My Life Story – Remarks Prepared For and Shared At RUMMS (Retired United Methodist Ministers and Spouses) April 29, 2011
Life is so interesting. One of my retirement “passions” is reading. Very eclectic to say the least. I lucked into a video on “Anne of Green Gables” and became interested in her story.
Then I read the sequel “Anne of Avonlea” and this is what I read on page 125. (Anne is speaking with 3 other women who are on a picnic. All are approximately age 17. Anne is the local schoolteacher. I trust you read these books long ago, but I waited until retirement to do so.) Note: in 2019 we visited Prince Edward Island and saw the area that inspired the author. When I showed great enthusiasm at seeing where Anne “lived”, someone gently said: “You do know that she is a work of fiction, don’t you?” Darn reality.
“…The real poem is the soul within them, and that beautiful bit is the soul of an unwritten poem. It is not every day one sees a soul – even of a poem.”
“I wonder what a soul – a persons’ soul – would look like,” said Priscilla dreamily.
“Like that, I should think,” answered Anne, pointing to a radiance of sifted sunlight streaming through a birch tree. Only with shape and features, of course. I like to fancy souls as being made of light. And some are all shot through with rosy stains and quivers, and some have a soft glitter like moonlight on the sea, and some are pale and transparent like mist at dawn.”
“I read somewhere once that souls were like flowers,” said Priscilla.
“Then your soul is a golden narcissus,” said Anne, “and Diana’s is like a red, red rose. Jane’s is an apple blossom, pink and wholesome and sweet.”
“And your own is a white violet, with purple streaks in its heart,” finished Priscilla.
Jane whispered to Diana that she really could not understand what they were talking about. Could she? (end of quote)
Life is interesting. And now I have something with which to answer this question about what a soul would look like. It almost preaches. My mother’s soul is a large, white, white rose.
(Added later: I have no clue as to what my soul would look like. I dabble in raising dahlias, but there is such variety (thousands) that it would be hard to pick one. Perhaps I am a bit like Jane: “I don’t understand what they are talking about!”)
You asked me to tell of my life story and how my faith was formed or informed. Here is the picture I selected to put on the cover of my mother’s life story. She was a wonderful person and she was responsible for helping me in my spiritual formation. She was a person filled with tenderness, compassion for others and curiosity. My father was also responsible for some of my life formation. He was not as wonderful as my mother, but he was a person with a lot of personal integrity and courage. I observed this as he acted within the community where we lived. But he was also hardheaded.
One of the formatives stories surrounded the issue of selling liquor in our town. At some point the pro-liquor folks attacked the home of the pastor by throwing dirt on his front porch. My father got involved, even though we did not live in the town itself. He had a conversation with the pro-liquor folks and when it came time to vote, even those who sponsored the liquor option vote, voted against it. I don’t know what my father said to them, but I think it could be described as “putting the fear of God in them”. I am sure words such as “bringing charges against them for illegal activity” may have been included.
As far as my mother was concerned, I remember a pastor who could not engage in small talk with the members of the church. Perhaps it was shyness. I don’t know the problem. but it was causing problems. Now some people would just work to get another pastor, but not my mother. She invited the pastor for afternoon refreshment several times and without his realizing what was happening, she gave him some practice in small talk. Not giving my mother complete credit, instead of finding another profession, he went on to be a very successful pastor, if becoming a District Superintendent is a sign of success.
So these two characteristics: compassion and personal courage were mixed up in my journey of spiritual formation. They were both useful in the ministry. I could be a very good pastor for people who were hurting, but I could also be difficult for those who wished to keep me silent on a wide variety of issues.
During my earliest years in ministry, I was mentored by pastors at summer camp, teachers in college (Hessert) and seminary, as well as colleagues in ministry. (Leonard Sutton)
My spiritual life was formed in my home and in a very small Methodist Church in Central Illinois. There was a vital youth group with an average attendance of five persons. At an appropriate age, I came to a personal commitment to Jesus Christ at the altar of that same church. I was allowed to serve on the Official Board of the church, so I learned a lot about how the church operates and I still became a minister.
Through Christian camping, I became active in District and Conference programs, attending an United Methodist school known as Illinois Wesleyan University. My image of education was to be deeply involved in the culture of my college and seminary, but it was not to be. In my Junior year of college, I accepted a call to be the Associate Pastor in one of the most difficult appointments in the Central Illinois Conference, working on portions of 3 days a week. Serving a church while attending school continued for five years in two different appointments. It consumed my time and energy on weekends and I missed all of the weekend culture to be found in the college community and in the seminary setting near Chicago.
