The other side of loss

KrisAnne Swartleyby KrisAnne Swartley, Doylestown

Pastors’ children tend to have two reputations: rebellion or following in the footsteps of their parents (never mind all the kids in between). From the time I was young, I fell into the latter category, strongly drawn to my father’s calling and work. My connection to God was real and tangible to me, very much alive in my interior world. I followed that inner leading readily, preaching my first sermon as a teenager and studying ministry in college.

As a fresh college graduate, with all the energy and optimism that implies, I began my first professional ministry position. And I made mistakes. I began to wonder if I had heard God’s call correctly. Were my weaknesses too obvious? Was I too passionate? Too opinionated? Too feminine or not feminine enough?

I sat with these questions for quite a while without resolving them completely, and then one day my phone rang. It was my father. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer. They came to stay with us during her treatment, and as I struggled to companion her and my father in their journey—saw the way the cancer ate away at her body and mind—I felt my soul sinking into a deep, dark, silent place I had never known before.

And when she died, it felt like part of me died as well.

Not only did I question if I was called to ministry in the first place, but I questioned the character of the God who called me. Is God really good? Is God active in our lives? Does God work miracles to heal the sick? I tried to hold all of these questions and doubts honestly. I tried to wait patiently for answers. I went to seminary and got my MDiv in the hope that some book or professor or passage of scripture would clear the fog for me. It did not.

Over time, however, something got under my skin. Maybe it was the touch and smell of my baby’s skin, the faithful companionship of my husband, or the food that friends brought as we grieved. Maybe it was the miracle that there was still laughter at all after so many tears. Maybe it was the simple act of loved ones praying for me when I could not pray at all. Maybe it was music or simply the passage of time… or a combination of all these things. But slowly and steadily faith came back to me, like a dear friend who had been holding my hand all the time and I had not noticed.

God’s call to serve as a pastor also came back to me. I found congregations and leaders who received my passion and vulnerability, who readily acknowleged my humanity and still dared to call me “minister.” To my surprise, I discovered that on the other side of loss is gift and great joy. And being a pastor does not mean having all the answers. For me, it means bringing all of myself–doubts, fears, anger, passion, joy—to the moment and choosing to trust God’s Presence among us.

KrisAnne Swartley is on the pastoral staff at Doylestown Mennonite Church for the Missional Journey. She lives in Hilltown Township with her husband Jon and two children, Heidi and Benjamin.