Last night we went to a goodbye party. While I’m normally quite the party gal, these are my least favorite types of party. I absolutely hate saying goodbye!
Our friends Jim and Katie were in mine and James’ first off-campus small group. A close knit group of various ages and stages in life, we met each Sunday evening for dinner, a Bible study, and a good time. We kept it up for a little over a year and when our group became too big for intimate fellowship, Jim and Katie became the leaders of the core group and James and I moved on with another couple or two to begin a new small group. Even that felt like a goodbye of sorts. It was tough leaving the ease and familiarity of our group to start a new one. But we knew we were leaving it in capable hands with Jim and Katie. Over the past two years we’ve continued to combine all of the break-off groups for parties and cookouts.
But last night we bid Jim and Katie a more lasting kind of farewell. They’re moving to New Mexico later this week to be closer to the rest of their family. We will miss them greatly. Not only were they phenomenal small group leaders, but they led our church’s Team Kid program, Katy sang in the choir, they both worked in Vacation Bible School, and Katie was one of my favorite Bible study gals– always wearing a smile, offering good comments, and pitching in with “housekeeping” type things.
Ministry molds people together. When you minister alongside someone, you develop a kindred spirit between you. Your hearts begin to beat with the same passions, you pray for the same things, you weep over the same losses, and you celebrate common victories. Even last night, amongst the casual conversation and reluctant goodbyes, Katie enthusiastically shared with me about some of the newer couples in their group. With that familiar twinkle in her eyes, she told me of the progress they’d made, the hopes they have for some of the folks in the group, and the prayers they will continue to pray even as they leave. Jim and Katie may be leaving, but they take with them a fervent love for small group ministry, a heart for our church, and a desire to see other believers grow in their relationships with Christ.
Goodbyes are hard. Because we’ve been in the ministry for over 20 years, James and I have locked hearts with many people in the throes of ministry. We dive in and enjoy working, praying, and dreaming together. We laugh and cry and learn and grow and face disappointments and overcome challenges together. We begin to feel like partners, like family. We learn to love one another, be patient with each other, forgive little offenses and oversights, and carry on. We get used to each other. And then…someone leaves.
Until we moved here, it was usually us that left. I hated those goodbyes. James and I, along with our kids, have always planted ourselves deeply wherever God has chosen to lead us. We know it’s risky, but we feel that’s the only way to truly live. So when God would begin to dig up our roots and move our hearts to somewhere new, it was quite painful. Even though there have been some moves that included a sense of relief, we’ve never moved on without our hearts breaking.
But now that we’re in this extremely transient military town, we are always on the other end of goodbye. We are now the ones being left behind. Jim and Katie are not a military couple, but we are saying goodbye to several couples in the next month who are. We have already said goodbye to more folks than I care to count who are either military, border patrol or contractors who work for the government. Goodbyes are way too common here. At this time of year, they are weekly.
The good news is, hellos are just as common. And I love hellos. I love meeting new people, anticipating new relationships and partnerships, getting to know new folks – their dreams and passions and experiences. Hellos are the tantalizing appetizer of the good things yet to come. Goodbyes are the sweet dessert that bring the good times to a necessary close. They are sweet, but the knowledge that the party is almost over makes them a little bitter too.
People in our military town handle the coming and going in different ways. Some have decided to stay ever so detached, trying to stay as far as possible from the risks of broken hearts. But most welcome the hellos even though they know the goodbyes are inevitable – sometimes three months later, other times three years down the road, but almost always somewhere on the horizon. And that goes both ways. I’ve noticed some military families stay to themselves, visit family in other states often, and treat their time here in Sierra Vista more like an extended stay on a whirlwind vacation than a permanent home. But others plug in, join the church, get their hands dirty with the work of ministry, invest themselves in people they will never see again and a church family they will only be with for a short while. They know the goodbyes are coming, but they resist the temptation to guard their hearts so closely that the goodbyes don’t sting. They accept the anticipated pain and attach themselves to the fabric of our church and community like a sewn on patch. And these are the folks who win in the long run because they carry with them so much love and leave behind a valuable piece of themselves every time they move on.
Well, I’ve rambled enough here for today. Going on and on isn’t going to make Jim and Katie stay. Neither will it keep Blake and Mike from leaving, or Julie and Tim, or Antoinette and David, or Kathy or Aimee or …
But it’s ok, not because someone else will come along and replace them. Because they won’t. New friends do not replace the old. And new ministry partners don’t fill the shoes of the former. But it’s ok because they will remain in our hearts, in our memories and in our prayers. And one day we will see them again, if not on this side of eternity, then definitely around the throne in heaven.