Sorry, Thomas Wolfe, but you got it wrong! In his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, Wolfe tells the story of George Webber, an author who wrote a book about his hometown. As Webber contemplates his return to his old stomping ground, he anticipates a hero’s welcome. What he receives is quite the opposite.
Feeling betrayed by things Webber’s book revealed about them, Webber’s friends and family members drove him out of town. Webber, shaken by their reaction, departs, saddened to discover that those who know us best often respect us least. Although not intended by Wolfe, it is a reminder of Jesus’ teaching, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home” (Mark 6:4).
Yet I write these words as I come down from a mountaintop experience. I’ve been home again and loved it as I preached for the 125th anniversary at the church that ordained me, First Presbyterian Church of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Some of the great saints in that congregation have gone on to glory, but most of the people in attendance remembered with fondness, and some humor, my early days among them. Despite my many slip-ups as a newly graduated seminarian, those folk still love me.
During the 30 years since I left, the people of this congregation often have demonstrated their love for my family. The annual Christmas and birthday cards and occasional invitations to preach for special moments have been steady reminders of their grace toward this former pastor. This time allowed me the honor of being in Sunday worship for the first time with their fine young minister, Matt Mitchell. From the beginning, Matt made me feel welcome. It’s clear he is God’s man and that he loves his congregation—and that after three years of ministry among them they reciprocate with deep love for him.
You can go home again, but as former pastors there are principles we need to remember. Here are some things that come to mind:
First, the church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. I may call it “my church” or “my former congregation,” but it was never truly mine. It was always Christ’s. He lays claim to it (Matt. 16:18).
Second, it was Christ, through His Holy Spirit, who called me there as a newly graduated seminarian, and it was Him who called me away eight years later.
Third, the same Jesus called a new pastor there three years ago. He is God’s man for this time in the life of this congregation. As such, he must be accorded the honor of his office. Had it been necessary (it wasn’t!), I had decided I would refuse to be drawn into any critical comments about the current pastor. So must you!
I remember the reception accorded me by my beloved predecessor there, Dr. Arthur Schneider Jr., who now dwells with the saints in heaven. On my first Sunday as pastor, Dr. Schneider, who served more than 31 years, passed the mantle of leadership completely to me.
Despite what others anticipated, I was not a pastoral sacrificial lamb. To the contrary, Dr. Schneider became my number one supporter. He made it his business to promote me verbally at all times. We developed a bond unlike any other I have experienced in my years as a pastor. He quietly took me under his wing and helped make me a better pastor.
I owe it to Christ and Dr. Schneider to support my successors in each congregation I have served, but especially in this one where a young and sometimes naïve seminary graduate from Northern Ireland was loved despite his many faults. While my successor doesn’t need my endorsement, it was my privilege to compliment him often during the weekend we shared in ministry.
Thomas Wolfe was wrong! We preachers can go home again as long as we remember and practice these things. Yet that home never will be quite the same. If we’re blessed, the love of Jesus still will be there for us, but home is not really home anymore, because a new under-shepherd is called to lead the flock we once led. He alone is the pastor now, and he alone should receive the respect and honor his position among God’s people is due (Rom. 13:7; 1 Tim. 5:17).
After 40-plus years of pastoral ministry, Leslie Holmes teaches a new generation of preachers at Erskine Theological Seminary. You can reach him at LHolmes@Erskine.edu.