (For awhile, I was the only young mom and our daughter Claire was the only kid in Sunday School.) We pushed for a new website, letting our older congregation know that this was truly the welcome mat to our church for younger people. Mostly we waited. We got to know the people who’d been keeping the ministries of this little church afloat. We met the loyal members of the prayer group and the women’s Bible study and the children’s ministry team. Paul got to know his elder board. We listened. Paul preached and preached and learned everyone’s name.
Eventually we began to care less about our preferences. Sure, there will always be things we wish we could adjust, but Paul and I realized pretty quickly that there was something really special about this church that you’d never see if you couldn’t look past the outdated website and lace tablecloths:
This is a church that is actually functioning like the body of Christ.
This shouldn’t be surprising, maybe, but we were a little surprised. Somehow we’d managed to join a band of believers who really loved one another. Despite the bumper stickers promoting very different candidates, despite the quirks and foibles and petty differences, they all shared a loyalty to this little church that has never yet failed to meet its modest budget goals. People took care of each other. They paid attention to prayer requests and followed up. They greeted on another with familiarity and asked questions that showed they’d been listening.
I was teaching high school English and pregnant with our second child, so I wasn’t doing anything to help at church. Every Sunday felt more or less like a small miracle to me. Was I supposed to be doing more, as the official “pastor’s wife”? Because at that point I did almost nothing but every Sunday showed up to find the coffee made, the bathrooms cleaned, the little children’s bulletins prepared, and the Sunday school lessons teachers ready to go. Even though I’m more involved now, every Sunday still feels a little miraculous to me. That’s because every service is a quietly collaborative affair, and I often don’t see the work that has been done behind the scenes to get us prepared.
The most beautiful thing, to me, is a group of people working towards a common goal. I love watching people with the same vision in their hearts naturally dividing up the work, recognizing what needs to be done and doing it. This is my favorite thing about our church. It actually feels like we’re a body working in spontaneous coordination.
As an example, I “run” VBS every year, but it is laughable how little work I actually have to do. I gently remind everyone of the dates and watch as every member picks up his or her responsibility and gets to work. After many years of working with the same volunteers, we hardly meet anymore. I hand out materials and answer questions, I alert the parents and gather the kids, then I step back and watch as the crafts get made, the music gets learned, the games get played, the lessons get taught. If it sounds ridiculously simple, I can tell you: it feels ridiculously simple.
What is the key? I don’t know if it is anything you could replicate anywhere else but I also don’t think it is anything particularly special: we all care. When everyone cares about the kids and wants to make sure that they do their job well, when everyone already knows the schedule, we sort of effortlessly fall together. People see tables that need clearing and they clear them. They see kids who need more lemonade or a squirt of ketchup, and they provide it. When your crew is small enough, no one assumes that someone else will take care of it.
My husband, God bless him, is not super organized and he is not the kind of pastor who micromanages. In fact, sometimes he isn’t even aware of who is going to step and take care of the details. And still, our church pulls off really special events. There is a certain roster of people who can be counted on to set up the tables and chairs, others who are always in the kitchen, and there are always people who stick around to clean up afterwards. Perhaps someone is twisting people’s arms behind the scenes, but I’ve never seen it. Our church is small and almost everyone who chooses to attend this church takes ownership of it. We’ve had newcomers stick around to clean up the coffee service and we know right away that these are our people. The kind of people who have eyes open to the needs around them and figure they can meet those needs.
We do not attend an extraordinary church. By all accounts, we’re pretty ordinary. But I know fewer and fewer people who are attending small churches like this. We’re a body without any parts to spare. Our graphic design might leave something to be desired and you may have to endure the awkwardness of greeting time or less-polished announcements. We get how that might feel shocking when you’ve come from a church run by professionals. We’re a mostly volunteer operation. We need everyone who walks in our doors to pitch in. If you have talents, we can use them. If you have just plain willingness, we can put you to work. But it is this spirit of volunteerism that sparks our connection to one another. We see the work we all do and we know we need one another.
I guess you could say I fell in love with this church. It wasn’t love at first sight, though I knew I was loved at first sight. I don’t believe in luck and I also don’t believe the prosperity gospel that tells me I must have done something right to deserve this goodness. I believe this good church is a gift, one we don’t deserve but we will not fail to appreciate now that we have it.