A Bundle of Letters on the Church’s Doorstep

When a pastoral search goes well, everyone wins. Last year when a soft-spoken lobsterman rose to his feet and challenged us at Spruce Head Community to seek a shepherd who would lead us and love us, we began praying and seeking to that end. The seeking and the finding has united us, and we are blessed to have welcomed a godly man and woman who are living small-town life alongside us, all the while holding forth the Word of Truth.

Winn Collier is also a small-town pastor, but with Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, he’s wearing his fiction-writer’s hat. Nonetheless, his heart for ministry comes shining through along with a clear-eyed affection for Christ’s body, communicated through the character of Pastor Jonas McAnn.

The pastoral search committee of Granby Presbyterian Church had grown tired of searching, weary of interviews, and fed up with the pretense when Amy Quitman, resident of Rural Route 28, took matters into her own capable handwriting and penned a letter that wrapped itself around one question:

“Do you actually want to be our pastor?”

Formalized by four signatures, the letter went forth to all future candidates.

In a half-hearted search of his own, Jonas McAnn saw in the letter a reason to reply with his own epistle, and finally, to leave behind his safe and predictable life in an insurance company cubicle, and to risk following his heart back into the trenches of pastoral ministry.

What follows is a bundle of letters from Pastor Jonas to his flock, randomly spaced and warmly personal. They have landed on my doorstep as well with their revelation of one side of a “spacious” conversation between a man who knows he was not called into the pastorate to fix anything or anybody and a group of people who have committed themselves to contributing “disruptive input” to each other’s lives.

With engaging characters and a page-turning narrative arc, Love Big, Be Well is a satisfying read for the story alone. Shades of John Ames of Gilead and Tim Kavanagh of Mitford made me hope for a sequel to follow Jonas’s return from sabbatical and future ministry at Granby Pres. However, at the risk of being banished to Wendell Berry’s desert island of exile for finding a subtext where none was intended, I will share that I came away with valuable insights — not in the form of a treatise on ministry, but rather more like thoughts overheard from a corner table at Stu’s Mud.

Thoughts on Calling

Jonas came to life in Granby with the settled conviction that he was committing himself to a web of relationships:

“So I committed my life to walking alongside people who I hoped to call friends. I committed to learning how to help people pray. I determined it would be my job to simply recount, over and again, that one beautiful story of how Love refused to tally the costs but came for us, came to be with us, came to heal us. . . “

Thoughts on the Role of a Pastor

Jonas McAnn came from a long line of pastors and proudly owned his heritage as one who fulfilled a unique and valuable role in the community:

  • to “live with people” (42);
  • to pray with them;
  • to ponder Scripture with them;
  • to “speak in good faith to other people who are trying very hard to listen in good faith” (47);
  • to receive the wisdom of God as “a slow drip, not a sudden knowing,” (60) and then to keep showing up where it will do the most good;
  • to “not take a position” when that is the most honest response;
  • to take cues from the farmer who “tend farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods they know and love, in the company of neighbors they know and love.”

Thoughts on the Role of the Church

Amy ruefully described Granby Presbyterian to a friend and managed to capture every other church in the process:

“Unfortunately, if you’re looking for people to disappoint you, we will provide the material. In spades.”

Even so, under Jonas’s leadership, the church was called away from a shiny and boisterous presence into a resourceful availability to clean up messes — with the humble admission that the church is called to go first in admitting to our own messiness. “This is why we need the church all the more . . . [for] the only thing worse than our failing to inhabit mercy and holiness would be our making no attempt at all.”

On a practical note, the pastoral/congregational relationship gets off to a good start when the body is there en masse to greet and unload the moving van. From that point forward, the liturgy of even the most non-liturgical band of worshipers is one of “showing up, doing the work, being together.”

Thoughts on Love

Pastor McAnn’s eponymous “Big Love” comes down to “simply circling and staying near.” It was God’s big love that called Granby Pres. member Don Brady into the kingdom and that carried him through the rigors of cancer treatment as he wisely concluded:

“Love’s the main deal.”

Thoughts on Prayer

When elderly Miss Nelson prayed over Don’s cancer treatment, she reminded me that even when we do not know the will of God on a matter, there’s nothing wrong with reminding Him of how much we love and need someone in our community.

Given my own uneasy relationship with prayer, I collect wisdom to keep me in the game. Jonas related a homely parable on prayer from a fruitless fly fishing adventure with Luther that left him flat on fishing, but tutored him in the practice of prayer:

“‘Why would anyone torture themselves with this galling pastime?’

‘I like how you’re just in it. You’re in the water, in the woods. Everything’s happening around you.’

I’ve concluded that my problem (aside from how I have no idea what I’m doing on the river) is my focus on casting properly, on actually catching fish. Luther, however, comes to the river in a much different way. ‘I like being in the water,’ he explained, ‘with the breeze and the scent and the solitude. Even when I don’t catch anything, I come back different than when I left.‘”

Jonas McAnn wrote letters to his congregation from a desire to pay attention and to help his people do likewise. He wanted to remind his readers that life together is good and it consists of shared stories — shared experiences that call us toward the Light. For anyone who is committed to this calling over the long haul, Love Big, Be Well is a benediction, a reminder that ministry is “shot through with blessing,” and a celebration of the dignity of the slow work of ministry in community.


