Thomas C. WIlladsen

When I walked up the stairs I met…Thelma. “Do you want an envelope today?”

“No, thanks,” I said. “I brought my own.” This was my last Sunday worshipping at Bethel Worship Center. I was disappointed that Joyce was not there to greet me.

Every church needs a Joyce.

The first time I walked up the steps to the sanctuary, I didn’t know if I’d come through the right door. I didn’t even know where the sanctuary was. Joyce was there to welcome me. She looked me right in the eye and said, “Welcome to Bethel Worship Center. I’m Joyce.” She extended her right hand, but I could tell her impulse was to hug. I went with her impulse. She handed me a card to put my name, address, email address, and phone number on. She asked if I wanted an envelope. I figured I should get an envelope: she offered; I was new. “Accept everything,” is my default setting when I go to a new place.

The envelopes are for tithes and offerings. During the appointed time in the service, they play a video showing lots of happy people giving and receiving gifts, music playing in the background. The voiceover sings, “The Lord loves, yes He loves, the Lord loves… a cheerful giver!” It’s cheesy, but what the hell, this is Wisconsin.

The only person I knew going in was Pastor Joe. His wife, Chaun, is another pastor. Yet another pastor, Pastor Daphne, begins praying fifteen minutes before worship begins. She’s getting the house ready for praise. It’s extemporaneous—“Father God,” and “Hallelujah” are bits of verbal punctuation that can appear at any point during the prayer.

Pastor Chaun begins the service with some opening thoughts. She reads part of a psalm that was on her heart when she woke up this morning. Na Kita, the daughter of Pastors Joe and Chaun, is at the keyboard. There’s a guy playing trumpet, a bassist, and three singers. No one plays the drum set at the back of the chancel. A video of Elder Ron, the trumpet player, runs on the screen, he gives the announcements for the week’s activities.

Pastor Joe enters and asks if there are any visitors in the house. I stand. He says, “OK people, let’s do what we do best!” The hugging starts. Joyce finds me, hugs me again, tells me how good it is to meet me. She looks me in the eye again. Her face is not wide enough to express her joy. Everything I can see about Joyce tells me she’s been though a lot in life; her smile tells me she is all right.

After worship Pastor Joe invites me to a group of pastors who meet every Monday morning to pray for each other and our community. I didn’t know about the group, and having been set free from the Presbyterian congregation in town a few weeks before, I accept his invitation.

I don’t remember Pastor Joe’s message, but I remember Joyce.

The next time I visit Bethel Worship Center, Joyce is at the top of the stairs. I know where the sanctuary is this time. I accept and return Joyce’s hug. She holds on and asks how I’ve been. She waits for me to tell her. I tell her about the last few months of my life. She’s shocked, shocked that any church would not want me as their pastor. I am so happy to see Joyce.

Soon after, Bethel Worship Center becomes my church home. I learn people’s names. I go to their gospel music festival one Saturday. Elder Ron’s brothers have come from Detroit to perform with him. They are good. Very good. Ron’s kid brother, Stephen, on guitar is George Benson’s clone.

The first icy day in December Joyce wasn’t at the top of the stairs. The ice probably kept her away, Pastor Joe explains.

Joyce isn’t your typical Pentecostal. She wouldn’t even know what that label means. Fifteen years ago she belonged to a congregation affiliated with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that was then lodged in Bethel Worship Center’s current home. That church closed. A few months later, the Holy Spirit guided Pastors Joe and Chaun to purchase the building. Joyce was part of the package; she came with the building. Joyce gained a new, and better, family, she says, when the new church arrived.

Yesterday when I climbed the stairs, Thelma hugged me. I didn’t want to say, “Where’s Joyce?” especially after Thelma’s welcome. I found a seat. The band was rehearsing; this morning a new person was playing flute. Just after Pastor Daphne finished getting the place ready for worship, I got a tap on the shoulder.

“Joyce! I’m so glad you found me! I missed you on the stairs today and was afraid you wouldn’t be here today!”

She hugs me and then says, “I haven’t seen you for a while.”

“Been doing pulpit supply, filling in—lots of Presbyterians have been on vacation. But I had to be here today. I’m moving. This will be my last Sunday here.”

Another hug. Some tears. We’re nose to nose now. “I know God’s got something in mind for you! But I hate to see you go!”

“This—” I say, with more tears, “is my hardest goodbye.”

Joyce returns to door duty. Worship starts. When Bethel starts doing what they do best, Joyce and I find each other. Another hug. Joyce tells me, “A cloud is lifting over you, I can feel it.”

“God is good.”

“All the time.”

I pray the church I am going to start serving next month has a Joyce. Every church needs a Joyce. So does every pastor.


Thomas C. Willadsen has been a Presbyterian minister in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for nearly two decades. In October, he started serving a congregation in Nebraska.

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