A few decades ago, my husband hired a youth pastor at the church where we were serving as the lead pastors at the time. We had known this couple for several years, adored their family then, and still do now. Bart and Jen (not their real names) had felt a call to the ministry for a while but had never made the step to actually take a ministerial position. Larry and I had been their mentors from afar for a few years, but the open youth position at the church was an opportunity to have them make a move and serve with us, up close and personal. The four of us were excited that we would have the chance to invest in them so closely and that they could serve the church.
Unfortunately, Bart and Jen could not find housing right away, so we opened our home to their family until a house became available. We had a great relationship with them as well as their two children, and that never changed over the course of the months they lived with us. We had wonderful times of sharing around the dinner table, and although our house was a bit crowded to say the least during those months, we have fond memories of all the times we shared. Sadly, their time with us was brief.
Larry came into our bedroom early one morning and said, “Bart and Jen need to talk to us both in the living room.” It was apparent Larry had already had a bit of conversation with Bart. I could tell just by his demeanor that my husband was not okay, and I wondered what in the world could be wrong. I quickly pulled my robe on over my pajamas and came down to the living room.
Jen was bawling into a Kleenex and Bart looked like he had just lost his best friend as his face rested on the palms of his hands with his elbows on his knees, head down. I thought they were going to tell us one of them was terminally ill or try to talk through a marriage problem with us, although I had picked up no clues whatsoever about either one of those things. What came next was a complete shock and something I will never, ever forget.
Through sobs, they told us how much they loved us and how that would never change, but that the past three months had shown them that they were not cut out for pastoral ministry. Larry and I were quiet and let them pour out their feelings. I wondered, had we done something wrong? Had they witnessed something that made them believe we were not the same people on the stage as we were at home? No, that wasn’t the case, they said through tears. Jen said, “I just know…this life is not for me.” I asked her to explain…what did she mean by ‘this life’? She said, “The phone ringing off the hook. The calls in the middle of the night. The constant interruptions to your life. The pressure from all the people. I don’t know if I’m not cut out for this entirely or if I’m just not ready for it yet…”
Larry and I tried to soothe their fears, that ministers don’t learn everything overnight, and that managing expectations is important. We also asked questions like, “Have you felt pressured by us to do too much?” No, they did not. They just watched our lives, and it made them tired and overwhelmed.
It didn’t matter what Larry and I said. Bart and Jen were totally convinced, the ministry was not for them.
We disagreed with that notion a lot, but no matter how much we encouraged them, they believed that transitioning back to being extremely involved lay people was where they belonged versus full-time pastoral ministry. They craved a life where they could leave work on Friday and not look back until Monday morning. I understand. I’ve wanted that at times, too.
Since that time, they have served as deeply involved lay leaders in the local church and done a great job. We still think the world of them and vice versa.
Fast forward a few years and I sat in a workshop on the subject of mentorship taught by a brilliant woman named Dr. Alicia Britt Chole. I believe she is one of the greatest teachers on mentoring that I’ve ever heard. One of the things she shared was that to mentor women, she invites them to do life with her up close by coming to her home and letting them see her literally go through her day. She doesn’t merely have coaching sessions or lunch or coffee chat now and then. She invites people to come stay with her for significant blocks of time and go through every aspect of her day with her. (I’m not sure if she still does this, but this was one of her methods back at the time.) I think that’s great for her but after my experience with Bart and Jen, it kind of scared me out of my mind. I wasn’t sure the best way for me to mentor someone was to have them live out almost every moment with me, except the most intimate of spaces. The last time I did that, it resulted in two people quitting.
I believe it’s important for those we mentor us to see our mistakes too and how we handle them. It’s not that I fear doing anything sinful or inappropriate in front of people. But I do have concerns that what they see might overwhelm them.
It is all of the above that leads me to this place of sharing what I’m about to share.
I mentor many people but typically don’t invite them to walk beside me every moment of the day. This past year, I had the experience of a unique discipleship journey. This person was someone I never envisioned leading in growing in their faith. I met my 91-year-old father who I had searched for almost all my adult life, searching first in my mind and then through every practical means possible. I found Gus and immediately led him to Christ. As a natural next step I began teaching him the basics of faith. I taught him everything from the fruits of the Spirit to serving him communion. Some of this was intentional and other parts of it organic. A few months into the process I brought him home to live with me and became his caregiver.
I was with Gus – morning, noon and night. The only time I wasn’t was when we hired a caregiver so I could go to the office or Sunday morning church. He was bedbound and wanted me by his side, holding his hand every moment possible. I wanted to meet that request so a majority of my time when I worked from home I set up shop in his room, with my computer sitting on his table on wheels by his bed. I would hold his left hand as I did reading for work, scrolling on the computer with my right hand. I would click through all my emails, and periodically let go and type whatever I needed to and respond. When phone calls came, I’d take them right there in front of him. I figured, my 91-year-old legally blind, hard of hearing, bedbound father was not going to take personal information anywhere. Where would he take it? He had nowhere to go with it. I never had concerns about what I said in front of him. Maybe I should have. Even when he was in the hospital for a week, I set up shop right next to him and worked.
Nothing I said in front of him was unGodly, but plenty of it was heavy. I solved a lot of leadership problems sitting there with him right beside me, listening. I heard a lot of people’s heartaches and gave what wisdom I could in return as he lay there beside me, listening quietly. I am not a person who fakes it, so there were times I even unconsciously uttered a heavy sigh or expressed that I wasn’t happy about something as I went back to the drawing board, working.
Gus saw me live out my work life.
He saw me live out my prayer life.
He saw me live out my worship life.
He saw me live out my marriage life.
He saw me live out my mothering life.
He saw me live out my aunt life.
He saw me live out my grandma life.
He saw me live out my pastor’s wife life.
He saw me live out my writer life.
He saw me live out my friend life.
He saw me live out sad days
He saw live out amazing days.
Life and ministry have only grown more complicated over the years. I’m a seasoned leader now, but what is required in leadership in 2022 is increasingly complex. Gus had a front-row seat to even greater challenges than Bart and Jen did.
And there was one question he asked me every single day.
“Deanna, are you okay?”
I used to wonder why he asked me this and other related questions daily.
Looking back, I guess I was pretty dense for wondering that.
I don’t know how I missed the obvious.
When I worked at the office and came home and walked into his room, he’d always ask, “How are you today?” Or, “How do you feel?”
There wasn’t a day he didn’t ask it.
I now realize how mind-blowing my life must have been to him.
Not that I was so special.
Just that my life may not be the norm.
No minister’s life is.
Our daily life is something that defies explanation.
It is something more experienced than explained.
Gus was not an aspiring up-and-coming minister.
He didn’t have the maturity of a seasoned Christian.
He was an elderly man growing frailer by the day. But inside his weakening body was a wise man, albeit streetwise, and a bit rough around the edges.
He knew what he saw.
He knew what he heard.
And he couldn’t help but ask, “Deanna…are you okay?”
Gus died December 6, 2022.
In his absence, the silence is deafening.
As a minister, most of the time I’m asking people if they’re okay — not the other way around. My brain holds so much about other people’s lives it often feels like it’s going to metophorically burst.
I don’t know what goes on in everyone else’s home, office or family. But I tell you what… I’m realizing the need to ask a lot more people — and especially my leader-friends, “Are you okay?”
The thing I miss the most now that Gus is gone might be something a majority of people, and especially ministers, are missing from their lives.