Author: Jan Karon
Publisher: New York: Penguin Books, 1994
Rating: 4/5 stars
The first of five books in the Mitford series, Jan Karon’s At Home in Mitford is a book of southern charm that takes place in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina. The story follows the life of an Anglican priest named Father Tim 12 years into his ministry at Lord’s Chapel in the alluring small town of Mitford. It’s a lighthearted, fun, and comical story with interesting turns of events—some for the worst, some for the better.
This work of Christian fiction was a pleasant read, in spite of brief moments of false doctrine. Though I admit the purpose of the novel is far from being a theological exposé, it was unpleasant to read bits of decision theology in Father Tim’s conversations with certain individuals—that one must “accept” Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour. This places salvation entirely on your feeble human will rather than God’s efficacious will. However, this is not the place to dismantle this false theology. Karon could also be staying true to the Anglican Church’s theology; it may or may not reflect her own personal beliefs.
Regardless of this minor annoyance, the start of Father Tim’s story as Karon presents it is delightful. Unlike most novels, there is not an overarching, single conflict that drives the protagonist. Rather, the way we walk with Father Tim in his story is realistic with real pastors. The events and conversations that take place are presented as spontaneous and often unplanned, which makes up maybe 80% of pastoral ministry. The remaining 20% consists of planned visitations (hospital visitations, shut-in visits), Bible studies, sermon writing, and church administration. And somewhere in there you’d figure out how to fit in your own personal needs.
We don’t just follow the life of Father Tim; we are also introduced to the lives and stories of Father Tim’s influential parishioners and other characters significant to his life, each of whom are quite charming in their own way. Such as the lovely Miss Sadie (whom we Lutherans might call the “Grandma Schmidt” of the congregation), the stunning and lively Cynthia Coppersmith, and the lovable but unloved red-headed boy Dooley Barlowe.
My experience in ministry as a 4th year seminarian is extremely limited, yet Father Tim’s ministry reminded me much of my own ministry experience on vicarage. You have your plans for things that need to get done, certainly, but much of ministry happens rather spontaneously. As Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
Things happen to the building. This happens several times at Father Tim’s congregation. I remember a time when I was about to heat up an early dinner in the church’s kitchen before a meeting with a parishioner which was also before the junior youth activities that night when I heard the unusual sound of running water. I turned the corner to find one of the drinking fountains leaking a huge puddle of water on the floor! I had a late dinner that night.
There’s also the spontaneity of someone walking into your office to talk, which happens to Father Tim a lot. This is realistic with real pastoral ministry. This happened to my vicarage supervisor a lot more than me since he’s the pastor and I was just the vicar, but there were a good number of times when I’d be working on my sermon or a Bible study and someone walks in wanting to talk, whether it was about something important or unimportant. Of course, I was always glad to talk to them. Even if it seemed unimportant to me, it was important to them, which makes it important to me.
There’s also one of the oldest parishioners who wants to tell you their life story, someone invites you over for lunch or dinner, or a crime is committed, somebody comes to faith through the strangest of events, personal struggles, and so on. Much of what happens to Father Tim is typical of any pastor, I believe.
The Book’s Lesson for All Pastors
One thing Father Tim needs to learn—and he may end up learning this eventually some time in the series—is his need for rest. If he’s not careful, he will experience ministry burnout. It becomes clear in this first book that Father Tim’s ministry is stressful, as all ministries are. He even begins to realise he’s always fatigued. These two things are classic signs of burnout in pastoral ministry, among other signs (source). Fortunately, my training at Concordia Seminary has taken great steps to ensure we take measures not to experience burnout when we get into our ministries after graduation and ordination.
If there’s one thing this Christian fiction has brought me to appreciate more is the gift of the Sabbath. The Lord rested from His labours of creation (Genesis 2:2) not because He was tired, but for our own benefit. God is a God of order. Not only does each gender have his and her place in family and society, but even our work week is structured by God’s 6 days of creation and the 7th day structures our Sabbath rest. Not only rest from our physical labours, but especially rest in the Lord, fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30).
Father Tim realises he feels guilty whenever he rests or does something for himself, which I think is quite descriptive of the average pastor. After all, just like Jesus, we’re called to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:28). It is true that pastors are called to serve, but we’re still flawed, sinful human beings. We also need rest! Pastors need the Sabbath too! Pastors, it is okay for you to rest and do something for yourself every once in a while, lest you end up burning yourself out. What good is a weary shepherd? Pastors do not have endless energy; we need rest to recharge. Not just rest from our physical labours in ministry, but also rest in the Lord.
This is why I’m thankful to have Winkel groups in our church body. As pastors, our worship experience is vastly different from everyone else’s. We are always the ones preaching and giving the sacraments, but who gets to be the pastor’s Pastor? When do we get to be preached to and receive the Sacrament of the Altar? Thank God for Winkel groups where we have this Sabbath!
I found this book in the free book section at Concordia Seminary Library where we students can browse its shelves for any prized theological jewels. I was reading the synopsis on the back of the book and was mildly interested when a friend recommended it to me for its lighthearted comedy of a pastor’s life. I would recommend any pastor to read this first book in the Mitford series as a fun and simple read to get you away from your usual deep, theological readings and studying. We need a break from that every once in a while. This book offers you such a sabbath.
I may or may not pick up the rest of the books in the series, as I already have an extremely long “to read” list. Yet perhaps somewhere down the road, I may pick up the remaining books in the series and continue to walk alongside the humble Father Tim in the charming town of Mitford.