I dreaded my last Sunday as pastor at Wedgewood. I have loved being the pastor here and I didn’t want to go through all the goodbyes and tears. In some ways it is like grieving a death – it is easier on the one who is dying to go fast, without any time for goodbyes. I have to admit I thought about ways to just quietly sneak away! But it is better for those who are left behind to have time to cry and say goodbye. The last Sunday was a time to cry and say goodbye and to grieve the end of a long and wonderful relationship.
Yesterday, my last Sunday, was a wonderful celebration with laughter, tears, and so many hugs I’ll have to get my suit cleaned again! I had fretted about my sermon – because it seemed very ordinary. But the church was packed (over 300 in attendance!) and I’m not sure it would have mattered what I said. The church was full and the Holy Spirit spoke to everyone on some level. John and Jackie (son and daughter-in-law) took the great pictures that are in the slide show. There were plenty of tears, but we also remembered the blessings that God has given us over our time together. Baptisms, new members joining the church, weddings, visits in the hospital, funerals – I have been privileged to be part of so many lives in my 21 years at Wedgewood.
Nick and Krissa, the first two babies born after I started at the church, were there (Krissa always says she and Nick are my favorites). Rick and Vicki Lynn Phillips, who are members of the first church I served, came. They said they were there the first Sunday at my first church and they wanted to be there for my last Sunday at Wedgewood. My parents and son and daughter-in-law came. Most of the regular attenders made a special effort to be there. The choir sang an anthem I requested. The Praise Band led songs I requested and sang a special anthem. There was a retirement ceremony I wrote at the end of the service in which the congregation gave me permission to lay down the burdens of being a pastor. I left items on the altar – a communion stole, a Bible, a Book of Discipline, a sheep – for the new pastor, Rev. Joe Burkhardt, to pick up on his first Sunday.
After the service so many people stood in line to talk to me. They were very patient, because it wasn’t just “nice sermon pastor.” It was “thank you for so many things” with lots of bear hugs and plenty of tears. Sammie, one of my little ones, came through the line sobbing because she didn’t want to come to church if Rev. Karen wasn’t going to be there. Several people hovered around me all day, getting hugs whenever they could, as if they were storing them up for the future.
When I got done with the line, the Staff Parish Committee hurried me downstairs where over 250 people were seated at the tables waiting for Tom and I to make our appearance. The members of the Staff Parish Committee talked about our accomplishments over the years and gave us lovely parting gifts appropriate for people living in a 35 foot RV (THANK YOU SPRC!). A book, a dogwood tree planted in our honor, a love offering taken over the previous weeks. But the very best gift and one that absolutely blew us away, was a plaque that will be hung over the entrance to the Family Life Center – “Hartley Family Life Center!” Our name is going to be on the gym where we have spent so much time and done so much ministry together.
I didn’t get to eat much – I was too busy talking to everyone – but there was lots of good food and time to talk and share together. I took lots of selfies with people so that I can remember this day with them. By the time I got home I was exhausted and ready to be done with all the hoopla. Over the course of the afternoon and evening I opened the cards written by more than 100 members of the church. I smiled and laughed and cried a little more and made a long list of all the thank you notes I will write.
My last Sunday was a wonderful day to remember the past and look forward to the future. I will always carry these people in my heart and I know they will pray for Tom and me and hold us close in memory.