This is an honoring, a thank you, a letter of gratitude.
It was during one of those lazy summer post-church minglings that Jess and I were introduced. She was a new young pastor at our church who would be working with college students and young adults. I felt a connection with her immediately, warmed by her broad grin and enthusiasm, and we planned a lunch date for the next week. It was the coolest feeling to know that there was someone at church who was going to work with my age group, that slightly in-between phase of students who aren't in youth group anymore and are often gone a lot of the year at college, but still want to be connected.
I could tell immediately that Jessica was up for the job. That day as we ate our burritos, I filled her in on what our youth group had been like, what our college students were up to now, and how they might like to be reached in ministry. She was engaged and excited, asking questions. We also simply got to know each other, and happily discovered that we are both Harry Potter nerds of the highest degree. (Her cat's name is Minny Mac, short for - you guessed it - Minerva McGonagall. Enough said.)
She came to our church six years ago, and now she's leaving to take her own church as Senior Pastor. It has been such a blessing to watch her grow in her own ministry - she moved from being primarily the young adults pastor to being an associate, and she's now our Senior Associate Pastor. She has preached, led Bible studies, gone on mission trips, sung in our Christmas Eve service, visited and prayed over those who are ill, come to dinners and carol sings and graduation parties, led meetings, she has counseled and witnessed and shared and loved and lifted us up. When she stepped up to the pulpit last Sunday to give her last sermon before our congregation, it was again clear to me how strongly she has been knitted into our unique tapestry of people and gifts. It is strange to think of a time when she was not here. And I'm thankful that even though I have experienced much of her time at my home church from afar, she has still made a point to connect with me, and has blessed my life so richly.
When I went away to college, I feared that I would lose the connection to my church at home, that it would fade now that I couldn't attend every Sunday and Wednesday. New members and new staff would come and they wouldn't know me - so would the church become less "mine"?
Jess was intricate in dispelling that fear of mine. After that first summer lunch, we would swap emails and Facebook posts. I always saw her when I came home for holidays and breaks, at church or for a coffee catch-up. One hot June day when my dad was having shoulder surgery, she invited me over to her house for an all-day Harry Potter movie marathon, just what I needed on that stressful day.
And then there are the times that she came to me. Driving through North Carolina once, she met me at school, came to my campus worship service and then took me out to dinner. It was sophomore year, and I was slumping hard. Friendships were more difficult, future decisions were looming. We had a great dinner, and then, right before she dropped me back on campus, we sat in her car and she prayed for me. For ME. She said my name and patted my hand and gave thanks for me, and asked that God would be with me. It meant so much, in such a difficult time, that someone would come all the way from home and hold me in the light - through her listening, her laughter and her prayers.
Then there was the next summer, when I interned at a church in Virginia for two months. One Sunday, I preached. My family came up to hear me, of course - and Jess did too. She drove nine hours to see me, to eat dinner with my family (and then we all went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, duh), and the next morning, she sat with them in the front pew and beamed up at me as I gave my first sermon. And then she drove the nine hours home.
Sometimes - all times? - the best moments of ministry are those moments of presence, of being a friend. Jessica has shown me that - and, by the standing ovation she received from the congregation after her final sermon (that made all of us wipe our eyes), she has been that gift to countless others. Her next church is in for such a treat. And I know I've gained a mentor and a friend for life.
Thank you, Jess, for being you, and for sharing your brilliant spirit in so many ways. Surely someday we'll take that Harry Potter tour across England together!