Wapella, My First Church


A copy of this is in the Central Illinois Conference Archives.  I asked that access be forbidden until a certain person died.  She lived to age 104 and we corresponded often in her older years.

I have thought that this material would be helpful in a book about how “not to do ministry”.  I was very green while there.  It other words I had no training for what I was doing.  But it is part of my life and part of my beginning in ministry.  When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to become the United Methodist Church in 1968, I even got pension credit for my second year at Wapella.  The first year I was not under appointment.  I had a private arrangement with Dr. Richard Leonard who was appointed there when the church refused to accept a student pastor.  Dr. Leonard told me that if I would do the calling and the youth program, after one year they would be very happy to have me as their pastor.  How correct he was.  We shared the salary.

The church no longer exists, primarily because it was hit by a tornado on May 15, 1968 and moved from its foundation.  I have joked that the tornado moved it farther than I was able to do.  During my year as the only pastor, I made over 900 pastoral calls.  In those days, the District Superintendent published these figures and I was number two in the district.  Number One was the pastor of a church with 3,000 members. I have often wondered if my statistical record had anything to do with my next appointment being to that very same church with 3,000 members, where I served as the Minister to Youth.  I do know that my salary increased from $960 per year to $3,000 per year.  I was never able to duplicate that type of increase again.


Assistant or Co-Pastor 1957-1958

Senior and Sole Pastor 1958-1959

While there we had the honor of observing the Centennial Year for the congregation.  In 100 years they had had a lot of pastors.  They had 58 pastors in 100 years.  No wonder they did not feel an intimate part of the system known as Methodism.

I wrote this material in 1973 as a way to bring closure to my thinking often about the experience in the late 1950’s.  It worked!

PERSONAL ACCOUNT written in 1973

The first church has been a significant part of many clergy person’s memory: both in the wonder of the acceptance of the people of such bungling on the part of the neophyte preacher and the miracle that the local church survives such appointments.

Wapella first came to my attention when I received a letter from Dr. Richard Leonard, professor of religion and history at Illinois Wesleyan University, where I was a student. It seems that he had been offered this post by the Champaign District Superintendent and Dr. Leonard was offering to split the salary if I would assist him. It would be my responsibility to do the youth work, Sunday evening services and the pastoral calling. Dr. Leonard would handle the Sunday morning pulpit. Since lecturing came easily to him, this would not be a great burden in preparation. His ideas was that the people would then ask for me as their pastor after one year of our teamwork together. His prophecy was every so correct. To understand the complexity of the situation, we need to look at a bit of history.

It was my privilege, in the 2nd year at Wapella, to organize the centennial celebration for the congregation. A study of history revealed that the church had had 58 pastors in its 100 year history. While John Wesley believed in moving pastors often, I think that modern church history would prove that this many moves does more damage than good.

We had a wonderful celebration. I had reached out to the fundamentalist Christian Church in town by attending Sunday evening worship services there and not having any overt conflict with him.  That pastor came to our celebration, much to the surprise of many members.  In historic lore, it was said that the two pastors (Methodist and Christian) had once had a theological shouting match on Main Street.  I was glad to break down at least one wall, even while blind to the other wall between Protestants and Catholics.

Dr. Leonard’s predecessor was an independent Bible Baptist type, who promised the Superintendent, when appointed, that he would support the Methodist system. That promise was quickly broken. Instead, he preached sermons against the godless Methodist church, the communistic Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures, etc. etc.  (It was obviously a communist book, for the cover was “red”. While I was associated with that church, I was under direct orders from some of the leaders never to use that version from the pulpit.  I complied.  One Sunday I read from four translations that were different from the King James Version.  I created a lot of confusion, but I didn’t get fired.)  The result of all this was a church vote to break away from the Methodist Church and form an independent church. When informed of this desire, the Superintendent very calmly said, “Fine. Now may I have the keys to OUR building?” When the leadership realized that they were free to do anything they wanted to do with themselves, but not with the building, they reconsidered their motion, decided to remain Methodist, lost their beloved pastor and made up their minds to give hell to anyone that the Methodist Church assigned in their midst.

