By Ed Thompson

Earlier this month, I was at a meeting in State College, Pennsylvania. Sponsored by our synod, it brought together people for conversation about how we can best serve our churches and pastors in these changing times. I had the opportunity while there to talk to someone who had never served in West Virginia but who had great things to say about our presbytery. She had been so impressed by the way we had cared for one another that she wanted to say something about that, even though her impression came from interviewing with one of our churches maybe 10-15 years ago.

That’s not the first time that has happened. Over the years, people have said much the same thing to me at different regional and national events. Generally speaking, the Presbytery of West Virginia has a good reputation. While we can be proud of that, what are we doing to maintain that reputation? It’s not really the reputation that matters, though. What counts is the way we care for one another, the way we live out our ordination vows to be “friends among our colleagues in ministry. “

For pastors, I think that means reaching out to our colleagues, whether they are Presbyterian or not. It can be easy to be wrapped up in our own congregation, to focus on preaching and leading worship, to attend to the needs of our members, to suggest different ways we can reach out to our community, to encourage support of different programs and events, to try to keep all the plates spinning so everybody stays happy. That can be tiring enough if that’s all we try to do. 

However, I do not believe we are meant to be lone rangers. We can listen and learn from one another, borrowing the good ideas that have worked elsewhere, commiserating with the failures that had seemed like good ideas when they were proposed. We can serve as mentors to those younger in age as well as those who have less experience in ministry. We can pick the brains of those who are older as well as those who have more experience in ministry. They have probably learned a thing or two along the way. At the very least, we can learn from their mistakes so we don’t fall into the same traps they did.

For church members, I think that means accepting the facts that 1) our pastor is human and will make mistakes, and 2) some pastors are simply better than others. I think sometimes we expect our pastor to do it all as if it is all up to them. While pastors do bear a lot of responsibility for the health and vitality of the church, it is not all up to them. It’s a two-way street. Yes, good churches have good pastors. But good churches also have members who are willing to work, who give generously, and who encourage and support their pastor. Good churches also have members who forgive their pastors. Not every sermon hits home. Some sermons seem to start off well but then wander off in search of something that is not readily apparent to most listeners. Some programs seem like good ideas, but in the end, no one really cares and only a handful bother to show up. And that’s OK. The question is: are we trying? Are we learning from our mistakes? Are we willing to give up on events that aren’t really worth the effort anymore? Are we willing to let groups die? Are we willing to stop blaming the pastor when these things happen?

Or maybe we get caught up in comparing our current pastor with our last pastor or the pastor that was here 20 years ago or the pastor we had when we were growing up. Maybe those pastors did great things, but the reality is that times have changed, our church has changed, our community has changed, and our culture has changed. Maybe it’s not fair to make that comparison. And OK, maybe the current pastor is not as effective or as good a preacher as one of their predecessors, but are they trying? Are they putting in the effort? Do they care? Do they love the Lord, and do they love the people of the church? Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions, and when we’re searching for a pastor, maybe we’re being unrealistic about what kind of pastor we think we need.

I also think all of us can grow in our appreciation of presbytery meetings. Yes, we gather to do business and the business is important, but I don’t think the business part of the meeting is the most important thing we do when we get together. Sometimes, I think that may be the least important part of the meeting. Yes, we have to do it, but that’s not really why we’re there. We’re there to encourage and support one another. We’re there to check in with friends and to get to know the people who are new. We’re there to worship and to pray. We’re there to celebrate retirements and new calls. We’re there to see what other churches put on their bulletin boards and what pamphlets they distribute. We’re there to enjoy food and fellowship.

While we don’t have the staff support we once did, we can build on our reputation by recognizing that we all can take on the responsibility to encourage and support one another. Each time we meet and in some ways every day, we are creating the kind of presbytery that we need for our pastors and for churches. What do you need from this presbytery? What can you contribute to help make that happen?