Pastor Jeff Lathrop’s abusive father would shout “Jesus Christ” not in reverence but anger. Alcohol and substance abuse often led Lathrop’s father into angry tirades, culminating in abuse of his spouse and children.
Lathrop has been pastor at First United Methodist Church since July. Rather than holding bitterness in his heart for a difficult past, he feels gratitude.
“I’m grateful that my mom was strong enough to get the help to get out,” he said.
The help came from a small church in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where members paid Lathrop’s way into a religious camp his mother could not afford.
“It was right there that I learned the difference between ‘Jesus Christ’ that my father would scream in rage as he’s throwing stuff and smacking us around — versus ‘Jesus Christ’ that my mother prayed to in tears when he thought she was asleep,” Lathrop said. “I decided I wanted to be like my counselors, who were modeling something that I hadn’t seen, as far as being nurturing, welcoming and supportive.”
By 2012, after service in youth and young adult ministry, Lathrop was summoned by the district superintendent and offered a chance “to take the next step into ordained ministry.”
One might call it the moment his life came full circle — but there was nothing circular about it. Ideas of generational trauma exist because they are so often proven right. Abuse runs in cycles and hurt people sometimes hurt people.
Lathrop rejected the cycle. Rather than coming full circle, he broke the chain. Not everyone in his family was so fortunate.
“My brother grew to kind of resent the church,” Lathrop said. “He went the other way. He’s actually in prison right now.”
With a mixture of sadness and resignation, Lathrop spoke of the brother he used to stay home to watch in a rundown one-bedroom apartment, as their mother worked three jobs to keep the boys fed, clothed and sheltered.
“He struggled with addiction. He’s actually incarcerated for the last seven years up in Salem, Oregon,” Lathrop said. “Breaking the chain, breaking the cycle — I was very intentional and mindful about those things.”
Lathrop and the woman he married in 2007 are both children of divorce, but their marriage has outlasted the ones they emerged from — their union has outshined the dysfunction they once witnessed.
Lathrop considered opportunities that changed his life “God’s prevenient grace,” a theological concept referring to providence preceding human action.
“God’s grace goes before us, it meets us before we even knew that there was a need. I definitely see God’s hand throughout everything — even when we were living in a car or slumming in a tiny little apartment,” Lathrop said.
Looking back at moments of hardship, the pastor now senses an invisible hand drawing straight with crooked lines.
“I see a story that continues,” he said. “A calling still being lived into, and continued in ways that stretch and challenge the person that is on the journey — namely, myself.”
Lathrop defined the essence of ministry within the theme of continuation.
“It isn’t so much that I’ve arrived or that I’ve plateaued. Rather, I am a lifelong learner — still willing to be stretched and challenged — still willing to be led by God’s prevenient grace,” he said.
One major challenge that stretched churches across the country has been COVID-19 and a still-lingering demand for remote services. Today, Lathrop said better-quality cameras and an understanding of production has helped the church enter the home.
“I had a seminary professor who spoke about giving (the congregation) a ‘product.’ I struggled with it, because, for me as a seminarian student, I thought, ‘No, wait a minute, we’re offering them Jesus. This is about worship, this is about giving thanks and praise,’” Lathrop recalled. “Why are you talking about ‘production?’”
Later, Lathrop understood his professor was referring to the quality-of-experience a church offers its members — even those prevented from physically attending.
“What kind of quality are you offering? What kind of connective worship service do you have that tells (the congregation) we are glad they are with us? Every morning, we recognize that audience, wherever they might be — on Facebook Live, from our website or on the radio,” Lathrop said.
He explained how the pandemic had been disruptive in other ways — sometimes sparking early retirement or medical leave from church workers.
Asked if pastors have the luxury of “not being ok” themselves, Lathrop had no simple answer.
“I would say yes and no. The demands are that clergy are always on and always successful … in an emergency, you’re kind of Johnny-on-the-spot, you try to get there as soon as possible to offer the family some semblance of care in the midst of trauma,” Lathrop said. “As I have spiritually mentored a couple young clergy who are going through seminary, I have asked them the question straight up — ‘who is your pastor?’ I say the same thing to my spouse — ‘who is your pastor?’ I’m not her pastor, I’m her husband. I’m not a pastor to the kids, either. I’m their dad.”
Lathrop said people break down the roles they perform into “hats,” but the concept is artificial.
“Really, no — you are one-in-the-same person. A pastor is who I am and have been called to be. It’s who I am all the time. But I’m also called to family. So, no — there is no distinction, there is no real hat. It’s just you as a person,” he said. “I think that’s for all of us. We’re all just trying to do the best that we can with all the roles that we have. It sometimes is hard to juggle, but if you can provide yourself some space, and give yourself some grace, you might just be in a better place.”