On a steamy August day in 1985, my wife Jane and I left our apartment in the suburbs of Philadelphia in a U–Haul loaded with all our worldly goods and our little Ford hitched to the back. After four years of seminary, I was eager to begin my ministry as a pastor.
At first I felt so nervous about the trip I could barely hold on to the steering wheel. The last words muttered by the attendant at the truck rental agency as he handed us the keys rang in my ears: “Whatever you do, don’t back up!” But after a few hours Jane and I bounced along in the cab quite at ease, marveling at the long shadow we cast.
The green hills of Pennsylvania gave way to flat land, as we rolled through miles of cornfields past one sleepy little town after another. Each new one looked identical to the ones we left behind a few miles back, with a post office and stop sign in the center of town and its church with a white spire rising high above the houses. The country roads stretched long and straight in front of us, until at last we turned into the gravel drive to the place that Jane and I would call home for the next nine years.
The residents of this small community were a puzzle to me. They waved as they drove by in the car but sat in silence when we walked into the local diner. When we showed up at sporting events they stared from a distance, as if we were some kind of unknown species, then treated us with studied disinterest as we came closer. I asked one of the older members of our church how long it took for people in town to accept newcomers. “I’ve lived here for twenty years, and they still look at me as an outsider,” she said. “I think you have to be born here.”
My role as a pastor didn’t help matters. I found that it made people nervous to learn what I did. I visited a woman in the community who told me she worried all day knowing that I was coming. She was so anxious about the visit that she cleaned the closets. When I asked her why, she said, “Having the minister come over is almost like having God visit your house.” Another family I visited told me their little daughter burst into tears when they told her the “preacher” was coming over. “But Mommy,” the girl had cried, “I don’t want the creature to come over.” As far as I was concerned, that about said it all. I wasn’t a person anymore. I was “the creature.”
While my identity as a pastor made people outside the church ill at ease, those who were a part of the church seemed to feel differently. Church members always mentioned my title when they introduced me to their friends and neighbors. “This is our minister, Reverend Koessler,” they said. The title always came before the name. In personal conversation some omitted my name altogether, addressing me only as “Preacher.” The sound of it always brought me up short, like a slap or a sharp blast of cold air, the stark language serving as a blunt reminder of what they expected from me.
The memory of those first awkward days is dear to me now. As is the knowledge that for a few short years I bore a title that I had not earned and did not deserve. Back then I would have preferred that they call me by my first name. Today I am glad they did not.