Today, we say goodbye to our pastor, the Rev Patrick Heery. After 7 years at Westminster, Patrick preaches his last sermon in our pulpit this morning, and we officially “dissolve the pastoral relationship” in a congregational meeting following worship.
Patrick moved to Auburn in May 2016, the result of an extensive nationwide search following the retirement of our previous pastor of 14 years, Phil Windsor. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Patrick was the editor of the denominational magazine Presbyterians Today. He had never led a church before, but we were so impressed by his passion, energy, and intelligence that we called this young man to be our pastor. He and his wife Jenna moved here from Louisville, KY, bought a home, and hit the ground running. He, and we, will never be the same.
A lot can happen in seven years, and we’ve walked side by side with Patrick through all of it. We lost many longtime, beloved members, and many new individuals and families joined us. The Westminster Nursery School, a ministry of our church for over 60 years, closed its doors, and a new educational program began, including a teen drop-in center for LBGTQ+ youth. A longtime tenant, The Rev, moved out, but their move resulted in more space for our ministries and new initiatives in our buildings. New babies arrived and joined the church family, including Emerson and Josephine Heery. The congregation and the Heerys celebrated joys and shared sorrows. We laughed, cried, worshiped, prayed, and worked together.
Oh, and a pandemic happened. In March of 2020, everything shut down, and we had to figure out how to keep being a church in brand new ways. At the very time that people most needed the comfort and support of a church community, we were suddenly unable to gather. We quickly (within a week) figured out how to worship online. For over a year, Patrick sat in front of his office laptop on Sunday mornings, a solitary person leading worship with an online community that grew over the course of the pandemic. We learned how to hold meetings on Zoom, support each other remotely, and continue to be a church community. Eventually, we cautiously began to gather again, while continuing to include online and hybrid ways to participate. Westminster actually grew during these hard times, finding new ways to be church in person and online.
We are still finding our way in this brave new world, and now we’ll be looking for a new pastor to walk the walk with us. Just as Patrick is called to move on to a new phase of his life, so is the church. Patrick’s journey takes him and his family to his hometown of Cincinnati, where they will live with his father-- Patrick concentrating on being a son and a dad, and Jenna pursuing her career in ministry. Where will Westminster’s next steps take us?
Westminster Church in Auburn has a unique identity shaped by its his long history. It is a church founded in 1862 over the abolition of slavery, and the call for social justice has remained constant through today. It has historically supported children, education, equal rights, rich and vibrant worship, and full inclusion of all in the life and work of the church. And although the church is constantly changing, with people and leaders coming and going, it maintains a consistent identity because of the priorities which have been important throughout its history.
Presbyterians govern themselves in a unique way, believing that God’s voice is best heard through collective discernment. Authority does not lie with a single individual, not even the pastor. Community and communal decision-making are important. As one of our curriculum says, we believe there’s more Holy Spirit in a bunch of us than in any single one of us.
Since Patrick announced his departure in February, I’ve been reminded of a poignant story in the Old Testament. Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and wandered with them for 40 years, never got to enter the promised land. He glimpsed it from a nearby mountain, but passed the torch of leadership to Joshua to lead the Israelites into their new home.
Westminster and Auburn will miss Patrick dearly, and we are exceedingly grateful for his time with us. But Westminster is not his church nor is it our church. It is God’s church, and God is still with us, calling us forward.