Jenny Williams: Love from those who leave

I’ve often preached that we ought to love others who are different from ourselves. But it is humbling to be on the receiving end of that love.

Expressions of love for a pastor can come from unexpected places. Of course, there are the people who think you’re great and would support you through anything. But other expressions of love can catch you off guard. The elderly man who makes a point of telling you how beautiful worship was that day. Or the high school basketball player who launches a hug at you when he has been accepted on scholarship to college. Or the four-year old who, after a year of clinging to her mother’s leg when you talk to her, finally decides to smile widely at you as if the shyness had never been there.

Recently, expressions of God’s love have been given to me by an unlikely person -- a woman who left our congregation a few months ago. “Kelly” and I don’t see eye-to-eye on several issues in the life of the church, particularly about the shape of worship. She sees the Holy Spirit working primarily through spontaneity. I see the Spirit at work through the lectionary. She prefers “praise music.” I prefer high church hymns. These differences are a part of a larger reason to leave our church. She’d also like to attend a church which has more teenagers so that her middle school kids are not the only ones in their Sunday school class. There are other issues as well.

I have always appreciated Kelly’s straightforwardness with me.

Several months after I began serving here, she asked if we could talk some things over. Over a lovely summer walk, she shared with me her preferences in terms of worship style. After we had discussed that awhile, she said that even though we disagreed about some things, we are still sisters in Christ, and we could still work together. When she and her family stopped attending worship earlier this year, she wrote me a letter explaining why they would no longer be coming. The reasons did not surprise me because of her candor along the way. She closed her letter promising to continue to pray for me and asked that I continue to pray for her and her family in their search for a new church.

A couple of weeks after that letter, she sent me a copy of a devotional reading which talked about the body of Christ and different expressions of being that one body. Just a few weeks ago, she sent me a birthday card in which she listed ten things about me for which she was thankful. Honestly, I don’t think I have ever received a nicer card. We have continued to correspond through snail mail, and I continue to pray for her. I know that she is praying for me.

It feels really strange to be cared for by someone who has left our church partially because of her disagreements with me and my ways. It is humbling. As a pastor, I’ve often preached about how we ought to love others who are different from ourselves and how we are supposed to love our enemies (Kelly and I are not enemies, but we do disagree). But it is rare that that I have been on the receiving end of that love. It makes me feel vulnerable and thankful.

It is inevitable that leaders of churches or organizations will be around people who disagree with us and express their dissatisfaction in hurtful or self-centered ways: a cold shoulder on Sunday morning, ceasing to attend worship or contribute financially, or talking about their dislike of us with other people in the church without ever coming to talk to us directly. This year I am in the strange position of being grateful for someone who disagrees with me, but honors me with her truthfulness and lifts me up in prayer.

It’s a real lesson to me as a leader.

Jenny Williams is pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Kingwood, West Virginia.