The Person I Aspire To…
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
A new pastor always begins an introductory stage of their ministry upon arrival at a new call. Honored and inspired by the congregation’s vote of confidence, the new pastor is eager to meet everyone and to begin the process of building a shared walk of faith. The COVID precautions we live with have made this process more difficult than is normal; and so, as I write this, I am aware that you want to get to know me as much as I wish to share in your life’s story even as there is this unnatural distance between us.
I’d like to introduce myself a bit, but at the same time I don’t want to appear immodest. So, I thought I’d begin our getting-to-know-you process by describing who I aspire to be. My model is a person you don’t likely know at all … his name is Pr. Timothy J. Kielley.
Pr. Kielley was called out of seminary to be an associate pastor for a couple of years. Then he was asked to take over another congregation named St. John, in Littlestown, Pennsylvania. St. John had been founded before our country was, but it had fallen on hard times in the early 1990’s. Their previous pastor had split with the Lutheran tradition and started a new congregation just blocks away. My friend was charged with “gracefully closing” St. John upon his arrival.
When Tim greeted that congregation for worship on their first Sunday together, there were but twenty-four souls present. Undaunted, he had prepared some cheesy-looking fish cut out of colorful construction paper. Each fish was hung from a length of yarn so that it could be worn like a necklace. My mentor hung one of these necklaces around each person’s neck that first Sunday and charged the wearer with a simple instruction: They were to wear this necklace to worship on each Sunday which followed until they brought someone else to worship with them. When they brought that new person, they were to pass that cheesy necklace on to the person they had invited.
Seven years later, Pr. Kielley and I happened to meet as I was beginning my seminary education. He invited me to assist him at his church every Sunday. (I learned far more in my time with him than I ever did in the seminary classroom.) When I was introduced to the good people of St. John, their membership had grown to 750 souls. There were times when members would invite Jessica and I to lunch at their home following worship. A surprising number of those who hosted us had a curled up construction paper fish hanging in a conspicuous place in their living room. Again and again, their stories connected to those cheesy necklaces were lovingly recounted over the course of our afternoons together.
I remember interviewing Pr. Kielley for one of my seminary assignments as I asked him, “Why has your ministry been so successful, after all, you were sent to St. John to close this congregation. His answer was brief and to the point: “I love them,” he said. His ministry showed that he valued most what Jesus commanded us all: “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as your self.” He certainly loved the Lord and he labored joyfully in calling others to do the same. And Pr. Tim certainly loved others, he loved me … my only regret is that I wasn’t there to receive one of those fish necklaces myself.
Pr. Keilley was called to his heavenly reward far too early for my selfish tastes. I must trust that the Lord knows best in these things. But I will be eternally grateful for the many things this Godly man did to guide me through my twenty years of seminary and ministry. I may never be the pastor he was, but his example will always be what I aspire to be in service to Jesus Christ, and to you, my newest brothers and sisters.
I am excited by the prospects of our ministry together, and I look forward to getting to know you as soon as it is wise and safe to do so. But mostly, as did my mentor, I look forward to building our relationships to the point where our stories are bound, if not by fish necklaces, than at least by our mutual service in building His kingdom.
May God’s blessings be upon you,