When I was appointed as the pastor at Wapella as a college senior, one pastor put his arm around me and said: “Don’t worry about blowing it in this appointment, John, as the only way for you to go in this conference is up.” He was implying that I was starting at the bottom. This church celebrated its centennial on my watch. My research revealed that it had had 55 pastors in 100 years. Prior to me, a non-Methodist pastor (who happened to be a Baptist) had preached against Methodism and convinced a majority of the members that Methodism was a communist organization. They voted to leave the denomination. The superintendent allowed them to vote on the motion and then asked for the keys to the building. When the folks realized they couldn’t take the building with them, they were smart enough to move “reconsideration of the previous motion” and stayed in the denomination, but they were not happy. That was my first appointment in Methodism. The church went from 85 members to 60 in my year as pastor with an attendance of 50 persons. Fifteen people who had been participating in other churches were helped to actually transfer their membership to the church they were attending. I saw that as helping them, as well as helping the local church.
At that point in our history, one of my duties was to report to the superintendent the number of calls or contacts I made in the parish. I meekly complied. The total was 900. It was the second highest in my district, only topped by the largest church which had 3,000 members. Ironically, my second appointment was Minister to the Youth at that same large church in Danville, Illinois. I will never know if there was a connection. I worked there with 100 active youth. Occasionally I preached to 600 persons.
Then two traumatic things happened in my journey. I felt a call to missionary service and I fell in love. Barbara and I went together to Alaska in 1962 for three years. Thirty-three years later we left Alaska in 1995 for two appointment in the PNW conference: Spokane:Manito and Stanwood. I retired in 2008.
Alaska provided to be both interesting and stimulating. We started in a parish that was 100 miles long and not very many miles wide, serving three churches. It was there that a pattern developed. I was an effective pastor, so I keep getting appointments. But I was also engaged in controversial social justice ministries. In my first parish, I was blamed or credited with closing down an illegal gambling operation in the area, called Soldotna Progress Days. In anger the leadership of the event closed down the fair, publicly blaming me, because I had exposed their illegal gambling operation to the authorities in the State of Alaska by writing a letter of inquiry. In what became a pattern, state officials would reluctantly follow the laws of the State of Alaska. Look what has happened since I left the State of Alaska. Following the law appears to have gone out of fashion there, based on the number of legislators who have been sent to prison recently. But I digress.
While in my first parish, I served on a hospital board of directors that was so hot politically that the Mayor of my town (Kenai) had resigned from serving to save his political hide. I took his place. Now the process of appointment making is somewhat private, even today. I moved to another church a short time after this. I do not know if there was a connection and all members of the cabinet are deceased, so we will never know. However, in my defense, the usual pattern then was a three-year appointment.
While traveling in South America recently, I got in touch with a pattern to my ministry. Good pastoral care and involvement in tough political issues. At the next church, I became an expert on The John Birch Society. Most of you have heard of this group. Think Tea Party in work clothes! It is fascinating that the money for The John Birch Society and the Tea Party comes from the same family. I also ran as a candidate for the State House of Representatives as a Republican Candidate. Just for the record, I lost the election and I have now become a born-again Democrat, according to former Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, a member of Stanwood United Methodist Church.
The Bishop observed my political activities and appointed me to be the pastor in the State Capital of Juneau, Alaska. In my spare time (my day off), I served as a volunteer lobbyist with the state legislature, working on issues for children and prison inmates, persons for whom no one was paid to lobby. I developed a slight reputation. People would come to me to ask for help. I helped increase the amount of money spent on alcohol abuse problems, plus I became the expert on the issue of abortion reform. Alaska passed a liberal abortion law prior to Roe-Wade and I can take some credit/blame for that.
The road got rockier for me. I was a player in ecumenical affairs statewide. In spite of the breakdown in relationship with some Roman Catholics over the abortion issue, I became President of the Alaska Christian Conference of Churches.
I became the pastor in Nome, Alaska and spent four years as a very wonderful, caring pastor. Then my social justice genes kicked in and with the support of my wife, who was then serving on the Nome Common Council, I tackled the issue of alcohol abuse. All hell broke loose. It started after I conducted a wonderful funeral for a twenty-year-old church participant who had had an argument with her boyfriend and in an intoxicated state she went walking in the tundra without proper clothing. I told Barbara I could do wonderful funeral services for years, but I didn’t want to leave Nome without saying a negative word about the dominant drinking culture that existed there. She gave her consent and the rest became history. (Other blog threads will deal with Nome in depth.)
It is somewhat awkward to tell my story in front of Jack Tuell and Ed Stanton, as they both played a role in my ministry. They can tell their own story and they will and they have.
The appointment process in Alaska changed when I went to Nome. Prior to that time (1974) the Bishop and/or Cabinet just decided and informed the church and pastor what would be happening with the appointments. After that date, there had to be an introduction interviews with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and then the appointment would be made (fixed?). Perhaps it would be informative to share how that process went for me at Nome.
