It was getting late on Sunday afternoon and I was sitting alone in my church office after services, catching up on various administrative details while thinking about the week ahead, and musing on the week behind me. As a bi-vocational minister serving a rural church 50 miles from where I live and work a full-time weekday job, quiet time in the church office is rare. In my senior year of studies for priesthood, I’d been at my new church for four weeks. Most of my time in the office to this point had been about unpacking, organizing, planning, and figuring out what I’d forgotten to put in the car on the other end of the drive between church and home.
That Sunday, I’d meant to get out of the office early to go home and enjoy the rest of the day off with my family. But as was getting to be usual for me, it was nearly 5 p.m. and I was still trying to wrap things up. Hearing a soft tapping on the glass doors in the hall adjoining my office, I poked my head out and saw a petite woman who looked to be in her 30s standing outside. Walking to the door, I noticed an old minivan in the church parking lot loaded with belongings strapped to the roof, a man sitting in the front passenger seat. The woman’s story wasn’t unusual. At first, it sounded like most other stories pastors hear from folks who come asking for help. They were traveling through on their way out of state, and needed money for gas and food, she said. Not really keen about giving out cash, and not having a gas card on hand, I loaded her arms with food from the church Pop-Top Pantry, a dry goods feeding ministry for walk-in traffic.
Ready to send her on her way with prayer and encouragement, the conversation took an unusual turn at the door. She’d stopped at our church – one of a number in our small town – because the name, St. Paul’s, called to her, she said, thanking me for the food. “My father was a priest,” she added.
That casual addition to the conversation caught my attention. Her father had died, was all she would say further about him. But she’d been raised in the faith, she said. We shared a hug as she left. “Peace be yours,” she said, unprompted, voicing a traditional Church greeting embodying God’s healing love in exchanged words of reconciliation. As we parted, I invited her to stop by the church again on her next journey through the area. As she got back into her van and left, I had doubts I would ever see her again.
Back at my desk in the church office, I sat thinking. What if her story were true? But how could it be? How does a priest’s daughter end up so desperately low as to go begging at random church doors for money? Not that clergy families are insulated from the turmoil and tragedies of life, but I just couldn’t fathom how it could have come about. Surely there was some safety net somewhere that should have kept this from happening. It frightened me to think of my own two children, and my new, busy bi-vocational life. I have no idea what happened in her family, but I could see the future of what might happen to mine if I allowed my new ministry, as much as I loved it, to completely consume all my extra time.
The complete story of who the woman was and what had brought her to my door would remain a mystery. Maybe God would bring us together again, but it was sufficient for now that he had done it today – a visit I was sure was anything but random, for either of us. Thinking of my own daughter at home 50 miles distant as I whittled away a free afternoon on non-essential paperwork and ministry self-analysis, I suddenly visualized a weakening in the portion of her safety net I was responsible for building. God had blessed me with two wonderful children, one already in college and one preparing to enter high school. In the midst of establishing a new clergy presence in this small rural congregation, I was on the cusp of forgetting that my call to motherhood had not ended because God has added a call to priesthood. In fact, my family was his gift to me, and spending time with them was a loving, supportive place to experience his restoration and joy. I closed my laptop, packed it and my papers up, grabbed my keys and headed out the door. The long ride home provided lots of time to think. There was no guarantee that my husband and I would be able to save either of our children from the kinds of decisions or circumstances in adulthood that could veer their lives off-course like the woman at my church door. But it was a virtual guarantee that if we didn’t keep family and personal time a priority, then all of our lives, and by extension our ministry, would suffer in the long run. No minister stays healthy for long if our lives at home, the foundation of our safety net, born in relationship with God and one another, are unraveling through neglect.
The best we can do for the children God places in our care is to continue as godly parents building their spiritual safety net, loving one another and our children within the holy covenant of the relationship between our family and our Creator. This model of family calls us to teach our children by word and example the image of the Body of Christ as his Church: holding each other up, guiding younger members, supporting older ones, offering accountability with love, encouragement in times of need, relying on God as our ultimate safety net. May God bless that woman in need at my door on a late Sunday afternoon as her words of peace blessed me, speaking into my need – to many a busy minister’s need – to recall that reconciliation begins at home.