To start that record, they made it clear to the Superintendent that they would not accept a student pastor. Hence the decision to assign Dr. Leonard, who was near retirement and possessed the ability to let the caustic comments roll right past him without any apparent personal trauma to himself. That first year was a good year with Dr. Leonard. He was a very biblical preacher and gave some sound historical lectures. All in all, I was very pleased, except for one event for which I shall never be able to forgive him. (Smile when I say that.) EASTER 1958. The church was packed. Dr. Leonard gave a sermon which would have been entitled “Genesis-Revelation” and bless him, he covered the whole Bible in that one sermon. Forty-five minutes, if my memory is correct. Why was I upset? The next Easter those one-Sunday-a-year Christians did not risk another try with the Methodist Church. His sermon killed their once a year commitment. However, perhaps he gave them so much to think about that it would last them for several years.

At the end of the year, the pastoral relations committee met with the Superintendent and expressed their great affection for me and wondered if I could be appointed their pastor for the next year, instead of Dr. Leonard. So with a smile and a handshake, Dr. Leonard succeeded with his major goal of the year, getting them to accept a student pastor.

At conference time that year, the tone of the year may have been set by one of the superintendents, who knew of the drama from cabinet meetings, who put his arm around me in a fatherly way and said: “John, don’t worry about goofing up this appointment, for if you fail, you could not be appointed any lower on the ladder.” This church of 86 members had a reputation in the conference. Something about the squeaky wheel is the one that gets the grease.

The second bit of advice was from another university professor who taught me that significant change could not be made in the life style of a local church in one year. The first year would only be one of getting acquainted and then you might be able to get them to make some changes. Well, I had a decision to make. Option #1: Just coast for the year, collect my wages ($960 per year), do what was expected (two sermons on Sunday and prayer meeting on Wednesday night) and move on at the end of the year. Option #2: Full steam ahead, do all that I could to expose them to the best ways of doing things that I was aware of in my brief training with a pastor’s class at Illinois Wesleyan, knowing that I was probably doomed to failure before I started. I selected option #2.

Shortly after being appointed as the pastor, some of the members learned that I was sleeping in the church on Saturday nights and some were upset.  “Other people will think we are too cheap to provide housing for our pastor!” Fred and Mrs. (Ida?) Primmer offered me a room in their home at a very low rate. Mrs. Primmer taught an adult Sunday School class and she was close to being a biblical literalist.  She would say that the Bible predicted the airplane:  “you will rise up with wings like eagles”.  I never knew if she was joking or serious. I left well enough alone in that department. She and Fred were very kind. And I now had a bed for Saturday nights and any other time I needed to stay in town overnight.

I was successful at getting youth enrolled in some camping programs and district youth activities, perhaps not for the first time, but at least the first time in many years.

Writing several years after the fact makes it difficult to be exact in the time of events. I am going to approach this in two ways. One will be dealing with some of the personalities in this little rural town. Another will be describing certain projects, achievements or the dynamics of some relationships built up in the next fourteen months. (Fourteen months, in that I agreed to stay through the summer months, until a replacement could be obtained in September of 1959 – but I am getting ahead of my story now.)

We must remember that I had lived in this situation for nine months, prior to assuming full responsibility. However, we had just accepted everything as we had found it, nearly. One of the first changes which I proposed was devoting my Sunday evenings entirely to the Youth Fellowship, instead of preaching a sermon to 5-8 of the saints. These people loved their youth, so they thought that my proposal was a realistic one. Sunday evening services disappeared, probably never to return in the same form. Would that all the changes had been so easily accepted.

