Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mourning at Church

Since the beginning of May, three congregations up in the Adirondacks have been in a season of loss and mourning their pastors.   On Friday, May 5, 2017, Rev Linda Hoeschel died.  Then on May 12, 2017, Pastor Joyce Bruce passed away.  Both women served congregations in rural communities and provided splendid leadership during their time as ministers.

I write this column on the other side of these life transitions, responding to the needs of the congregations going through a very unique form of loss and grief.  As I shared with Linda's two churches recently, it's one thing to go through the loss of a congregant, especially one who was engaged in the midst of the life of a local church.  The loss and grief of losing a pastor is even more complex as pastors are woven into the fabric of a congregation.  It's a shared loss as congregations are families in their own way, regardless of how many people are actually kin by blood relation. 

When Jesus called together his first followers, some of these men and women were indeed related (the brothers Zebedee).  Each person who followed Jesus navigated a challenge with their own biological family, as they would take leave of their kinfolk with no small measure of disruption to the "normal" life they led before hearing Jesus' call.  Dropping your fishing nets to go "fish for people" continues to vex generations of Christians about what it means to hear and follow.  Congregations can be a place where believers can gather together and learn together what the faith calls us to do.  (I realize churches are also prone to circle the wagons and avoid anything that disrupts comfort, but I keep having hope that the Spirit works at ensuring our foundations are solid but our forms are not so set in ruts that we lose our way.)

Pastor Joyce Bruce

About my colleagues in ministry:

Pastor Joyce Bruce served the Jay Baptist Church in the upper Adirondacks for nearly twenty years.  As a lay preacher, she provided her gifts and care to the congregation in this small town church.  The church recalls its origins in a barn, using hay bales for pews back in 1798.  The church has a long history of lay women preachers, as her predecessor served for many years before Joyce was called in 1996.  For the past two generations, the minister of Jay Baptist has been a laywoman preaching, teaching and caring for the needs of the flock!

At her visitation hours on Tuesday afternoon, I brought words of greetings and thanksgiving for her years of service to one of our Region churches.  Her family had musical instruments close at hand, and from time to time, they would take a break from greeting friends and family to play a bit on guitars, clarinets, or mandolins.  A number of persons spoke about Joyce's own musical gifts, starting Sunday morning worship for many years with some "ragtime Gospel" at the piano.


Rev Linda Hoeschel
Rev Linda Hoeschel served a shorter season of ministry, called in March 2015 to her first called position with the shared pastoral call of the Village Baptist Church (Fort Edward, NY) and the First Baptist Church of Glens Falls, NY.  Ordained in 2016, she was a second career minister, called later in life to prepare for the ministry.  She was remembered throughout the May 12th memorial service and celebration as a person with great enthusiasm, care and love for her call and the two flocks who called her to serve. 

After joining the Region staff four years ago, I worked closely with the Ft Edward and Glens Falls pastoral search.  Like the congregation in Jay, NY, the ministry model for the two churches leaned toward a part-time model.  Linda dove into the ministry of two churches, and even as her health challenges came from time to time, her sense of call and the drive to serve God and neighbor sustained her in remarkable ways. 

Grieving a pastor's death is difficult.  Remembering the minister for their gifts and graces, their strengths and their challenges--all of these things allow congregations to rehearse their beliefs in life, death and the Resurrection.  We mourn and grieve differently in such times and at differing pace, yet churches can be a place of remembering well what death means for Christians.  Such memory recasts the loss with hope, the sorrow with a foretaste of faith's promises being fulfilled in God's good End.

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Note:  A resource on the unique situation of a pastor's dying while serving a congregation is the book  "Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church's Voice in the Face of Death" (Brazos, 2012).  Learn more via this link: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/speaking-of-dying/338880.