Thoughts on being away more than you’d like

I have been away in the States this last couple of weeks. No sooner than I come back, I test positive for covid. Whilst in the UK there are no longer any restrictions on where you can go nor legal requirements for what you do when you go there, we have a lot of people who are vulnerable, nervous or both. It didn’t seem wise or loving to rock up to church coughing all over them. Just like I’d stay home with the flu for the same reason, I didn’t want to kill off unsuspecting members just because I was legally permitted to do so. The soundings I took from our folks all pushed in the same direction. So I stayed home.

The upshot of all that means I haven’t met with our people for the past three weeks. My family and I are due to go on holiday late next week and we won’t be back until after the following Sunday again. Which, all in, means I won’t have met with my church family for about 5 weeks at that point. That is a full month out. That is not what we planned and does not sit brilliantly with me. Not least, and this is the headline here, I am painfully aware that I really miss my church.

The reason I mention this is because I have not always felt that way. There was a particularly unpleasant period a number of years ago through which I would have been glad to be away. And, whilst away, not at all unhappy about it. In fact, glad about it. Which is no position to be in. And, incidentally, why we were frequently on the verge of quitting ministry during those dark days.

I remember during that time, one particular week, some folks were there to interview me and some other folks at the church for something. One of their questions was, ‘what do you love about your church?’ And I just remember in the midst of all that was going on at the time thinking to myself, I just don’t know. Looming large in my mind were all the issues, problems and an overwhelming feeling of wanting to get out. I wasn’t sure I did love it right at that moment. Certainly not in a way that a pastor ought.

There have been days, weeks, months even where leaving ministry has been on my mind since. But what has been different about those times is that I do love the church. Whatever reasons I have for wondering whether I am the bloke to be doing this, they do not centre on how much I like the church. If I were to leave ministry, it wouldn’t be to get away from the church or this place. I would want to stay and serve the good of the gospel here, even if I am not the man to be pastor here. I would want to remain to support someone else in the town and church that I love.

But I am not thinking about those things today. I am just thinking I have really missed being with my church family. The stuff I have mentioned up to here merely emphasises that in my mind. Being away from our people makes me really miss them. As I was away, I wanted to be back with my family. Both my biological and my Christian families.

And the truth is, my church got on just fine without me. Whether they missed me or not, the wheels kept turning. There was no scrabbling round as everything went to pot. There was no deferring of decisions until the kingpin got back. There was no sudden realisation that, if my plane had crashed and burned halfway across the Atlantic, the church would die with me. And that is a great thing. The Lord doesn’t need me where he’s put me and his church won’t crumble if I’m not there. The Lord may well have me where he wants me, but there can be no doubt he doesn’t need me. The church is his alone and our task is to equip the saints for works of service – and we get a real sense of how well that might be going when we’re not around to do anything.

And I know some folks have missed me not being there because they’ve been in touch to say so. Which is lovely to be wanted, even if you aren’t strictly needed. The Lord may not need me, but he seems to want me here, and so does my church. Whatever I do, clearly I serve in some capacity that is valuable, but I don’t serve in such a way that everything goes to pot if I’m not there. Which is encouraging.

But there is something deeply encouraging about missing your church when you aren’t there. It is surely a sign of real investment and delight in your people that you actually want to be with them and miss them dearly when you can’t be. And it is definitely more than just missing the comfort of services being what I am used to. There are clearly elements of what we do that – objectively speaking – are never going to be as great and slick as other places. It is inevitable. But I miss being with people for those things. I can go to churches that will objectively present better, but I still miss our little church. I miss the people. I miss singing with them. I miss praying with them. I miss hearing them share testimony of how the Lord has spoken to them and dealt with them through his Word. It’s not the comfort of what I’m used to so much as the joy of being with those saints the Lord has given to me as my church family.

I can say all this because I know what it is to not particularly miss being at church. I know what it is to not mind all that much missing a week here or there. I know what it is to secretly be glad I was somewhere else that week. And that isn’t to say the fault in those cases always and only lay with the church; I don’t absolve myself of whatever sinful thoughts and attitudes were going on when one felt that way. But because of that, I also know what it is to genuinely miss my church family. To delight in them. To be glad in the Lord because of them. And if my ministry is a total failure in every other respect (and let’s not discount the troubling likely possibility it will be), I will be glad that the Lord gave me a church who I miss and trust that they will know that I love them because I miss them when I’m not there.