Last week I began a pilgrimage to the churches and communities where Linda and I lived during our almost 59 years of marriage. It has now been ten months since her death and I continue to adjust to life without her.
In the months ahead, I will visit several communities and churches that sowed fertile seeds of grace that grew for six decades in Linda and me.
Memories and feelings will be rekindled. Some will be painful. Most will be joyful. I will give thanks for the good memories, lament the painful ones, confess my failures, and celebrate the Grace which permeated them all.
I am convinced that pastors are formed by the congregations they serve as surely as pastors help to shape congregations. I realize how much the life Linda and I shared was shaped by the churches and communities in which we lived.
Sixty years ago, June 1960, I was appointed as student pastor of Watauga Methodist Church, located on a hillside above the Watauga River, on the outskirts of Johnson City, Tennessee.
I was only nineteen and a student at East Tennessee State University. I had received my “Local Pastor’s License” a year earlier.
The Watauga community had a population of fewer than 400 in 1960 and remains about the same today. The businesses in the community included farms, a rock quarry, grain mill, and grocery store. Some people worked in either Johnson City or Elizabethton.
The church had an average attendance of 22 which grew to 26 over the two years I was there, maybe the largest percentage increase in my subsequent years of pastoral ministry. Admittedly, much if not all of the increase was the number from my family who would occasionally attend to hear their “boy preacher.” Membership included only one young family with children.
My salary was $600 per year, with a raise to $800 my second year. The Conference added another $400 after we married in 1961, bringing the total to $1200.
Linda and I had been dating for about a year when I was appointed. She was a student at Emory and Henry College, majoring in religion. She decided to write a history of the church for one of her classes, a paper I still have. She attended services when she was home from college, which happened with increased frequency.
We decided to marry after her graduation, even though I would have another year of college. She got a job working at ETSU as a secretary in the department of health education.
There was no parsonage. However, the St. Johns, who owned a large farm and the grain mill, made available a small house across the driveway from the stately antebellum house than dominated the landscape. The small structure had once served as “servants quarters.” We paid $40 per month rent.
Though it needs painting today, the house looks as it did 59 years ago. The congregation helped us gather used furniture sufficient for our use. They were proud that their young preacher and wife would be living in the community, a first for them. Though the house was markedly smaller and less attractive than Linda’s middle-class home, she accepted our new residence with graciousness and gratitude.
Upon returning from our honeymoon, the congregation treated us with an “ole fashion pounding.” They brought ‘pounds’ of flour and sugar, plus canned goods, vegetables, and even household utensils for the newlyweds. It was quite a celebration!
The two dozen active members of Watauga were socio-economically diverse, from two large-farm families, a retired business man, and station owner to families on public assistance. One man even skinned skunks and sold the pelts for income. Two were college graduates and at least one could not read or write. Yet, they were like an extended family to one another.
The church considered it their special God-given ministry to give young pastors a start. They made that clear on my first Sunday in June 1960. They celebrated my presence with them and no criticism ever reached my ears in those two years. Yes, they offered kind, sensitive suggestions for improvement; but they never put me down or humiliated me. They were quick to compliment and affirm every sign of progress and dutifully attended special studies that I suggested. They were determined to support their young pastor.
It was a time of “firsts”: first pastoral visit, first funeral, first weekly worship leadership and sermon preparation, first Sunday night Bible study, first district pastors’ meeting, first time to be introduced as “my pastor,” first (and last) time Linda ate souse meat (look it up). I still remember the look on her face when I told her what it was! Still, she thanked our hosts, Sarah and Landon, for their warm and generous hospitality.
The pattern for our fifty-nine years of marriage and shared ministry was set during those two exciting years. That little congregation shaped us far more than we shaped it.
When we left in the summer of 1962 for Washington D. C. to attend seminary, the congregation rejoiced that we were taking this next step in preparation for ministry. They sent us off with celebration and thanksgiving.
During the Holston Annual Conference session in 1992, I was endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy. At that same session, the dean of the Cabinet read the names of the churches to be declared discontinued and closed. On that list was “Watauga United Methodist Church, Johnson City District.” The perfunctory vote was taken, and the church where Linda and I began ministry and life together no longer existed.
I wanted to pause to give public testimony to the contribution that small, faithful church made to my formation and that of other pastors who were nurtured by its support and commitment.
It was at that conference session that I vowed to myself and to Linda that if I was elected a bishop, no church would pass out of existence without our pausing at Annual Conference to celebrate and give thanks for each of the “abandoned” and “closed” churches.
Watauga Church is no longer United Methodist, but it is an active church. The photo above was taken last week! Its appearance hasn’t changed nearly as much as that of the nineteen year old who showed up as the pastor sixty years ago.
I am convinced that faithfulness to the gospel consists primarily of sowing seeds of grace, which is God’s presence and power to create, shape, and transform human hearts, communities and the entire creation. In other words, seeds of the reign (kingdom) of God.
While I continue to grieve the loss of Linda’s presence, I am profoundly grateful for the seeds of grace which Watauga Methodist Church sowed in us and which give me comfort, joy, and hope.