This week marks 40 years since I was ordained to “Minister of Word and Sacrament” or “Teaching Elder” in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA). This is a review where I have been and some things I did since seminary. In another posting I will declare my overall success and maybe even on what a young person might do with his or her life now.
I could have been ordained in the church to which I was going after semnary. I chose to be ordained in the church that mentored me through seminary: Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago. The pastor, a model for ministry to me, Bill Taylor, some of my seminary professors, and lay people important to me and Carol laid hands on me. Two years later Bill left ministry telling the Chicago Tribune “The church of the ‘70's is a betrayal of the church of the ‘60's.” Yeah. [Somewhere I have photos I took of the Sears now Willis Tower in '71-'72.] The ordination ceremony was a significant ritual to mark the beginning of a career. I have now made it to retirement, but the denomination began its decline in 1965. A major problem was that ministry as a career was coming to an end, even as I began it.
The first congregation I served (Don’t you just love the churchiness of such locutions?) was Zion Presbyterian Church in Ellsworth, Minnesota. Membership was 330 in a town of 588. Now the town is 463 and the church is 291, but this is after a neighboring church of about 200 members was closed and essentially merged into Zion. It was here I learned that I am not a country boy. Not a sophisticated place; I didn't expect that. Not an especially gracious place. I remember asking for an offering for flood relief in South Dakota. “They shouldn’t build where it floods. They should have had insurance.” Small and small town churches are great for training new ministers. I learned how to speak evangelical here. There was a good priest and some great sisters in Ellsworth. Their Bishop pulled them and sidelined them for being too progressive (They were fans of John XXIII.)
Trenton NJ was alien to a midwesterner like me. Eight years that felt like exile in some ways. Here was a church that claimed 400 members, only I couldn’t find half of them, so church decline was my fault. My beloved predecessor had married everyone in the community and asked them to join the church in exchange. Lots of conflict, so I got a D.Min. to learn about the church as an organization. I was much involved in social issues in Trenton. My thesis project resulted in an area urban ministry/ community organizing effort that still exists as the “urban mission cabinet.” Our housing ministry project created home ownership for working poor, our soup kitchen converted some of my church members to help rather than fear the homeless, and our peacemaking task force helped persuade the denomination to establish one. I think I did good work here but my conflict management prof said I was a masochist.
Having worked with presbytery execs (equivalent to bishops, or at least a suffragan bishop as administrator to the body of teaching and ruling elders that are the presbytery, but don’t say it too loudly) I now became one. Lots of respect was given to my positional authority. I learned how to be wise on occasion, e.g., visiting a congregation in great conflict, I listened and then said “You will get through this,” which was followed by gasps of relief. Expending hours with churches that said they wanted to merge, I then discovered that they had gone through this futile exercise every seven years. Sort of a parable about how no one really wants to change anything in churches.
Frustrated by the glacial pace of change in the church, I jumped at an opportunity to work outside or on the fringes of the church. I went to work with Bob Funk, founder and director of the Jesus Seminar. Wow, what a lot of wonderful scholars from around the world, and people in and about Santa Rosa, a special place (northern California). I raised money but the finances were going down because of embezzlement that I didn’t know about until a year later. Couldn’t find a job for Carol and couldn’t afford to live under the great housing boom (2002) so I returned to Illinois.
I discovered the larger church didn’t want me anymore, but finally a “larger parish” of 4 small congregations, two of which were UCC, wanted me as a co-pastor. I arrived in the most conservative county in Wisconsin and learned that the churches were in absolute denial about their finances. The co-pastor and I led them through a year-long planning process which led to our both leaving. I stayed half-time for about a year with the more sensible of the congregations.
Carol and I each found interim ministry positions on Long Island. This was desirable because our older daughter lived north of Albany and this brought us closer at a time when we were anticipating a grandchild. Good folks who spoke openly and had fun together at the congregation in Baldwin; not so much at the more conservative church Carol led. I found an interim position in Albany, we moved north to the Adirondacks and to retirement.
Family trumps church.