The next item proposed stirred the pot a bit more. The church school practice was very traditional, for those days, in that we did a lot of exercising: opening and closing. Opening exercises consisted of everyone gathering in the sanctuary for gospel singing, a brief meditation and prayer by the church school superintendent. Closing exercises consisted of a report from the secretary as to how many were in each class, what the offering was in each class, what the total offering was, what the total offering and attendance had been one year ago on this date, plus the bonus of singing “Happy Birthday” to any birthday child or adult. Some adults were very coy, putting in a whole dollar, which gave witness to their generosity to the Lord’s work, as well as refusing to reveal their true chronological age. One gal put in all in the box in pennies, for she wore her age more proudly than some. My proposal: let the children have opening exercises downstairs, where the worship could be geared to their age level and let the youth and adults do their thing upstairs. That was okay, but the next part was worse: do away with closing exercises! I got my way on that one (honeymoon may still have been on, but it was over with many persons) but there was lots of complaining. In my more mature approach to things, I like persons to examine why they think things should be done in certain ways. I try to do the same.

One Grandma explained it very clearly, “Closing exercises provides me with the only way to know if my grandchildren have been to Church School.” Under the new way, they did not march upstairs for a few minutes and then go home, now they just went home, without knowing how much the adults gave to the offering that week.

Now my motives may not have been much purer, For one year I had watched the re-enactment of the biblical EXODUS, not from Egypt, but from the Lord’s house. As soon as the church school superintendent announced the benediction and people turned the situation over to the neophyte professional, two-thirds of the persons in the closing exercises got up and went home. They had been to church, so why stay for a second round? Now I found that demoralizing. True, they did not stay any more under my new system, but at least it was not quite as obvious. You must note that it was not the quality of my preaching, as this life style was part of their churchmanship long before I hit town. I am just sensitive enough to want the reader to know this. The number of people who have walked out on my preaching has been fairly small, which may indicated the fact that my preaching is not too great, but this is not a book on preaching.

By the way, I will not quote many of my sermons in this article, due to the fact that the publisher’s of the INTERPRETER’S BIBLE might get very uptight about certain copyright laws, etc. Sometimes it is hard to tell where the IB left off and I began.

Working with the Official Board proved to be the greatest test of my immature and shaky skill. That is where the battle lines were drawn, where compromises were made and where I lost most of my battles. On the one hand, I got to the point where I visibly winced whenever one of the saints would say: “We tried that once before and it did not work”, or “We have never done it that way before.” Either way, they had you between the rock and the hard place. One time, the problem of trying to please the pastor became very evident. When I reacted to one of the above statements, one sweet lady burst into tears and said, “But you keep telling us to express ourselves and that is just what I am doing.” She had me there.

I recognize that I remember some of my worst moments more clearly than my best moments. At one meeting, we were involved intense on an issue, when one of the saints volunteered this bit of wisdom: “Brother Pastor, is what you are expressing God’s will or your own will?” This was the same gal who had provided me some embarrassing moments in my attempts to evangelize the business community on Main Street. It seems that she had the nasty habit of swearing at anyone who crossed her in the business world, whether it was a major issue or a minor one. The 2nd most active person in the church and the 2nd most pious in her pronouncements. We never dealt with either issue in her spiritual life, but I must remember that my cruel comment did change the course of the discussion: “Just suppose, Sister, that you let God ask me that question, instead of you.”

One of my greatest successes was found in my work with the youth. We did many good things. For the first time in years, the youth were involved in camping, district activities and got out of town for many good experiences, as well as good ones in the local church. One of the girls became a district officer, which I know was helpful to her. In the final pastoral relations meeting, my proudest moment came in the report of the superintendent. The spirit of the meeting was moving back to the 1957 position of “We do not want another student pastor, but a retired man,” when one of the youth (Norma Hart) made a speech and turned the tide so strongly that they agreed to accept Wayne Schaub, a fellow Wesleyan student, as my successor. To think that she had developed the courage and the ability to express herself in her church gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction.

