I thought I was indestructible. In 2009 I had easily managed to graduate from seminary, have a baby, begin my ministry as a solo pastor in rural Wisconsin, and buy a house. Everything went as smoothly as it could, the transitions were managed well and I was able to balance my roles as wife, mom, and pastor. But this had to end. And it did, abruptly.
In the spring of 2011, a week after the birth of our son, I, who was indestructible, was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition: peripartum cardiomyopathy. Not only was I facing a potentially devastating disease, I was told that I needed to immediately wean my son, and was urged to never have children again. Suddenly my ability to remain calm and put together was shattered. I was struck with a grief I had never experienced; never, ever, did I think that I would be told when I was done having children. I felt like something had been stripped violently away from me, stolen from me without my permission. And all of this left me feeling very lost and alone. But even in the midst of that loneliness there was something always present: my congregation.
While on maternity leave, I remember congregation members stopping in or calling at the wrong time, only to hear their pastor sobbing uncontrollably, barely able to have a conversation. They embraced me, let my cry on their shoulders, told me that they loved me and would continue to pray for me. They called, sent cards, visited, sent emails just to check how I was doing. I heard so many stories of women from who had experienced infertility or were told never to have children again. We cried together. And all this while I couldn’t help but think that, somehow, I was letting them down. It was my job to take care of them. I remembered all of the boundary workshops and classes I had in seminary making explicit the fact that pastor is the one who needs to be ‘differentiated’ - to be a part of while remaining separate. Surely I was ruining my pastoral authority. I dreaded returning from maternity leave, because I knew I would have to rebuild all of the respect I had lost.
I remember the Sunday I returned to worship, I had just finished the children’s time was rising to go back to the pulpit and I turned around and there were three kids who had not left to go back to their parents. After I stood, each one came over to me, gave me a hug and said, “We love you, Pastor Ashley.” To say I was touched and humbled would be a gross understatement. To my surprise, I received the same welcome from all the adults after worship. Between the hugs I kept hearing over and over, “We are so glad you are back, Pastor Ashley. We really love you." I didn’t understand - how could they still love me? I had let them down; I had crumbled right before their eyes. But that didn’t matter to them, because they really did love me, and dare I say that they loved me even more after all of this? They really did care for me. They didn’t mind that they had entered into my personal space, to see my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They saw it as a gift that they could fill my emptiness with their love. I had made the mistake of assuming that I was the only one who was to give love.
Even a number of months post-diagnosis, they gracefully accept when my doctor’s appointments eat away at my office hours. They still give me a great deal of patience on those Sundays that I tend to miss the mark a bit. They still offer words of concern and prayers on my behalf; because they understand, because they know my pain, because they walked through that wilderness beside me. And one day, when I reach the promised land of recovery (and maybe one day more children) they can and will rejoice with me.