“Can You Go Home Again?” | Blog #14

“Can You Go Home Again?” | Blog #14

Picture gallery at the bottom of the blog!

Friday morning after I left Jim and Barb’s I headed over to Alpharetta Presbyterian Church. Jim’s friend, Mike, mentioned he’d heard that I was going to be asked to speak during the service on Sunday, which was news to me, so I wanted to see if one of the pastors was there to get clarity. Now it’s important to know that when I leave a church as a pastor, I leave a church. For the four churches beside WPC I’ve served as an ordained pastor – Alpharetta PC (Alpharetta, GA), FPC Libertyville (Libertyville, IL), Covenant PC (Charlotte), and First Pres Dalton (Dalton, GA) – I haven’t been involved after leaving. I’ve kept up with friends and have endeavored to be an encourager to the pastors who have followed me, but I’ve always taken 1 Corinthians 3 to heart where Paul writes, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth…For we are co-workers, working together, you are God’s field, God’s building”  (I Cor. 3:5-6, 9). I started APC when I was so incredibly young and the church, by God’s grace and a lot of hard work, grew beyond my capacities. In 7.5 years we went from a bare 10 acre lot filled with pine trees and no members to a building bursting at the seams with 450 adults and 220 children below the age of 12. So, while it was hard to (as my old mentor, Tom Gillespie, President of PTS who started his ministry in ’54 as a new church developer warned) “give the church back to God”, I was pleased when Walter Jones was called to follow me. He brought gifts and experience I didn’t have to help the church grow to the next level. Walter was followed by Joe Clifford, now at Myers Park, Charlotte; in a wonderful serendipity our sons became close friends at Montreat one summer and still stay in touch. Finally, 14 years ago Ollie Wagner was called after each of us served 7 years apiece and it is wonderful to see how vibrant and meaningful a ministry he has with three young women associates. 

So, I went over to APC and no pastors were there, but an administrator told me she was sure I wasn’t going to be called on to speak. But, she said, Carolyn Dillon would be coming in shortly and she was sure, if I could hang around, Carolyn would love to see me. Carolyn and her husband, Bob, were charter members. They moved down from Wisconsin and showed up with their 9 year-old daughter, Katie, about the 3rd Sunday we were worshipping. Bob, an insurance salesman with an Irish tenor voice who loved to sing in Barbershop quartets, had the gift of welcoming people. He’d roam the perimeter of the congregation after worship like a sheep dog looking for visitors and welcome them, herding them into the flock. In those early days so many would tell me when I asked why they wanted to join, “Bob Dillon made us feel so welcome.” Carolyn was, for a season, my Clerk of Session. She was old-school, taking Session minutes by shorthand. But Session needed to be over no later than 8:45 because she needed to get home to watch LA Law. They were all-in as a family and their daughter, Katie, ended up going to Princeton Seminary and becoming a pastor. In fact, she’s now at Trinity Presbyterian, Durham, NC having followed Donovan Drake when he came to WPC. It was wonderful to see and catch up with Carolyn.

After leaving WPC I drove the two hours north to Mike and Anne Mahone’s house on Lake Hartwell. I hadn’t seen them since leaving APC in February of ’94. Anne was one of 4 siblings who, with her folks, and all their children were members. The “Dantzler Clan” constituted a voting block! They had moved up from Atlanta where they had been long-time members of Emory PC. Anne’s brother, David Dantzler, and her husband Mike, had grown up together and were good friends, even though David went to UGA and Mike GA Tech. They were in their early and mid-thirties when I started and successful in law and business and were critical in leadership in the early days. They, along with Jim Simmons, and a few other guys were in an early morning men’s Bible Study that I started, and we grew close in faith and friendship. Mike and Anne had been so close that they joined us on one of the summer vacations to Flathead Lake where I rented Eugene Peterson’s home and used it to explore Glacier Park in the early ‘90’s. Over the last couple of years, we reconnected, and Mike had encouraged me to come visit their home in Durango, CO. When I started planning the sabbatical, I decided to drive to Colorado when Amy and the kids are flying out to join me in Breckenridge over Memorial Day, and was planning to visit Mike and Anne. When I contacted him, he told me they had sold the Durango home and moved back to their lake home in GA, but to please visit there. When I found out the VandyBoys were playing GA in Athens I asked whether he’d like to go to a game with me and a plan was made. Such fun reconnecting with these dear friends, seeing their lovely home, meeting wonderdog Cole, and watching Vandy take the first game of the series!

My heart is so full of gratitude for this time to reconnect with old friends and to thank God for the good, hard work of getting Alpharetta off the ground. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I had been called to a more traditional “fist call” (as an associate pastor in a large church, for instance) I might have been ruined for ministry. The challenge of doing a New Church Development, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, made me figured out whether I believed in God, really believed, or not. More on that tomorrow!