A Few of My Favorite Parsons
A Few of My Favorite Parsons (Methodists, that is)
On this website there is, to the perceptive eye, a certain disregard for the denomination into which I was born and in which I served as a pastor for fifty years shy one. Mostly the reason for this absence of evidence of filial affection derives from the terms of my retirement, that those who could have permitted me to continue to preach and pastor stuck hard and fast to the mandatory rule and, in my view, said in so many words, "Thank you and goodbye, we don't need you any more." Old race horses go to stud. Aging guide dogs get new billets in loving homes. Retiring generals become corporate CEO's. On the other hand, Methodist pastors at seventy get the heave-ho. At least, this one thought he did. And it considerably clouded my lifelong loyalty to the denomination.
But Jesus tells us to forgive four hundred and ninety times those who disregard (and treat even more contemptibly) us. The Apostle Paul describes love like the love of our Lord (see I Corinthians 13) as forbearing. After three years of cultivated contempt, it's time for me, long overdue in fact if we are not to allow the sun to go down on our anger, to kiss and make up with the Methodist Church. Well, OK, I won't kiss or kiss up, but I will look to and celebrate those Methodist pastors who, for the most part up to now, have not graced any of the reviews on this website.
I'll not assign them haloes, though each in his or her own way, is deserving of at least four. They differ widely theologically. One is a social activist Niebuhrian; another, an evangelical; another, a modern traditionalist; another, neo-orthodox, like me; and two others, what I would name "theological pragmatists." You can guess which is which. What they have in common is that quality of character so essential, yet so often lacking, in pastors: authenticity, what in daily conversation is called "being real," down-to-earth in their pursuit of heaven.
Here they are, my haloed parsons, in order of seniority.
Austin Herrick Armitstead, president of the Birdie Tebbetts Fan Club; the Western Queens Gazette's Inquiring Reporter; high average bowler year after year in a Catholic league in Jackson Heights; a graduate of Dickinson College and Union Theological Seminary; the real Mr. Met; the unrelenting photographer (with an upside down camera); the king-maker, if not the king; the one who shakes up community and congregational complacency but shines as the reconciler; the advocate for migrant workers who himself spent most of his pastoral ministry in the city; the newspaper addict who couldn't pass the corner store without buying the latest edition; the autobiographer whose theme is the Edwin Markham poem about drawing circles to draw others in; a parson so filled with the love of Jesus that it spills over with enthusiasm to anyone who comes within his orbit, restricted as that orbit may be in his 81st year, confined to a motorized wheelchair, presently recovering from hernia surgery; my friend from PA, NH, VT, and Brooklyn, like whom there is no other; whose smartest move was marrying Bianca Nielsen: this fellow belongs at the top of the list.
Ralph Lord Roy, in his middle seventies, now the interim pastor of South (Second) Congregational Church in Hartford, was a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary during my years (1953-6) there. Ralph served Methodist churches in New York City (Grace, near Harlem; and Warren Street, downtown Brooklyn) before making his way to Connecticut (Milford and Meriden). A graduate of Swarthmore College as well as UTS, Ralph's doctoral (?) thesis was published under the title, Apostles of Discord. He is a reporter for the Meriden Record-Journal and writes an occasional column for The Hartford Courant. Compared to him I am a hopeless novice as a reviewer of churches. Ralph has gone anywhere and everywhere in Central CT and beyond, to report on what he finds, from white witchery to Quaker meetings. He is curious where I have been reluctant, generous where I would have lived up to my billing as Critical. I have, when looking for a good sermon, sampled his preaching twice. I was not disappointed. He brings to the pulpit a breadth of experience; a reporter's eye for detail; a readiness to see always the other side, other than his own; a clarity of expression; a quickness of illustration; and an unblushing simplicity (but not simple-mindedness) of faith in Jesus; all of which I find thoroughly engaging. Drop in some Sunday morning soon at South Church and find out for yourself. Ralph will be there until mid-September by which time the church's search committee may have found a permanent pastor, but not likely one as capable as the present interim.
Robert Atwood Spivey, the Southern Baptist become Methodist, thanks in no small measure to his Wesleyan bride of fifty-one years, Bob and I (his Martha and my Barbara too) met at Union Theological seminary and formed a close friendship through sports, the Danforth Foundation, and an addiction to the movie Shane. Unlike many of the other students at seminary Bobby and Bobby were always ready to shelve the books and pick up the basketball. Bob Spivey went on to Yale Divinity School for his doctorate in New Testament studies, taught for four years at my alma mater, Williams College, went to Florida State for a dozen more, and then became president of Randolph Macon College for Women (Martha's alma mater). He "retired" from that exalted position and served as the executive director of the Virginia Fund for Independent Schools. At present he is the ombudsman for Florida State University in Tallahassee. Bob has authored text books on the Bible. He continues to write and preach. Recently he sent me a sermon he delivered at the Methodist church in which he and Martha are members. I was greatly impressed with the way in which an academic could give a message that was practical and engaging. It was theologically sound too, but I would have expected as much from a professor. Bob has been a leader, popular among his peers, from his years at Duke, through his time at seminary, and beyond. He listens, he engages, he charms, he gets things done... and Martha's plum pie is legendary.
