Through ten years, between 1964 and 1973, scholarships, fellowships, and grants got me through college and seminary. I worked and studied mostly through the benevolence of others. The savings from my work before college disappeared in costs for the first year. What I earned during the summers or working during the school years disappeared almost immediately. I felt fortunate to leave the years of private institutional education with no debts and no bank account, a talented wife and two small children. I needed a job.
For months I interviewed with churches and church-related institutions. I felt qualified to be a pastor, or a college or hospital chaplain, or a librarian based on years of working in and for libraries. My academic record no longer impressed anyone. My denominational connections were tenuous. Clearly wealthy suburban congregations did not see anything in my resume or presentations that convinced them. I was going to start small or as an assistant to someone. Who and where?
In the interviews I was my own worst enemy. I asked questions that no one wanted to hear. How often do you examine social issues, such as race and war and poverty and hunger, in preaching and study groups? How many bible study or issue study groups do you have? (Study groups? What are they?) Is the church involved in serving its community? Providing food, housing, help in finding jobs? (I couldn’t find my own job, let alone help someone else find employment.) One church was offended when they bragged about the success of their dartball teams, and I asked them what dartball was. The discussion went downhill after that. Clearly I was on a different wavelength than my interviewers.
Along the way, the United Church of Tilton, where I had served part-time for a year as a pastoral intern, asked me to come for an interview. Tilton was an industrial village at the edge of the much larger community of Danville, Illinois. The General Motors Foundry was the largest employer, but there were several other factories and a railroad yard in the town. This congregation had blended a few Methodists with a few Congregational-Christians and started over. They built a new building, in large part with volunteer labor, and they had started building a new parsonage. They only had thirty members, but they obviously had courage and faith. Would I take the chance to be their first full-time pastor in decades?
I had grown up on a farm fifty miles away, but this mostly union-member, blue collar community, with decidedly southern accents, was like foreign territory. Racial prejudice lay barely under the surface of a lot of comments, and a college education was suspect among some of them. Biblical literalism was the standard, and the church songbook came right out of old-time Gospel radio. Could I serve them?
The commitment and devotion of this small group won me over. They took a chance on me, and Jan and I took a chance on them and accepted their invitation. A year later they gathered around me in an ordination. Within a few years the membership had doubled and then doubled again and again. Their per capita stewardship led the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, although the composition of the congregation looked decidedly different than most of the rural and urban congregations of the UCC.
We had our challenges there. School desegregation, poor economy and loss of jobs, religious fundamentalism and the critical judgment of other Christians, problem pregnancy counseling, competition among congregations for members and support, physical and emotional abuse in families, drugs and alcohol—these all brought plenty of tearful times. We also had successes—reorganizing the abandoned town cemetery, senior adult meals, youth programs and work trips, men’s and women’s and couple’s fellowship experiences, and, yes, study groups. After seven more years I thought that it was time to move on and seek new ministries, and let them show that their faith could keep growing with new leadership, which of course they did.