Another outstanding success was found in the refurbishing of the sanctuary. The very old pews were of the type that might collapse at any moment, plus the problem of slivers in the legs, or more often, runs in the women’s stockings. In the midst of this, I had proposed a major remodeling of the sanctuary, which would have given us an extra classroom behind the pulpit (lots of room not being used except as a backdrop for the preacher) and turned the sanctuary in a different direction. This was vetoed by the Board, but they did accept the arrangements I had made to get some old pews out of an Episcopal Church in downtown Peoria – 60 miles away. When all the arrangements had been made, two livestock trucks were volunteered by non-church families and the pews were dis-assembled and brought to Wapella. Another non-member (Bernard Troxel) agreed to do the carpentry work needed, not knowing what kind of a contribution that would mean. Eventually, the job was done and we had lovely, strong pews.

I left some of the kneelers on the front three pews on the left hand side – for prayer meetings. However, someone took it upon himself (herself) to remove the kneelers during the week, so I never got the chance to use them with the Methodists. Reflects some of the anti-Catholic sentiment which abounds in the Bible belt of our nation.

(Footnote: the local Catholic Church was located on the same block with us.  During my two years in Wapella, I never once met the priest.)

There was another matter which was never dealt with by the Board, but it got a lot of attention by some one – I never knew who. Any professional Methodist clergyperson is exposed to the worship concept that the center focal point of worship should be the altar, not the pulpit. Now in some churches, you are stuck with the center pulpit, but I was not. I had a flat area, at least twenty feet wide to range in, so I moved the pulpit to the left side and put the altar in the middle where the pulpit was. This was done every Sunday morning, but every week someone moved it back the “way it was”. I think it was the janitress, but like I said earlier, I will never know. It became one of those weekly rituals which probably gave great joy to both of us.

One of my favorite families was the James and Ramona Brown family. This was mainly because they liked me, but a close second was the fact that they were so friendly and likeable themselves. They were members at Clinton and drove five miles past our church for their church activities until they heard me preach one Sunday morning. My text was this: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matter of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Matthew 23:23 King James Version, of course. (I had thought it was a bad joke, but I personally witnessed one women saying, “If it was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me.”) Anyway, the father was still talking about my sermon with his family when I called in their home the following week. At last I had a fan and a supporter. I have enough trouble remembering my own sermons in a few weeks, so I was greatly impressed that he was impressed. Never again would he hear such a “good” sermon, but his family was faithful to the end. Ramona Brown had received some training as a nursery teacher in our Methodist laboratory school for church school teachers, so soon she was bringing the results of her insights into our church school. Instead of putting 2-3 year old children around a table and making them sit there for one half hour or longer, quietly listening to stores, or coloring, this trained teacher purchased a clean rug, removing the table, added interest centers, and sat on the floor with the children to become totaling involved in the teacher-learning process. Criticism came of this radical change and the teacher persevered until I left the church.

The quality of the other teachers was very typical of Methodist churches. the worst could be illustrated by one teacher whom I overheard telling a pupil (her own son), “Now you be good, or Jesus will not love you.” Not being very sure of myself, I just fumed inwardly, beat my head against a doorpost and did little helping at this point. Much of my experience at Wapella could be put down to observing, rather than real leadership.

If ever a pastor deserved a gold medal for “pastoral calling” (quantity), I would be the person to receive it. In that second year at Wapella, I kept the required statistics for the Superintendent and I made nearly 900 pastoral calls in that one year. When you consider that this was basically limited to Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, it was even more remarkable. It was not unusual for me to make over 10-15 calls on Saturdays. If some one asked if I had eaten, I never lied.  I ate well.

There was some quality to the calling. The membership of the church dropped from 86 to 65 in that year, with several individuals withdrawing from the church. In nearly ten of those lives, the individuals had been participating in other local churches (non-Methodist) for years, claiming to be Methodist and never fully involving themselves in the other church. With my contacts, these individuals were able to make the break and enter fully into the life of the church where they lived. I also discovered a railroad employee (Hurtle Totham) who was a member of the church and had not participated for years. Every time I called on him, he gave me a substantial cash contribution. One cannot say that I favored him in my calling, but with the above pastoral calling record, you can see several members had more than one call a year and he was no exception. Later, I learned that when this individual retired, he became the backbone of the local church and gave many years of outstanding service. He was the lay member of Annual Conference when I visited the Central Illinois Annual Conference several years later and we greeted one another with enthusiasm.  Because he could not participate in Sunday activities for many years, some pastors would have removed him from membership.  In my judgment, that would have been an error. Through pastoral calling, I was able to keep him connected and interested in his local church, even though he could not participate. Plus I got to know a fine human being.

