Pastor Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell begins the new year with a love letter to her church.

It’s been two years, Beloved. Did you remember? I did. I remember because I was so uncertain. I remember because I was fearful, hesitant. I remember because I did not know if my heart would love you, could love you. And it wasn’t you. It was me, with my wounds and hurts, my aches and sadness. I came to you, wondering if I had a single thing to give you, if I had even a solitary word to offer up.

I didn’t ask God for wisdom and discernment, even though I clearly needed it. I didn’t ask for vision for the future or inspiration, even though that’s certainly the ‘in vogue’ request of the Lord from preachers. My one request of the Lord was that he would teach me to love you.

Maybe you think it a foolish request. Why not go big?! Grant us great growth, Lord! Grant us scads of converts! Bless us financially beyond measure so we can minister to our community! Give me eloquent words, funny yet inspiring stories, creative messages that capture the mind and heart and lead sinners to repentance!

No. I did not ask for the showy gifts, the kind that impress the district assembly crowds or attract potential church-goers like moths to a flame. I asked that I might love you well. Because I have learned (at the ripe old age of 32), that the best way, and perhaps only way, to be truly faithful as a shepherd is to fall head over heels in love with your sheep. I know, it’s sounds so fluffy, so lightweight. But it’s not. It’s not easy to love you, Beloved. Not because you’re difficult (even though you are on rare occasion), and not because you’re unkind or cruel (you are, in fact, the opposite.)

It is difficult to love you mostly because I am small. I am weak. I am broken and in need of grace just like you. And every time I stand before you in the pulpit, I think, Oh God have mercy. Who am I to bring a Word to these people, broken as I am?

But it is also difficult to love you because sometimes loving you means saying hard things. Sometimes loving you means not allowing certain behaviors to continue. Sometimes loving you means helping you through really dark days and I so often feel inadequate to do so. It is difficult to love you well.

And yet, God has heard my prayer. He has heard and he has answered. It is as if two years (plus one day) ago, when we pulled into town with our big old Penske truck, a toddler, and our naughty beagle, God tucked a tiny little seed in my heart. A seed so small it was almost imperceptible. But now, I see it. Green shoots emerging from the soil, love for you my people blossoming in my heart. Oh how I love you. I couldn’t not love you now if I tried.

God, you are so faithful. So faithful to hear my prayer, so faithful to shape my heart to love these, my people, my precious flock.

And so I write these words to you, Beloved. I love you. You are mine, and I am yours. Over the past two years, we have journeyed together. I’ve held your babies, and you’ve held mine. I’ve brought you the Word as faithfully as I can as led by the Spirit, and you have received it and spoken the Word back to me as I needed to hear it. I have said hard things on occasion as I must, and you have heard my heart. And, in my moments of immaturity and failing, you have spoken truth to me as well. And I heard you too and received grace beyond measure through you.

And this fall, when the darkness of depression weighed down upon me with renewed heaviness, you received me in my weakness. When I was so very tired, you were kind and gentle. When I drove back and forth to daily treatments, spending hours in the car away from you and the office, you did not question my commitment or devotion to you, my work ethic or passion. No, instead you brought my family dinner, the “sacrament of chicken casserole” as Rachel Held Evans puts it. And in you and your casseroles and salads, I saw Jesus, Jesus in the flesh.

And so begins another year in our journey together. And I am grateful beyond measure. I continue to pray that the Lord will teach me to love you well, to love you faithfully. I continue to pray that every word I say from the pulpit, every lesson taught, song sung, prayer said, meeting led will be permeated with Love.

I love you.

Thanks be to God for this precious gift.

Pastor Stephanie

Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell is a 2012 graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary. During her time at NTS, Stephanie and husband Tommy served as co-pastors at Kingston Church of the Nazarene for almost 6 years. Currently, they both serve as co-lead pastors at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene. Stephanie has written for various publications including Folio: A Preaching Companion, Collide preteen curriculum, and A Plain Account Online Wesleyan Lectionary Commentary.