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When a pastoral search goes well, everyone wins. Last year when a soft-spoken lobsterman rose to his feet and challenged us at Spruce Head Community Church to seek a shepherd who would lead us and love us, we began praying and seeking to that end. The seeking and the finding has united us, and we are blessed to have welcomed a godly man and woman who are living small-town life alongside us, all the while holding forth the Word of Truth.
Winn Collier is also a small-town pastor, but with Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, he’s wearing his fiction-writer’s hat. Nonetheless, his heart for ministry comes shining through along with a clear-eyed affection for Christ’s body, communicated through the character of Pastor Jonas McAnn.
The pastoral search committee of Granby Presbyterian Church had grown tired of searching, weary of interviews, and fed up with the pretense when Amy Quitman, resident of Rural Route 28, took matters into her own capable handwriting and penned a letter that wrapped itself around one question:
“Do you actually want to be our pastor?”
Formalized by four signatures, the letter went forth to all future candidates.
In a half-hearted search of his own, Jonas McAnn saw in the letter a reason to reply with his own epistle, and finally, to leave behind his safe and predictable life in an insurance company cubicle, and to risk following his heart back into the trenches of pastoral ministry.
What follows is a bundle of letters from Pastor Jonas to his flock, randomly spaced and warmly personal. They have landed on my doorstep as well with their revelation of one side of a “spacious” conversation between a man who knows he was not called into the pastorate to fix anything or anybody and a group of people who have committed themselves to contributing “disruptive input” to each other’s lives.
With engaging characters and a page-turning narrative arc, Love Big, Be Well is a satisfying read for the story alone. Shades of John Ames of Gilead and Tim Kavanagh of Mitford made me hope for a sequel to follow Jonas’s return from sabbatical and future ministry at Granby Pres. However, at the risk of being banished to Wendell Berry’s desert island of exile for finding a subtext where none was intended, I will share that I came away with valuable insights — not in the form of a treatise on ministry, but rather more like thoughts overheard from a corner table at Stu’s Mud.
Thoughts on Calling
Jonas came to life in Granby with the settled conviction that he was committing himself to a web of relationships:
“So I committed my life to walking alongside people who I hoped to call friends. I committed to learning how to help people pray. I determined it would be my job to simply recount, over and again, that one beautiful story of how Love refused to tally the costs but came for us, came to be with us, came to heal us. . . “
Thoughts on the Role of a Pastor
Jonas McAnn came from a long line of pastors and proudly owned his heritage as one who fulfilled a unique and valuable role in the community:
- to “live with people” (42);
- to pray with them;
- to ponder Scripture with them;
- to “speak in good faith to other people who are trying very hard to listen in good faith” (47);
- to receive the wisdom of God as “a slow drip, not a sudden knowing,” (60) and then to keep showing up where it will do the most good;
- to “not take a position” when that is the most honest response;
- to take cues from the farmer who “tend farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods they know and love, in the company of neighbors they know and love.”
Thoughts on the Role of the Church
Amy ruefully described Granby Presbyterian to a friend and managed to capture every other church in the process:
“Unfortunately, if you’re looking for people to disappoint you, we will provide the material. In spades.”
Even so, under Jonas’s leadership, the church was called away from a shiny and boisterous presence into a resourceful availability to clean up messes — with the humble admission that the church is called to go first in admitting to our own messiness. “This is why we need the church all the more . . . [for] the only thing worse than our failing to inhabit mercy and holiness would be our making no attempt at all.”
On a practical note, the pastoral/congregational relationship gets off to a good start when the body is there en masse to greet and unload the moving van. From that point forward, the liturgy of even the most non-liturgical band of worshipers is one of “showing up, doing the work, being together.”
Thoughts on Love
Pastor McAnn’s eponymous “Big Love” comes down to “simply circling and staying near.” It was God’s big love that called Granby Pres. member Don Brady into the kingdom and that carried him through the rigors of cancer treatment as he wisely concluded:
“Love’s the main deal.”
Thoughts on Prayer
When elderly Miss Nelson prayed over Don’s cancer treatment, she reminded me that even when we do not know the will of God on a matter, there’s nothing wrong with reminding Him of how much we love and need someone in our community.
Given my own uneasy relationship with prayer, I collect wisdom to keep me in the game. Jonas related a homely parable on prayer from a fruitless fly fishing adventure with Luther that left him flat on fishing, but tutored him in the practice of prayer:
“‘Why would anyone torture themselves with this galling pastime?’
‘I like how you’re just in it. You’re in the water, in the woods. Everything’s happening around you.’
I’ve concluded that my problem (aside from how I have no idea what I’m doing on the river) is my focus on casting properly, on actually catching fish. Luther, however, comes to the river in a much different way. ‘I like being in the water,’ he explained, ‘with the breeze and the scent and the solitude. Even when I don’t catch anything, I come back different than when I left.‘”
Jonas McAnn wrote letters to his congregation from a desire to pay attention and to help his people do likewise. He wanted to remind his readers that life together is good and it consists of shared stories — shared experiences that call us toward the Light. For anyone who is committed to this calling over the long haul, Love Big, Be Well is a benediction, a reminder that ministry is “shot through with blessing,” and a celebration of the dignity of the slow work of ministry in community.
This book was provided by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”