By Bill Leonard
Forty years ago this fall I became pastor of First Community Church in Southborough, Mass. I actually started as their interim pastor and wound up staying four years.
It was a great place for one who had gone to New England for graduate study in American religion. Southborough lies on Route 9 west of Boston, a picturesque town founded in the 1700s. The church has worshiped in its original frame meetinghouse since the 1860s, often served by students or professors from various regional colleges and universities.
For many of us it was our first pastorate, a place to get our feet wet, to see if the things we believed about God, the world and other things had relevance in a congregation of regular sinners. Members were quick to recount “old Grandpa Norcross’s” assessment of one of my predecessors: “When he came here he was as green as a cabbage patch. And we did him a lot more good than he ever did us!”
So it was with me. Indeed, many things I learned from those folks remain with me four decades later, lessons as relevant now as when I first experienced them in that nurturing congregation.
Early on they taught me that ministers should not take themselves too seriously. At best God often speaks alongside, outside or in spite of the sermon as the Spirit takes our rhetorical/theological fumbles and somehow makes known the word of God. We take the gospel seriously, but not necessarily our attempts at doing it.
Such a lesson began on one of my first Sundays at First Community Church. I entered the pulpit with a newly cultivated set of whiskers and a black preaching robe they provided. As an aspiring church historian I had visions of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, ready to bring another Great Awakening to those Yankee sinners in the hands of an angry God. I soon discovered that my vision was somewhat more exalted than that of the deacon who took one look at my beard bobbing in the pulpit and told me afterward that I reminded him of a woodchuck.
Humor and irony find us in the most intense moments of dedication. None of us should be vain enough to think that the success of the gospel depends even implicitly on us. We must not take ourselves so seriously that we fail to trust God.
The folks at First Community Church also taught me some lessons about the people to whom and with whom we minister. There were types of ministry and people in that church that nobody warned me about in seminary. Like the elderly woman who told me she was never coming back to church since during the sermon I had obviously given her the “evil eye.” (She called later to ask if I could take her and her dog Rex for a ride in the car. I agreed and she was back in church the next Sunday. Rex stayed home.)
Then there was the late night call from a church member whose intoxicated husband was threatening to shoot his “friend” and she wanted me to come and talk him out of it. So I went, but first I called the chair of deacons (Bob L’Heureux) and off we went into the night. It all ended peacefully, but Bob stayed in the car and kept the motor running just in case.
In those moments I learned that there are people in every congregation who will stand with you, believe in you, and often out minister the minister. (Bob L’Heureux is still there, by the way, caring for folks inside and outside the white framed meetinghouse.)
Through it all, they taught me that church is not a place you go depending on the personality of the preacher (or lack thereof). It is a community of faith composed of a strange assortment of sinners held together, not by common creeds — they have believed many or none at all — not by common doctrines — they have believed contradictory ones with a passion — but by faith in Christ grounded in Scripture and the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.
That reality came home to me the day the Bob L’Heureux and I took communion to Joe and Bessie Blake, longtime members but unable to get to church regularly. After we shared bread and cup, spoke of body and blood, Joe Blake said, “Pastor, let’s sing the doxology.” So in their darkening parlor two very old Christians and two younger ones sang together, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
Bessie Blake died not long after, but the memory of that moment lingers, a time when, with Jacob in Genesis 28, I realized: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not;” a profound sense that the Jesus Story really is good news.
I still think that, most days, 40 years later. Most days I’m still “green as a cabbage patch,” in ways those grace-filled mentors at First Community Church would surely understand. I suspect my students, headed for ministry, understand it too. Most days.