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A retired PC(USA) minister lives into the call to let go

A new episode of ‘Everyday God-talk’ features pastor and theologian Cynthia Jarvis

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

“The way I’ve always done ministry is that I love my people,” said the Rev. Cynthia Jarvis, a retired pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in the latest episode of “Everyday God-talk.” Jarvis spoke to the Rev. Dr. So Jung Kim, associate for Theology in the Office of Theology and Worship, in three 10-minute conversations organized around the themes of how Jarvis’ soul, heart and mind are responding to the call to retire.

“The new season of Everyday God-talk shares the stories of those who are resting and growing — pastors and teachers in between calls, on sabbatical and retired,” said Kim. Her interviews with Jarvis revolved around the spiritual lessons of learning to let go and reimagining one’s relationships and discipleship when one is no longer the pastor of a community.

Jarvis’s 45 years in ministry included meaningful relationships with students at the College of Wooster and McCormick Theological Seminary and with congregants at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey and The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. The last two pastorates lasted 15 and 23 years. After a career marked by long pastorates, Jarvis noted that letting go of relationships has been the hardest thing about transitions throughout her ministry, but especially in retirement.

The Rev. Cynthia Jarvis (Photo courtesy of The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill)

“I was in their homes,” reminisced Jarvis as she painted a picture of the intimacy a minister gives up when a call is dissolved. “Think of all the occasions over the years where you are invited into people’s homes during the times when they are the most vulnerable.”

The purpose of the “Everyday God-talk” videos are to encourage theological reflection in our daily lives, and so Jarvis translated what ministry meant for her in terms of her theology. “For me, relationships are what ministry is all about. The relationship with God then brings us into relationship with others, so I knew it was going to be hard (to retire),” said Jarvis.

Jarvis spoke candidly about the gifts and challenges of being a single woman in ministry. She also shared how the pandemic and retirement pushed her to embrace new rituals of self-care. Her retirement coincided with the start of the pandemic, forcing her to learn to physically let go of her congregation and to inhabit her life of faith in new ways. In 2020, she left Philadelphia for an extended stay at her summer house in Maine during quarantine.

“I worked 24/7 when I was in ministry and never took a day off (except in June when I went to my house in Maine),” said Jarvis. “When I retired, I’d never inhabited my home, so I took time to nest … Walking with my dog in Maine was good because I had done no exercise when I was in ministry.” Jarvis also embraced cooking “feasts for one,” as she described them. “I went back to cooking. I researched recipes, took pictures and put it on Facebook. All of that I would not have done had it not been for the pandemic.”

Jarvis noted that the isolation of quarantining in Maine forced her to put aside the thinking and doing muscles of the faith that she’d developed as a minister and to cultivate a contemplative side. “I’m not a contemplative type,” she said as she described how the quietude of single, pandemic life required her to look for God in the sunrise and the moonrise on the water. The relationships with others she’d come to expect through God began to come through the reliable rhythms of nature.

Now that she has returned to Philadelphia to take up primary residence there and is three years into retirement, Jarvis shared examples of how she has reimagined her life in ministry as a person in the pew. She is now a cheerleader for other ministers, an advocate for social justice ministries and a woman fully inhabiting her home and her intimate relationships.

“I do not miss preaching,” Jarvis stated emphatically. “The anxiety of Saturday night was easy to let go.” The pastoral side of her work has taken more time to reimagine as she finds her place in the pews of a new congregation, The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. “Ministers can be the worst critics,” Jarvis admitted, “but I walked into First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and was at home.” Jarvis noted the hospitality of the congregation, the beautiful music, the thoughtful preaching of its minister, the Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis, and the role that he and the church found for her as a pastor-theologian in their adult education programs and as a self-proclaimed “political junkie” in their advocacy ministry regarding legislation to address gun violence and to reaffirm women’s rights in a post-Roe nation.

In her career, Jarvis co-edited the Feasting on the Gospels commentary series on the gospels and two books entitled “Loving God with the Mind: The Pastor as Theologian” and “The Power to Comprehend with All the Saints: The Formation and Practice as a Pastor-Theologian.” In retirement, she is returning to writing a book of personal essays on the frescoes of Fra Angelico in the Cloisters of San Marco in Florence, Italy, a project she began in 2014 with the support of a Louisville Institute Pastoral Study Grant.

As a writer as well as a minister, Jarvis closed her final reflections by quoting another writer and beloved poet, Mary Oliver: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it, and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

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