“Animal Farm” | Blog #21

“Animal Farm” | Blog #21

Picture gallery at the bottom of the blog!

These have been amazingly fruitful days of reflection at the very edge of Lake Tahoe. Looking out my window above the lake, I am amazed both at its clarity – I can see to the bottom a good way out – and the changing colors throughout the day as the sun walks from the bottom right to the top left of my view. Over the years I’ve collected landscape paintings and the brightness of the colors of the view out my window – the blues, greens, snow-whites, pale yellows, purples as late afternoon shadows move toward the golden hour – makes me wish I had a painting of this scene to add to my collection.

I am out here on this leg of the sabbatical with a group we call “The Pilgrims of Lughnasa.” Lughnasa is the Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season. Three years ago four of my dear friends in ministry – Bill Carter, Rod Stone, Bill Hoyle, and Carl Wilton – and I started kicking around the idea of meeting regularly to try to encourage each other and hold each other accountable for finishing strong in the last years of our ministries and to help each other to think about our understanding of our Christian vocation once we retire. At the time three of us were just turning 60 while the other two were a few years ahead of us. Unusually, all five of us went directly from university to Princeton Theological Seminary and then directly into serving the church which we have done since. I say unusual because that is no longer the norm. More often, someone either comes into ministry as a second career or, after a number of years in the local church ministry, leaves for different work. But for each of us, serving the church has been a joy, even when it has, as it has for all of us, been challenging in various seasons.

As we look at our last years of full-time ministry, we felt the metaphor of “harvest” was one that resonated with us. So, over these last two and a half years we have gathered a couple of times a year to read and discuss books, study scripture and pray together, and, with the help of a “conversation partner” (a pastor whose ministry we have respected and who has made a healthy “pivot” into retirement), we have sought to discern what we have harvested over these nearly 40 years and discern our way forward with the assistance of a grant from Austin Theological Seminary.

One of us turned 65 and retired last Christmas. Another looks forward to making that transition later this year. The other three of us have a 3-to-7-year timeline. These gatherings have been so rich as we seek to be faithful to God’s call and our vow to lead the church with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” Our conversation partner this week has been Rev. Jim Kitchens. Jim was formerly the pastor of Nashville’s 2nd Presbyterian Church. He spent the last few years of his active ministry as Interim Pastor of San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church and then an Executive Presbyter for two California Presbyteries. Since then, he has been working as a consultant with Bill Wilson’s Center for Healthy Churches. I think it is a hoot that as I write this in the Pacific Time Zone Bill is working with our Session back at WPC to gain some clarity about our mission coming out of the pandemic.

One exercise Jim put us through was called “Animal Farm.” Showing a variety of animals, Jim asked us to think about our churches and ministries: 1). A Peacock – what are we proud about; 2). A Cow – what is the sacred cow that one risks touching; 3). An Elephant – what’s the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there but is avoided; 4). A T-Rex – what’s a dinosaur that needs to die; 5). The Dog from the movie “Up” – what’s the “squirrel” that is drawing our attention away from the work that needs our focus and attention; 6). A Piece of Raccoon – what is “roadkill”, that is, what has been a failure and what have we learned from it; 7). A Nest with 3 Blue Robin Eggs – what is being born that is a sign of hope and promise. All afternoon the four of us (poor Bill Hoyle is sick today) worked with Jim trying to come to clarity about all these aspects of our ministry. It was a very helpful process.

Tonight we head over to the California side of the lake and up the mountain to the little town of Truckee for dinner at a restaurant in the old Truckee Hotel where my friend, Rev. Ed Hurley, has a nephew who is chef. It will be another chance to drive around the lake and appreciate its beauty from every angle. 

Many of you know that I met Bill Carter and Rod Stone on the very first day of Princeton Seminary and they both have been my closest friends over the years. Bill graduated in the class of ’85 and was called to First Presbyterian Church of Catasauqua, PA, a town just west of Bethlehem. He would regularly visit my Pop who, by that time, was in a Westminster Home nearby, having lost his mobility due to MS. The first time Bill went by, my dad, the Judge, handed Bill a legal pad and proceeded to dictate his newly changed will. That night Bill called me with the news, “Hey, I know what you’re getting!” Rod and I took a year’s internship between our second and third years, so we graduated in ’86. I was called to start Alpharetta Presbyterian New Church Development and moved to suburban Atlanta on July 1, 1986. Rod was called by Rev. Frank Harrington of Atlanta’s Peachtree Presbyterian Church, at that time the largest church in the denomination, to be the first Youth Pastor. He started January of 1987 and found out on his first day that he had 600 teenagers on the roll! So, we laugh that we “fought the battle of Atlanta” together. I cannot begin to imagine my life without their faithful friendship. Thanks be to God for such rich days of reflection and fellowship.