Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen: The first year of ministry, one long road trip

Open road and sunset

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The highway has its lessons, especially for pastors just starting out, writes a young Lutheran pastor. Drawing from her cross-country move, she offers five road-trip lessons for new pastors.

About three years ago, my husband, Paul, and I loaded up a big, boxy Penske truck and set out on a cross-country journey from Atlanta to Minneapolis, where I would finish my training and then begin my first call as a Lutheran pastor. For three days and 1,113 miles, we took turns at the wheel, driving through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and way too much of Iowa. All our belongings were in the back; all our emotions -- excitement, fear, joy, anxiety -- up front, in the cab with us.

I’ve been busy since we arrived, especially since finally becoming a pastor a year and a half ago. I’ve bought a house, moved into a new office, met the church staff and learned how to load paper into the copier. I’ve learned the names and faces of the congregation and listened to their stories, wept with a woman in the neighborhood who lives with schizophrenia and pampered the church’s antiquated boiler. I’ve been party to staff restructuring decisions, lived with the fallout of those decisions and taken out the garbage. I’ve found emergency shelter for people late at night, buried the evening custodian, visited homebound members, crafted sermons and sewn banners two stories tall.

Looking back, I now realize that the first year of my first call was one long road trip, much like the journey that brought us here. Had I only known, I would have paid closer attention during those days on the road. For I now see that the highway has its lessons, especially for pastors just starting out. From our journey, here are five road-trip lessons for new pastors:

1. Blue laws are real.

Woman cannot live on Waffle House alone, which is why, halfway through the trip, Paul and I got smart one Sunday and found a grocery store. Into our cart we dropped a bottle of wine and all the fixings for an antipasto platter. Wheeling up to the cash register, we unloaded our items on the worn belt.

Cheese.

Beep.

Crackers.

Beep.

Olives.

Beep.

Salami.

Beep.

Wine.

Silence.

“Sorry, honey, y’all are still in the South,” the cashier said. “And in the South, we don’t buy libations on the Lord’s Day.”

Every congregation has laws, rituals and bans that surprise newcomers. They vary from place to place: We visit the hospitalized every day. We use two coffee filters and four scoops of grounds. We sing “Holden Evening Prayer” during Lent. We use a gong and Tibetan finger cymbals each Sunday. We don’t serve doughnuts. We position Easter lilies symmetrically around the cross. We break the bread during the Words of Institution. We don’t break the bread during the Words of Institution. We keep the sanctuary at 64 degrees. We don’t sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” We begin every worship service with “Holy, Holy, Holy” (and have since 1952).

These are the church’s blue laws -- the do’s and don’ts of faith communities. They may be unwritten, but they are strictly enforced. Rest assured, a new pastor will unknowingly violate one or more of them. But that’s OK. Breaking them helps congregations separate things that are essential to Christian community from things that fall into the category of adiaphora, leftover forms and conventions that have lost their meaning.

2. Spilled soda in the cup holder stays in the cup holder until someone cleans it up.

It doesn’t matter whether the mess was already there when you drove away from the rental agency, or you saw -- with your own eyes -- your traveling partner slosh his Diet Coke out of the can, or you spilled the soda yourself. Regardless of who caused it or how it happened, someone needs to clean it up.

Pastors need to be skilled housekeepers. Like I said, I’ve taken out the garbage, and while that is often part of every pastor’s call, it’s not what I have in mind here. Instead, I’m talking about the interpersonal messes and stickiness that inevitably happen when people gather and make something together.

In my first few months, the congregation and I experienced occasional anger and tears, moments of mistrust and feelings of disappointment, all related to staff restructuring decisions and genuine concern about the people affected by those decisions. In the midst of the relational turmoil, I got sidetracked trying to figure out how and when the controversy started. Instead, I should have simply grabbed some paper towels, rolled up my clerical sleeves, dropped to my knees and done some holy cleaning with the whole community.

3. Expect some sleepless nights.

Whether overstimulated by the Interstate traffic, uncomfortable on a roadside motel’s sagging mattress or worried about the truck’s precious cargo, I regularly found myself late at night in unfamiliar spaces with eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.

Pastors live with unfinished projects, the brokenness of people’s lives and the demands for creative worship, sermons and lessons. Many nights over the past months -- more than I ever admitted to the one who sleeps beside me -- I lay awake, worrying about these and other oncoming “headlights.”

Lenten devotionals and an outdoor bread oven, the offender re-entry program and payday lending reform, solar panel installation and a symposium, Kenny’s hip replacements, Sam’s suicidal depression, Lena’s widowed loneliness and Jean’s hurt that simply wouldn’t go away. Between all that and sermons and newsletters and emails and letters to legislators, restful sleep became rare and precious.

4. Don’t pass up the gas station when you’re running on empty.

A 22-foot Penske truck has a 50-gallon gasoline tank and gets about 10 miles to the gallon. So when the “low fuel” light appears on the dashboard, you’d better pull off soon or you’ll be sitting beside the road waiting for help to arrive, watching everyone else whiz by and feeling sorry for yourself.

Twelve months in, I need a haircut and can’t remember when I last had one. This is code for “Being a pastor has, in some ways, impeded my ability to care for myself and those I love.”

When I began at the church, my husband and I agreed not to criticize or resent my work habits for the first six months. Starting a new job in any field is cumbersome and requires time and attention.

We are now well beyond the grace period. For the sake of all those I love, I’m going to have a glass of wine, dream about the garden and call my girlfriends.

It’s time.

5. Expect grace.

One day on the road trip, we pulled off to eat at a roadside restaurant. A woman named Betty, with a cropped haircut and a bright smile, looked up from behind the counter and welcomed us warmly. For the next hour or so, she shared her grits and her wisdom with us, serving us with Benedictine hospitality.

We met others like her, too. A trucker at a gas station in Chattanooga who told us our left rear tire was low. A police officer who comforted us after we witnessed a terrible car accident. A drugstore clerk who, rightly sensing marital tension, winked and threw a couple of dark chocolates into the bag.

During my first week at the church, I decided to sit in on all the Wednesday evening choir practices. One Wednesday, at the end of a very long day, I was tired.

As I sat alone in a pew, waiting for the youngest choir to assemble, one little singer jumped out from behind a wall with wide eyes and jazz hands and excitedly asked what no one on my call committee had thought to ask:

“Pastor Ingrid, what’s your favorite animal?”

It was a moment of grace in those first difficult months. It was unwarranted. It was unexpected. It was a gift that brought me back to life.

It was like Sunday wine in a blue-law state.