This book was provided by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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54 thoughts on “A Bundle of Letters on the Church’s Doorstep”

  1. Our church went through the recent process of finding a new pastor too, Michele. And Amy’s words echo mine when I considered who the search committee found: “Do you actually want to be our pastor?” What a fun read as we continue to transition and make love the main deal.


  2. We’ve been through a couple of searches for a new pastor in different churches. Not a fun process, but a necessary one. I can sure identify with the weariness of it. This sounds like such a good read. It takes effort along with grace to meld differing individuals into a cohesive church.


    1. We have just come through the most grace-laced pastoral search I could even imagine. So very thankful.
      I love how the letter was such a game changer for Granby Pres. In this world of email and instant messaging, I do wonder if it could ever happen that way in real life.


  3. “Given my own uneasy relationship with prayer, I collect wisdom to keep me in the game.”
    Smiled when I read this – I can SO relate to your statement, Michele! -and:
    Jonas’ fly-fishing parable observation that, “Even when I don’t catch anything, I come back different than when I left.” 🙂
    Thank you for this review which made my wish list grow longer still!


    1. It’s so good to know that there are others who struggle. And I’m glad you caught the point of that parable, too. It really hit me — I can’t control prayer any more than my sons can control the action of the fish when they head out on their early morning fishing trips.
      Hope you enjoy the book!


  4. Michele,
    Sounds like a lot of wisdom here and I often wonder what it would be like to walk in a pastor’s shoes (notice I don’t say envy). Love definitely is the main deal and if you can make relationships work within the framework of a congregation made of dust…then I’d say you are definitely doing your job an then some.
    Bev xx


    1. This was such an encouraging book — we’re not in vocational ministry, but stick pretty close to the church, so there was plenty about it that helped my perspective.
      Good to hear from you, Bev!


  5. Worship should make us wobble under the weight of the great mystery…. Indeed! Lord, may it be so with me! Blessings!


  6. I agree with so many comments here, that my wish list keeps longer because of you! Your thoughts and snippets are just too irresistible! I do have a stack of Jan Karon that I had actually been thinking about re-reading. So maybe it’s time for that! Thank you for all of your good thoughts that you share here, Michele! And every time I comment on my book ponderings, I am going to have Mr. Berry’s words echoing in my ears also! 🙂 Blessings to you and yours this Christmas!


    1. I’m re-reading the Christmas one (Shepherds Abiding) with my youngest son out loud in the evenings with tree lights on, etc.
      I’m not sure how many people picked up on my reference to Berry’s “threat,” but I knew of a few who would for sure, so I had to include it. 🙂


  7. Looks like quite an interesting book, Michele! Hope you have a blessed weekend~ Melanie

    On Thu, Dec 7, 2017 at 4:01 AM, Living Our Days wrote:

    > Michele Morin posted: “When a pastoral search goes well, everyone wins. > Last year when a soft-spoken lobsterman rose to his feet and challenged us > at Spruce Head Community to seek a shepherd who would lead us and love us, > we began praying and seeking to that end. The seeking an” >


    1. I’m reading Jan Karon’s newest right now. Feeling a bit guilty because of the huge pile of books on my bureau that need to be read and reviewed . . . but still enjoying it. 🙂


  8. You hooked me when you compared the pastor in this book to Tim Kavanagh of Mitford. I also am caught by the theme of love in this church as well as showing up, working and being together. That sounds like church to me. Blessings, friend!


    1. Have you read the newest Jan Karon?
      And yes, I truly believe that reading Love Big, Be Well while being open to the work of the Spirit through His Word could change a person’s heart toward ministry and toward the church.


  9. Hi Michele, this sounds like a good book. I’ll look forward t reading it. Some of my favorite books are the Harmony series by Phillip Gulley about a Quaker pastor in a tiny rural church. They are great reads! Visiting from the #grit-up. Have a great week!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Michele,
    I really hope you’re writing a book! Your words are so fanciful, so engaging. Just thought I’d put that out there 🙂
    This is the line I loved the most today…
    “showing up, doing the work, being together.”
    This truly is the mission of the church. I believe churches are best that are working together, side-by-side. Glad we were neighbours at Holley Gerth’s today.
    In case I don’t get to connect again in the next few weeks, praying you have the most blessed of Christmases!
    Much love,
    ~Sherry Stahl


    1. No, I’m not working on a book. Maybe someday.
      And I loved the way Winn envisions the church through the eyes of that fictional pastor he created. We need to get our theology right, of course, but we also need to live it out before unbelievers in a way they understand and appreciate. We have to transcend the culture while at the same time embracing it. No small task!
      Merry Christmas to you, too, Sherry! Thanks for always coming here with words of encouragement!


  11. I agree with Sherry you should write a book you have such a gift for writing. Merry Christmas to you and thank you for supporting #mg this year. I will be taking a break to be focused on this time of year and my family, but #mg will be back sometime in January.


  12. A pastor’s relationship with his parishioners is always an amazing and complex thing – and it really can affect people’s faith journey. This sounds like an amazing book, Michele, and I’m so glad you shared it with us at the Hearth and Soul Link Party. Blessings to you and yours this Christmas!


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