The backbone of the church when I was the pastor was a widow. I could write pages about the good things she did for the church. However, she was so aggressive and expected others to have the same dedication for the Lord that she had. This caused some problems, or should I say, this became the easy excuse for non-attendance by some of the fringe members. More than once, persons in the church would use her as their excuse for non-participation. Illustration upon illustration would be mentioned. The classic one was a very vocal women, who evidently had been a Sunday church school teacher when the widow was in her usual position as Sunday church school superintendent. One Sunday, she missed her teaching position and the superintendent chose the local grocery store as the place to reprimand her for her laxness in not arranging for a substitute. It so happened that the teacher’s daughter had gone into early labor for child-birth that morning and things were fairly hectic in her personal life. She could admit that she “had done wrong” as far as Sunday school was concerned, but she would never forgive the superintendent for bringing it up in a public place. She made it clear that she would never cross the threshold of that church as long as “that woman is there.” I never used this for a sermon illustration of what happens to our spiritual lives when we hold grudges like this over the years. It so happened that circumstances took the active lay person from our community for a long period of time toward the end of the year, as she became a helper at our Methodist children’s home in Urbana (Cunningham?). I went back to the woman who was so bitter, to let her know that it was safe for her to come to church again. But she had dwelt so much on herself and developed such a hard shell that she would not even come when “that woman was no longer there.”

I came to love and respect the active widow to the point that I was able to call on her and beg her, for the sake of the church, not to volunteer for tasks when I mentioned them in Official Board. It had come to the point that whenever I tried to spread the leadership base or the service base, I could not, for she would raise her hand first. I tried to explain to her that it would be better if the job would go unfinished, or the office unfilled, rather than for her to step in immediately and do it herself. It was one of my few successes in human relationships, for she did not get angry at my honesty and we were able to make some forward steps in getting others to assume responsibility. As is so often the case in the local church, the active ones complain about the lack of commitment of others, when the real truth is that the active ones somehow (unintentionally) stand in the way of other persons becoming deeply involved. I was grateful that God was able to use me effectively in this woman’s life. It points more to the depth of her own Christian understanding than to my skill. Bear in mind that it took months for me to develop the courage to approach her on the subject. A trained pastor would have been able to do this much more quickly.

The story that I have relived over more than any other relates to my departure from the church. I was finishing my Senior year at Illinois Wesleyan University. I was enjoying being a pastor much more than I was enjoying being a student. It was assumed that I would leave the church in June of 1959 and prepare to enter Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) in the fall of 1959. I had hoped to have that first year at Garrett entirely for study and adjustment to seminary, rather than work in local churches. Financially, I had been of such little burden to my parents in the last two years of college, so I was confident they might help me in that year. My salary at Wapella had been $960 during the year I was by myself. However, I was developing a conviction that Wapella deserved a pastor who would stay longer than one year. As I had studied the history and seen some of the tragedies of human relationships, I thought I might be able to contribute something if I drove back and forth from seminary to serve this church. It would have been around 150 miles one way.

One event sticks in my mind, as I remember the process by which I changed my mind. It related to salary in the facts, but it related to attitude in the depth of the issue. The financial process, with great pain, decided to recommend an increase of salary by $10 per month, if I stayed.This would have been an increase to $1080 per year. However, when the District Superintendent came, there was such a debate on whether or not they could afford this increase, that I lost heart. I just could not face that kind of negativity. After a year of struggling with educational philosophy, the pain of broken human relationships, the narrowness of applying Christ’s way to family life or community life, I had had it. Unknown to everyone, I severed the tie with Wapella. Timing of this has slipped my memory, but it was probably some time prior to conference time.

