Someone—and this quote has been attributed to everyone from Dostoevsky to John Gardner—someone once said that there are only two possible stories that have ever been written: “A stranger comes to town” and “Someone goes on a journey”.
In a real way, Burlington Presbyterian Church and I are living out those stories. My wife Pam and I have arrived as strangers who are excited to be among you, and with Rod MacDonald’s retirement, BPC has embarked on another chapter in its journey. To be honest, it is probably a time of disorientation for all of us. Pam and I are adjusting to life in a new apartment in Braintree, finding stores and walking trails, but certainly we are missing our walks along the waterfront in Plymouth, checking the growth of the fledglings in the osprey nest, my four mile commute to the Beacon Hospice office and the less than 5 minute walk we made to the Church of the Pilgrimage on Sunday mornings. We are now getting oriented not only to a new home and community, but also a new church and its history, culture, traditions, and core values.
I won’t presume to know the depths of your disorientation after Rod’s retirement, a succession of pulpit supply pastors, and the necessary “radio silence” maintained by the Interim Pastor Search Committee and the Session as they did their work. I do know that you are each, in your own way, grieving (and that’s not too strong a word) your particular relationship and memories of Rod and Cathy. As with any time of grief, no one can set a timeline for moving beyond those feelings. I’m here to honor your feelings and in God’s time help you take some steps forward. I’m not here to “replace” Rod, but I am a stranger coming to town to accompany BPC on its journey, and over time we will all be able to say as Paul said in Galatians, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God”.
There are a few thoughts I need to share with you right from the start about the role of the Interim Pastor. First of all, I want to emphasize the “Pastor” part of the title. I am going to be your Pastor, and I am fully committed to providing pastoral care to members and friends of the congregation. My cell phone and home phone are published in our crossroads, and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. If there is a pastoral need, let me know. I will be taking Fridays off, but you can always reach me. And yes, I live in Braintree, but I have a car!
Now let’s visit that word “Interim”. It means what it says: I am here for the time between Rod’s retirement and the calling of a new pastor, and I will in fact probably leave before a new pastor starts. I have signed a contract with the BPC Session and the Presbytery which clearly states: “It is understood by all parties that the pastor under contract may not be considered for the installed pastoral position in this congregation.” I am not now, nor will I ever be, a candidate. Period. My work is to accompany you during this transition time, help prepare you for a new pastor, and then ride off into the sunset. My contract is initially for 12 months, but that can be and is often extended in 3, 6, or even 12 month periods, depending on circumstances.
The contract further stipulates that “It is understood that the Interim Pastor will not be involved in any way with the Pastor Nominating Committee, except to facilitate that committee’s regular reports to the Session”. I will not coach, advise, direct or otherwise interfere with the work of the Pastor Nominating Committee that you will elect.
What I do plan to do once the “program year” begins is to set up some opportunities for church members and friends to meet with me and Pam in a small group setting. I shared with the Interim Pastor Search Committee that I was intrigued by the statement on the church’s website that “we are dreamers and doubters, seekers and believers. We don’t have all the answers, but we are on a journey together trying to follow Jesus Christ. We’d be glad if you would join us.” I asked the IPNC members to share some of their dreams and I look forward to hearing yours.
I often joke with my fellow Presbyterians that “we Presbyterians are not very nimble.” We value our process and procedures, and friends from other denominations are amazed when I tell them how long it sometimes takes for a church to call a new pastor. In BPC’s case, that’s not all bad. You have been blessed with 35 years of caring, compassionate, thoughtful leadership. Presbyterian process and procedure are important, but so is attentive listening for God’s “still, small voice”. I have a poster in my office from my college days, with two large footprints on it and the words “A sign of God is that we will be led where we did not plan to go.” Let’s open our hearts and minds to God’s leading in this interim time.
Most of all, Pam and I are glad that we accepted the invitation on the website: “we’d be glad if you would come with us.”
The Peace of the Lord be with you,
But wait, there’s more!…………….
I’m grateful to Ken Dewar for sharing his “letter of introduction” from the Interim Search Committee, printed elsewhere in the Crossroads. Let me add just a few more personal details.
Pam has worked for the last four years as a Special Education Assistant at Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield, having worked in a similar position at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City, MD for seven years. She’s a lifelong Presbyterian, except for the past four years when she joined the UCC Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth. She’s happy to be Presbyterian again!
Pam and I have a wonderful blended family of four adult children and four granddaughters. Daughter Kelly and her husband Brian have their doctorates in clinical psychology, work for the Veteran’s Administration in Bedford, and live in Chelmsford with their dog Oscar and cat Cashmir. Daughter Katie and her husband Bryan live in Flanders, NJ with 2 year old Zoey and their boxer, Riley. Katie works as an underwriter for an insurance agency and Bryan does high level computer stuff that I can’t begin to understand. Son James and wife Nicole live in Hackettstown, NJ with daughters Isabel (Bella), 10 years old, and Ava, who will be three in November, and dogs Lady and Darby. James works for the same insurance agency that Katie does, and he is in fact her boss. Occasionally Katie acknowledges that. Son David lives in Jackson Township, OH and his daughter’s name is Riley (yes, we have a granddaughter and a granddog each named Riley!). Dave is the crime and courts reporter for the Record Courier in Kent OH, and Riley lives with her mother Brandise in Akron, OH.
I have a great Irish Catholic name: Michael John O’Brien. My father was John Joseph O’Brien and he was Catholic but not necessarily a real strong one, and he married a stubborn Scots woman named Margaret Isabel McCullough Hunt, who insisted the children be raised Presbyterian. That was that, and so I’ve been Presbyterian all my life, and I have the old Sunday School Oak Leaf with cluster and bars attesting to my good attendance for quite a number of years. My parents are deceased, but Johnny still talks to me (you know what I mean). You’ll find Johnny O’Brien popping up in my sermons from time to time.