When I was flown to Nome for that interview, one person attended the meeting and she was not active in other church activities, like worship. In a normal world, the message about lay involvement would have been clear, but I wanted to stay in Alaska, so I didn’t listen to the message and accepted the appointment in 1974.
You might as well know that Bishop Tuell offered to appoint me to First United Methodist Church in Fairbanks in 1980, but the committee refused to meet with me, with the chair rejecting me based solely on my reputation. I don’t think church leaders are cruel or mean persons, but instead of appointing me to Fairbanks, they appointed the late Richard Heacock as the pastor to Fairbanks. I laughed for two solid days when I learned of that appointment. Talk about poetic justice. Richard Heacock was more radical than me, to say the least. Sadly the church divided, but I was spared that trauma or blame.
When I went to East Anchorage the next year (1981) for that interview, the first question was: “What happened in Nome” So I told them and for the first and only time in my ministry, when I was finished, the committee broke into spontaneous applause. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
In my next appointment (after Nome), I decided to operate in a different way and it worked. For seven year I kept clean. No major public involvements on social issues. No newspaper headlines. I became deeply loved in my local church and community. I supervised a Retreat Center 90 miles from Anchorage. My members thought I was doing church work when I spent a day at the Hope Retreat Center. It was a major shift in my social justice involvements publicly. When the first opportunity came for me to be involved, I gave the instigator $1,000 and told him to make the headlines in the newspaper. It worked. We won the cause and I didn’t get the credit or the blame.
To complete the Alaskan cycle, when I went for the interview in Sitka, Alaska, I started with them (theologically) at the point where I was in leaving East Anchorage. At East Anchorage I was focusing on the inclusive love of God so strongly that one lay person came up to me after a sermon and said: “John, we all agree with you. Why don’t you move on to another subject?” My honesty in the interview at Sitka made the committee think about it overnight. They decided hearing something new and different would be good for them, so those who were hearing something new from me decided to accept me as their pastor. God and the cabinet had saved the best for last in Alaska. Sitka was a wonderful experience for us. We could have stayed there forever, but something inside of me thought it wouldn’t be good for them or me to be there forever, so I was able to transfer to the Pacific Northwest Conference and get an appointment in Spokane.
During my ministry, I divide my work in two sections: 1961-1981 (twenty years of social activism) and 1980-2008 (twenty-eight years of being much more cautious). Even with the concept of guaranteed appointments, I was not paranoid, as there were people “out to get me”. I had better relationships with some people who disagreed with me on my public and private stands on a variety of issues because I didn’t beat people up from the pulpit on a regular basis, just occasionally. People actually came to believe that I respected their opinions, even if they were different from my own…with some exceptions.
What created the difference in my style? I was asked to serve as a pastor for one month in Hana, Hawaii, in March of1981. It started whole new direction for my ministry. It actually helped me to become more honest in my preaching. I started telling theological truth from the pulpit, bringing the best of what I know about biblical and theological scholarship. Five sermons at Hana. (Inclusive gospel, science and religion) The best summary of that experience was an 80 year old woman who slowly came up to me at the door of the church, saying: “Young man, I want you to know that you just preached me back into the church.” Wow! I had waited a lifetime to hear some affirmation like that. Only time in 51 years to hear those words, but it gave me some hope that I was on to something new and powerful. Telling the truth.
I love to tell this next story. When I came to Spokane for the “interview”, I brought my guns with me for storage at the district parsonage. District Superintendent Ruth Mathis was wondering about me at this point. She had told the local church before the required interview that I was OLD and they were shocked to see some one who was still active and vital. I was excited to learn later that Ruth Mathis and I were exactly the same age and I never let her forget it. OLD indeed!
For the most part, staying out of the public eye (newspapers) was my method of operation in my last four appointments. With the exception of getting major (front page) newspaper coverage for a speech on homosexuality near the end of my five years in Spokane, it was a new way of operating. I had learned my lesson.
In some ways I was and am angry about the change in my life in 1981. Several friends gathered to wish me well as I departed from Anchorage to Sitka in 1988. One of them, the late Tom Dahl, inquired about the change he had seen in me and the reality that I had become a popular person. Yes, said I, it is easy to be popular as a minister. Just focus on doing nothing that rocks the boat and you, too, can become popular.
But, less you think I completely caved in, I managed to offend a few people in my old age. When I discovered that the Spokane River was so polluted that pregnant women were advised to stay out of the river, I managed to comment on this reality, only to discover that the lawyer for the polluting industries was a member of my congregation. He refused to listen to me preach ever again and tried to work against me behind the scenes.