At  conference time, I agreed to stay at Wapella until September, thus giving the District Superintendent time to find another student pastor. During this process, I also agreed to accept the position as Minister to Youth in St. James Methodist Church in Danville, Illinois. Remember my resolve to study the first year at Garrett? That held steady for several weeks. However, the Superintendent kept offering me jobs usually related to that unpleasant task of relating to Official Boards.  I had had enough of that for a few years. However, I could not say no to the opportunity at St. James, which included a salary of $3,000 per year, for supervising the youth program of the church for two days a week. Bearing in mind that I did struggle over staying at Wapella for $1080, perhaps judgment will not be too severe for my lack of wavering on the $3,000 offer.

One of my areas of pride, became the area of my downfall at Wapella. I had been able to recruit a new Sunday School superintendent – age in her lower 30’s. She was related to about 1/2 of the church, but that is unrelated to our story. Part way through the summer, she resigned, without one word of explanation. Well, you may know me by now, I called on her. The events of the past year had brought us close enough together, so she finally told me why, under some pressure, perhaps just to get me out of her house. It seems that she had been criticized for her praying. Remember opening exercises? Well, each Saturday night she wrote out a prayer for Sunday morning. I was deeply impressed with these prayers. They showed evidence of a sensitive, concerned spirit. I was lifted spiritually by what she had to say on my behalf as the pastor. What was the problem? Well, the saints had put out the word that “Christians do not read their prayers. Christians pray extemporaneously!” So, once again my efforts to spread the leadership base had been thwarted. Here was a gentle spirit being bruised by those who were more “mature” in the faith.

So, what did the immature pastor do? I blew my top, to put it bluntly. I made a terrible mistake. I injured many persons in the process. It was not until months later that I discovered a better way to have handled the situation. It was found in the letter of Paul to another young preacher – Timothy. If I had known and used this Biblical text for my next sermon, it might have made the difference between spiritual life and death for several members of that church. While I could not have used this translation in that church, the verses comes from II Timothy 2:14, 16-17, “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers…Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will eat its way like gangrene…” Also II Timothy 2:23-25; “Having nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth…” If only I had been aware of the existence of those verses at the time of the crisis.

Instead, I lost my temper and preached a sermon in that condition. If I had a tape recorder, I would give the sermon verbatim. After it was over 1/2 the congregation patted me on the back and said it was a great sermon – it didn’t hit them obviously, which is the usual Protestant pattern for greatness, unfortunately. The other 1/2 actually either found it difficult to shake my hand at the door or rushed past, in order to avoid the ritual.

What did I say? I don’t remember everything. I brought a few skeletons out of the closet – learned in my 900 calls. I told about the oldtimer who was mad at the church because they sold the parsonage his father built for $2,000, when his actual reason for being mad was that he had wanted to purchase it for $1,000. Time had made his memory a little bit off. I told about the fact that I was disturbed over the resignation of the Sunday School superintendent and that I got more spiritual comfort from a well thought out written prayer than I did from five minutes of babbling. On and on, for some 20 minutes, I spoke of my disappointment at various attitudes and actions in this one local church.i

For the next week, I tried to undo the damage that had been done by a whirlwind schedule of calling. Persons who had been all sweetness and light to my face for one year, let loose. “Preacher, I did not appreciate your saying that I babbled.” “But, ma’am, I did not say that YOU babbled. I merely said that I did not appreciate babbling.” When the pastoral relations committee finished their special meeting (called that same week) with the District Superintendent, the big conclusion was this: “Everything he said was true, but he should not have said it.” How true!

I preached the next Sunday on forgiveness, then we had a guest speaker my last Sunday in town, a farewell party, in which Philip Miller indicated that he thought I would be a good preacher – someday, and I was gone. I left on August 1st, one month sooner than I had anticipated. For my punishment, I went on to St. James one month earlier than planned.