Robert A. MacDonald, presently the pastor of Prospect United Methodist Church, Bristol CT, where Barbara's father served sixty years ago, has only recently come into my orbit, or, more accurately, I into his. For he hosts at his home a monthly breakfast for used-up Methodist pastors like me, eight of us; and I still haven't figured out why the generosity, other than he takes seriously Jesus' urging for us to look after the least of these our brothers. Something like that, from a very kind and thoughtful soul. We have twice worshiped in the pews where Barbara spent her high school years. Most recently the service was the appetizer for the main course, a visit to Tanglewood, with Bob's Bristol parishioners, for a concert of Beethoven and Shostakovich. Bob's pastoral career includes churches on Long Island and in Connecticut. He grew up in Troy NY, attended West Virginia Wesleyan, and received his MDiv from Drew Seminary. He is a thoughtful preacher, carefully prepared, with a strong pastoral emphasis, a good listener who, as I would proudly claim for myself, "collects people," their life stories, trials and triumphs. Bob enjoys his work and it shows. If you are a Sabbath wanderer like me looking for solid preaching, stop in some Sunday at Prospect.
Roy Edgar Jacobsen, an eleven year old when I arrived at his family's church in Brooklyn on February 4, 1956, where I began then what I would never have anticipated, a seventeen and a half year pastorate at Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church. Even then we knew he should be a pastor. He attended public schools in Brooklyn, graduated from Drew University, and received his MDiv from Union Theological Seminary. I've never met anyone equal to Roy in retaining vast amounts of personal information about everybody. And few are his equal with a mischievous sense of humor. But, true to his pietistic Viking roots, he preaches a warm and informed version of the Gospel, focused firmly on Christ. He has served just two churches in forty years, both of them in Connecticut, New Fairfield and Windsor... a parson after my own heart... and immovability!
We visited Trinity UMC in Windsor a few weeks ago, in preparation for this paean to worthy Methodists. The congregation retreats to the air-conditioned gym in July and August, but the change in worship venue did not seem to diminish either the number or the vitality of the assembly. Roy's sermon, the first I had ever heard him preach, was on faith, that it should be impelled from the inside and not just a matter of going through holy paces. Roy obviously enjoys his vocation, particularly the pulpit. You can catch his enthusiasm and wit at Trinity most Sunday mornings of the year, except late June and early September.
Lori Miller, grew up in Valley Stream, was confirmed at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, and transferred her membership to Grace UMC, also in Valley Stream, after high school. She matriculated at Williams College (sound familiar?) and graduated in 1982, the same class as Gwen Howard and her husband, Brian Mahoney. She entered Harvard Divinity School the following September, graduating with her MDiv in 1985. Lori was ordained in the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985, and served as associate pastor of Community Church, Poughkeepsie, for three years; pastor of the Gaylordsville (CT) UMC for seven; and pastor of Grace Newburgh for ten. This July she moved to Wilton Connecticut and the pastorate of the Cannondale UM Church. She is married to psychiatric counselor, John Halbrook. They have a nine year old son.
While I was on a pastoral assignment in the mid-Hudson region this past May, we took in a Sunday service at Grace Newburgh. Pastor Miller's congregants were heart-broken that she would be leaving them soon for her new appointment in Connecticut. Little wonder that they should grieve: Lori infuses her preaching and pastoral duties with a winning thoughtfulness and intelligence. We arrived on Trinity Sunday. Lori was up to the task of explaining the what, why, and practical how of that doctrine, doing most of it from the center of the chancel without notes. When we spoke during coffee hour, Lori remarked (and I could hardly believe!) that she has been a pastor for twenty years. One of these fall Sundays drop in at the Wilton Church. You may find us there too.
Pastoral and preaching excellence certainly are not limited to the United Methodist Church. But the existence of such excellence in the tradition of Wesley reminds this Critical Christian, sometimes sour on the denomination of his origin, that its ethos has recruited and continues to recruit to its ranks people of considerable talent who could make their mark in dozens of other professional pursuits but who choose to follow in the footsteps of the Galilean rabbi and do it with a Wesleyan gait.