It wasn’t anything like I’d envisioned. I had accepted a call to my third church and was ready to do it right this time. Not that I’d done it incorrectly the first two times, but you know what they say: “Third time’s a charm!” Those first few weeks or months in a new church and a new community are the land of opportunity for a new pastor and for the church as well.
I moved to Cobourg, Ontario at the beginning of the summer, that special time when you can meet people simply by being outside. Neighbours are watering their gardens; people are hanging out at ice cream shops. They are on the sidewalks and they’re window shopping on King Street.
Grace Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has a reputation for over-the-top hospitality. So here’s what I had imagined for my kickoff: a Saturday morning pancake breakfast on the front lawn of the church. It would be so much fun! A banner would say, “Meet our new pastor!” Maybe the event would coincide with a summer sidewalk sale. I would invite my neighbours to check out our church – what better time to visit a new church than when the pastor, too, is a stranger!
And then COVID-19. It felt as though I had slipped away from Ancaster CRC under the cover of darkness and my relocation to Cobourg was part of some clandestine operation. There would be no community pancake breakfast.
Soon after my arrival, Ontario moved into Phase 2 of its reopening strategy. And I again started to think big. We’d announce it on our church sign: “Open for worship on July 5!” We’d take an ad out in the paper! Invite your friends!
Our re-opening committee brought me safely back to earth. This was going to be a “soft opening.” While we could accommodate 45 people, we would be reminding those most vulnerable and anyone who was fearful that they should stay home. I could empathize with Gideon; when God said to Gideon’s army, “anyone who trembles with fear may turn back . . .”, most of them opted to stay home (Judges 7:3).
We opened on July 5 and a lot of people opted to stay home. Twenty-two people came to the church building that morning. It was a soft opening, a worshipful, peace-filled, first Sunday back.
Eventually, more people will come back to the building for worship, but it won’t happen overnight. And I’m OK with that. In the meantime, I’m making Cobourg home. I visited the toy store downtown and bought a gift for one of our grandkids; turns out the owner of the store, Teresa, is my neighbour. I met Bart at the sports shop where I bought our kayaks – he lent me some paddles and he’ll call me when his new supply comes in. Neighbour Ken offered some advice on live streaming and the following week he asked how it went. Walter and Barbara, our neighbours on the other side, gave us a tag for our garbage, explaining that you had to buy them at Foodland for $3. At a neighbourhood grad celebration I met Rachel, whose dad was one of my high school teachers back in London.
I’m pretty sure God would have been present at the pancake breakfast, but I also know God reveals himself in the “gentle whisper” (I Kings 19:12), softly providing openings and opportunities to get to know my new church and community.