 As I left, there was one major failure. One woman, who was not a leader in any local position, still kept the mask of goodwill on her face, even though she felt that so much was wrong in her church. As I look back on the situation, I realize my lack of professional skill assisted me in my failure to help her deal with that mask. She had passed it on to her children to the point where some members of her family had deep grudges toward other members, but could not express it openly. It had to come out behind the back. Example: one time a note was left on a Sunday School table: “Keep your kids under control” Again, I almost lost a teacher. In my investigation of the event, I learned that a relative had left the note, because the teacher was always fussing about other children, but ignoring her own. Her sister-in-law said to me: “I was just giving her a dose of her own medicine.”

This point I would like to develop for some length: “The importance of dealing with spiritual health, in our face to face contacts.” Here are some of the spiritual problems revealed to me as a pastor, for which I did little or nothing. A dominant wife and mother, who could not understand why her husband would not attend church; a bitter widow, who was a pious person in church but literally swore at the postmaster if the littlest thing did not go her way; a dissatisfied factory worker, whose children were brilliant and rather than accept his situation and urge them on, he seemed to suppress their creativity; these illustrate failures that perhaps could have been worked on, if a skilled person had been appointed to the situation and had been able to live there long enough to achieve acceptance. However, my personal efforts at moving the church into a larger parish situations were also doomed to failure. That would make the contents of another chapter.

POSTSCRIPT    1/5/79

Two significant events have happened in the life of the Wapella Church since my pastorate. An event moved the church a few inches. That event was a tornado on May 15, 1968. Years later, my wife and I stopped by to see the physical surroundings of that earlier experience, only to witness the destruction of several features of the tiny village. One of my treasured possessions for several years was one of the bricks left in the hole where the church stood for many decades.

(In doing some historical research on-line, an article about the town contained the information that another tornado had destroyed the church in 1891. In addition, the town was hit by a tornado in 1927. If I lived there in 2018, I would be very nervous.  Some areas carry the name of tornado alleys.)

The church did not rebuild. Nor did it join fully with another United Methodist Church just four miles away. For a few years, it existed in a house in Wapella that was purchased for the worship and educational experiences of the congregation.

The 1974 Journal of the Central Illinois Conference reported this news: “…the Wapella United Methodist Church voted unanimously to discontinue their fellowship and organization, effective June 16, 1974, with property being used for church building and property projects within the Decatur District, etc.”

There are five other United Methodist Churches within driving distance of Wapella, so those who wish to continue as part of the Methodist heritage will have those options, but when we recall that there was consistent refusal to share a pastor with one of those churches or to have any real intimate larger parish relationships, it is doubtful that too many will avail themselves of that opportunity.

One of the members went to some trouble to locate me when I was visiting in Illinois, just a couple of years prior to the closing of the church. It involved an invitation to preach, which I could not accept, due to time allowance. There is some sense of loss in that fact. On the other hand, maybe it is just as well. We can all operate on our memories…

While I was the pastor in Sitka, Alaska (1988-1995), a former member of Wapella visited as part of a work team.  She had clearly forgiven me for my year as pastor there.  Her name was Ruth Hart.  She had fully integrated in the Clinton United Methodist Church.  It was her daughter (Norma) who had spoken up for “student pastors”.

Unlike some of my later ministry, I was very gentle with this fragile congregation. I didn’t try to straighten them out on biblical interpretation or social issues, such as seeing “communists” in the larger church. Even if I had had some of my later skills and knowledge of biblical scholarship, I doubt if I could have changed very many minds in one or two years. I don’t know if I ever worked as hard as I did during those two years. It was a great learning experience and I was grateful for those who tried to assist me in being effective. One woman was very helpful at trying to help me avoid some pitfalls: Mrs. F. C. Bryan. She would invite me into her home and share some information that she knew would be helpful to me. She helped me correct some of my mistakes.

I don’t know when women were called by their first and given names, but it was not then.  It is a sad fact of history that many women’s first names are unknown. I certainly missed being on the cutting edge of that issue in 1959. I am sorry.  Women have names and they should have been used personally and in membership records.

All in all, there were major accomplishments in just one year:  new (used) pews, new approach to Christian Education, very active youth program and a deep knowledge of everyone on the membership book through extensive pastoral calling.  Just think what might have been accomplished if I had known what I was doing!