At Stanwood, my insistence on using the word “inclusive” alienated one man who was willing to help finance James Dobson’s ministry known as “Focus on the Family”. I soon discovered that several church leaders, including the lay leader, hated the United Methodist Church as a denomination. When they were removed from leadership, they decided to serve God in the Free Methodist Church. I have gotten a great deal of satisfaction in informing people that in my last year of ministry, before I was forced to retire because of the age requirement, 40 persons joined the Stanwood United Methodist Church, with 24 of them joining by Profession of Faith. It was a great way to end my full-time professional ministry.
(The following story was not included in the speech, due to time constraints, but I have chosen to include it here.)
Riley Case is a former District Superintendent in the State of Indiana who writes a lot for the Confession Movement in the United Methodist Church. (A small lobbying group made up of clergy and laity. In my opinion, some of the clergy are frustrated because they couldn’t get elected Bishop and the laity are frustrated because they can not dominate the church.) I have chosen to jab him from time to time as he pontificates that all of the problems in United Methodism are caused by liberals.
He wrote that “progressive Christianity” has never won a following for Jesus. He was commenting on Rob Bell’s new book on hell and he took this opportunity to be critical of United Methodist bishops and pastors who didn’t have his view on hell.
I have chastised him for his generalizations, as this progressive United Methodist pastor (me) received 40 new members in his last year of ministry, with 24 of them being by Profession of Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In response to his last diatribe I wrote to him. “You keep saying this even after I told you that this progressive United Methodist pastor received 40 members in my last year of ministry, a majority by Profession of Faith. Shame on you.”
I continued to write to him:
“I have preached several sermons on ‘hell’ and a vast majority of my members were appreciative of my position. I actually like what one Catholic leader said several years ago: ‘THERE IS A HELL and it is empty.'”
“I just got back from a trip to South America and that was hot enough for me.
“The modern idea of hell dates back to Dante’s inferno. Shows what a powerful work of fiction can accomplish. Saw a depiction of hell in a church in Ecuador. Our guide said that it gave her nightmares as a child, but she is still a faithful Catholic. One poor fellow had his body pierced with seven spears and his tormentor (the inquisition even made it to South America – let’s hope it never makes it to United Methodism) was ready to pour some boiling oil down the man’s throat. They left no stone unturned.
“I must confess that ‘grace’ trumps ‘hell’ in my theology.”
(That was the end of my jab for Riley Case. He was kind enough to respond to this note, though I have not heard from him very often lately.)
“John: Thanks for the response to the Happenings article on hell. I am always willing to consider what you have to say. Most of the response to my stuff is from friendlies and it is not nearly as interesting as the stuff I get from folk like you. I probably am not as rigid on hell as it may seem. I have a lot of questions. If we find out in the end that God saves all, well and good. I will accept that. However, I would rather be wrong about preaching hell when it doesn’t exist than to be wrong about preaching there is no hell when it does exist. Then I would have some answering to do.” (Riley Case) -The End of that Correspondence. Back to the Speech.
In retirement, I am doing a lot of volunteer work, centered on a term as Conference Secretary and a position called “Minister to the Retirees”. In addition to this, Barbara and I travel “at the drop of a ticket”. I am trying to read more books and magazines, do some serious gardening and drive people to medical appointments through various agencies, including Catholic Community Services in Everett. (that has ended now) Some of you are aware of Barbara’s work with the Bishop’s Task Force for Hope for the Children of Africa, which supports two orphanages in the Southern Congo. Life is good, as well as interesting.
So we continue. I have long maintained that during the time of retirement that we may do our most effective work through contacting decision makers in our society and letting them know what we think they should do. One thing for sure, I no longer have to deal with the people who pay my salary when I do so.
(Postscript: This is an added thought. When I was in Nome, doing my best, hardest and most difficult work of my ministry, I also helped start and then served a Presbyterian Church as a Stated Supply. As we jumped through the hoops required with the Presbytery of the Yukon, the Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage came to Nome and I asked him if he worked three times harder than I did. He was getting three times the inflated salary I was getting in Nome even with a twenty per-cent cost of living adjustment. I sensed he agreed that he wasn’t working three times harder than me. Which leads me to my point: if United Methodist pastors were all paid equal salaries and received the funds directly from the regional entity, a pastor would not have to worry as much about “biting the hand that feeds him”, as far as social positions and activity is concerned. From the very first church in Kenai, Alaska, it was hard to challenge the stewardship level of those individuals who also “set my salary”. Pastors with “inflated salaries” control much of United Methodism in the United States, so I doubt if it changes, but what I am advocating exists in Great Britain. Perhaps, as our denomination gets smaller, there will be more efforts to create equality in compensation. In my example I was getting approximately $20,000 in Nome and the Anchorage pastor was getting $60,000. When I started in Wapella, I was getting $960, then in Danville I received $3,000 and when I graduated from seminary, I received $5,000. When I retired, compensation was close to $40,000.