The Returning Ones

Stories that Shaped my Faith

The Returning Ones

by Melissa lee emerson | August 8, 2018

The book called out to me. That’s all I can say. I’d heard about it in passing, then one day I saw it on my colleague’s desk. Perhaps it was the phrase “I’m perfect” that was scribbled out and re-written “The Imperfect Pastor,” that struck me. But I still didn’t read it. Several years later, it sat languishing on my nightstand until I finally had enough wisdom (or desperation) to pick it up.

What made me desperate? I had returned home. After five years of being away from my hometown and home church, I had returned to the place of my roots—the city where I grew up, where I first heard the call to follow Jesus, where I rolled up my sleeves with giddy excitement to share in the kingdom work of transforming a diverse people into a united people.

It has not been an easy road. Church revitalization ministry is hard. I think it might be just a tad harder for recovering perfectionists (shout-out to all my Enneagram #1 sojourners!). In a season swarming with temptations to carry too much on my shoulders, to doubt the call, to forfeit my joy, to rush the slow work it takes to build a church, to fix everything and just make it right—it became clear that God wanted to grab my attention with this book and invite me to contend with the words of wisdom that saturated each page.

Chapter by chapter, my soul swayed to a cadence between conviction and grace, with healing words washing over me, cleansing my wounds. I’m so grateful that author and pastor Zack Eswine was willing to invite other pastors into his office, where he learned how to recover his humanity as a pastor, to serve in obscurity, to fight the temptations to be everywhere for all and to fix it all immediately. I’m grateful for his invitation to reshape our inner life and reshape the work we do, to go back to the basics of “discovering joy in our limitations through a daily apprenticeship with Jesus.”

But the chapter that made my soul come alive focused on pastors as shepherds, or as he put it, “the returning ones.” In this chapter, Eswine invites us to place ourselves in the story of the Christmas shepherds who are the experts in “dealing with anticlimax.”

He writes, “Ancient promises are fulfilled. Fear seizes these sheep men. Good tidings are spoken to them. They are told that the Savior is born and there will be a sign to confirm it. To see and hear angels was spectacular already. Imagine how spectacular the Messiah’s sign would be! Perhaps God would reach down his hand and create a new planet…right before their very eyes! But here the anticlimax begins. No planets were formed. The sign of God’s fame lay in the aroma of cattle and hay, the placenta of new birth, the cries and warmth of ordinary life. Then after beholding and participating in this too-grand-for-words event, the shepherds returned (Luke 2:20). After beholding the glory, the shepherds went home.”

As I flew through these pages, the conviction came. The temptation I was warned against, the temptation I was so sure I would overcome, had walked through my front door and sat in my living room, and I pretended it wasn’t there. In the secret chambers of my heart, I thought that if God had called me home, he would create a new planet (or church) before my very eyes. I would stand witness to his too-grand-for-words church revitalization (after all, I did take a class on this!). I thought that with God on my side, I could “show them all” that I could be an effective minority woman pastor. I would show them I had what it takes. I would make the women who went before me and came alongside me proud. I would be perfect.

Well, shoot. I did it again. I left the voice of perfectionism unchecked and it got me.

Well, shoot. I did it again. I left the voice of perfectionism unchecked and it got me. In truth, I’ve come home to the ordinary life of a shepherd. Like Eswine, I’ve felt the complaint in my body and soul that accompanies this labor. I’ve felt discouraged by people’s questions about why I came back. I’ve felt the exhaustion of being asked to keep my eyes and ears open when others in my community are more closed.

But then this chapter became a banqueting table, the quiet waters and green pastures with these words: “But right here, God in his grace disrupts us. By means of the shepherds returning, God seems to seriously imply that seeing God’s glory, hearing his voice, receiving his good news, and beholding his love was never meant to deliver us from ordinary life and love in a place—it was meant to provide the means to preserve us there.”

Yes, we return to the seemingly “same old, same old,” but I am a changed woman. I’ve been called and empowered to dwell here and savor where God has brought me thus far. I’m called to let “worship, hope, and testimony refuse to quit.” Sometimes God does call us away, but sometimes God calls us to return and to stay—no matter what occupation we hold.

So as Zack Eswine pastors us, I leave you with his question: “What does it mean for us if the future and the hope that God has for our welfare means that we will have to trust him right where we are?”

About the Author

Melissa Lee Emerson is a bivocational pastor in Sugar Land, Texas. She serves as associate minister of family care at Mosaic Community Covenant Church and as program manager of Loving Houston, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help churches serve local schools. She graduated from North Park Theological Seminary in 2015 and is happy to have returned to Houston with her husband, Anthony, and her puppy.

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  1. PS: I’m a fellow #1 on the Enneagram. I feel your pain…but the Kingdom and church needs us, sister! (Even if we drive ourselves, and sometimes others, crazy with our idealism and passion for what could be.) 😉

  2. Beautifully written. Wonderful insights into the lesson we all need to keep re-learning. Thanks for ministering to me with your gift of words today.

  3. Thank you Melissa for sharing your honest words. May your ministry be real and full of grace.

  4. I’m so proud of your good work Melissa. It is always a miracle to behold when pastors learn to offer the same gentle, persevering grace to themselves as they have offered to others. May you continue to receive the same grace for your journey that you so generously offer to others in both their giftedness and their not-yet-ness

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