9 thoughts on “Wapella, My First Church

  1. From time to time I am reminded of my time at Wapella. In the 1980’s, at East Anchorage UMC, I was the pastor for Carol van Rossum (Thorp). When I was at Wapella, she was part of a nearby church called Prairie Center. Her father, Ernest Thorp, was very active and he just died January 31, 2017.

    Two years ago I became acquainted with the women’s basketball coach at Illinois Wesleyan University, only to learn that she lived in the area of Wapella. Small world experience.

    I have also made contact with John Miller, who was twelve years old when I was the pastor. Reality check: he remembered nothing of my experience at Wapella, but I enjoyed lots of fried chicken in his home. Nice to make contact 50 years later. His mother is still living.

    • I remember nothing about the controversies you relate, but I remember a lot about the Sunday evening youth meetings. And I will never forget the eeekend I spent with you on the IWU campus.

      • I am glad you were not aware of the controversies. It was an adult thing anyway. The United Methodist Church internationally is at a major crossroads now, dealing with issues of human sexuality. That was not an issue at Wapella, though my predecessor had stirred up controversy about communist issues, equating liberal thought with communism. Not fair or accurate, but truth was hard to come by, even then, in the age before our so-called President. I didn’t tackle that issue head-on then, but I did a few years later at Kenai, Alaska. The Senior pastor had to deal with it at St. James UMC, in Danville, Illinois, but as the Minister of Youth, I could avoid it.

  2. Andrea (Thorp) Miller died January 14, 2018, at the age of 93. She was a very gracious and gentle person. She and her family fed me a lot of fried chicken during the two years I worked for the Wapella Methodist Church in Wapella, Illinois. May she rest in peace.

    • Thank you for your kind words, JJ. The last 5 years of here life were spent with me in North Carolina. We miss her very much.

  3. Marvin E. Karr died at the age of 91 and Melvin Karr died at the age of 89. Both of the twins received Purple Hearts. They were so quiet and modest, that I did not learn that when I was their pastor. They were born on May 7, 1925. Marvin died on March 24, 2017, and Melvin died on July 14, 2014. They were both peace makers in their families and didn’t enjoy the conflict in their church when I was there. May each of them rest in peace.

  4. The minister who followed me at Wapella was named Wayne R. Schaub. Wayne died in Anacortes, Washington, on January 32, 2017, at the age of 83. Both Wayne and I were fellow classmates at both Illinois Wesleyan University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He eventually made his way to the Pacific Northwest and Seattle. We had contact in Alaska when he brought mission teams there from First United Methodist Church, Seattle. When I learned that he was experiencing a divorce, I flew down from Anchorage to be with him on his sailboat for a couple of days. That deepened our bond. When he met the “love of his life” at Anacortes, their pastor was not available to officiate at their marriage, so I was honored to be asked to serve in that capacity. So I remember with appreciation, contacts in Illinois, Alaska and Washington over our years of ministry and then, in retirement. Skiing was very important to Wayne and for many years he made an annual pilgrimage to Austria where the hotel staff “remembered his name”.

  5. Having reached the age of 82 and now living in the State of Washington (serving 5 years in Illinois, 33 years in Alaska and 13 years in Washington for a total of 51 years), I doubt if I ever make it back to Illinois again, but I do have wonderful memories of my childhood church at Ludlow and the experience at Illinois Wesleyan University, as well as the privilege of serving Wapella and St. James in Danville. The negative part of where I was born was the harsh (humid summers and frigid winters) weather we experienced and endured. It is ironic that I enjoyed living in Alaska (weather-wise) more than I did Illinois. Of course we had to dress appropriately wherever we lived.

    If I could live my life over again, I would have paid more attention on the details of gardening. As a child and teenager, my main role was helping mother process produce, but I learned nothing about how to preserve food. This year (2019) I grew 200 pounds of Jerusalem Artichoke in a community garden and I just learned that the local Food Bank will be able to help me distribute the tubers where they will be appreciated. They are worth about $2,000 on the open market, but community garden rules prevent me from selling them.

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