This is the story of how I got to be “The Old Fart” at age 46….
Eighteen years ago our family packed up and headed up North to the great wilds of Alaska. Well, “great wilds” might be an exaggeration. But we were going to Kenai, Alaska, which we knew very little about except that it sat along the Kenai River, famous for its salmon fishing. It seemed pretty “wild” to this New York boy who had made a temporary home in Indiana for eight years and also to his preganant wife and young child.
We were going up to pastor the people of The United Methodist Church of the New Covenant in Kenai. This church was, I think it is fair to say, an older congregation of persons who had weathered many storms and had a rich history–both personally and collectively. I learned a lot about World War II from them and enjoyed hearing their stories of homesteading after settling in Alaska.
We had made a four-year commitment to the Alaska Conference through the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Four years seemed like a fair amount of time although it seemed like forever to grandparents who could only see us taking their grandchildren–one walking around and two yet to be born–away from them. Alaska seemed like the end of the world even if, in Kenai, were weren’t even at the end of the road.
But back in 1997 the timing was good for us. We needed to leave the church I was serving in Indiana because of sharp differences over how welcoming the church should be (I was on the “more welcoming” side of the discussion). We didn’t have any kids we were taking out of school. We had no mortgage. Our parents were all pretty healthy so we weren’t going to have to make frequent trips “Outside” to check on them. It was a good time for our family. We were young and mostly carefree.
The first year in Kenai was a test however. We had pre-term labor issues with our twins in the Fall. My wife had some health problems after that. I had some health problems at the end of our first year. And that church in Kenai was Godsend through all of it. We wouldn’t have made it through without the support and understanding we got from them. We needed help and care and we got it. We were right where we needed to be.
That was year 1.
We did get through it and we made it on to year 2…and so on.
Three years after starting our great adventure in Kenai, we were moving off to Girdwood, Alaska to a small wooden church with a port-a-potty outside. We knew we would be there more than one year, which had us already thinking beyond the original four we had promised. That congregation had a hunger for ministry in the community and a desire to build a larger building that could accommodate the hopes and dreams for mission that God had instilled in them.
My father was there at the tail end of our moving process from Kenai to Girdwood. One evening on our porch, overlooking Alyeska Ski Resort and the surrounding mountains he said to me, “Jim, don’t take this place for granted. You may never live in a more beautiful place than this.”
We didn’t take that place for granted. We were there for 12.5 years. The congregation grew. The new church was built. We became immersed in all facets of community life. Our children grew up. We had a second set of twins born. And we came into our own as individuals and as a family. That is the place our family came of age and it’s the place where I “came of age” theologically and pastorally. Our roots grew down deep in that place. And forever we’ll be thankful…to the community and to the church.
Meanwhile, I had watched many pastors come and go in the Alaska United Methodist Conference. Clergy turnover has always been an issue for us up here for many reasons: homesickness for family in the lower-48, children moving South, parents who need care, the limited number of churches which can sometimes make finding the right “fit” a challenge for our leadership, and not being able to emotionally handle our winters. A lot of good clergy came and went.
But we stayed. I had joked that, in Girdwood, I was trying to create a job from which I could not be removed. Life and ministry were good. Our family thrived. We were fulfilled in our professions. Never once did we get a sense that God was done with us up here.
In 2013 we moved on to another step in our much longer than 4 year adventure as I was reappointed to the mission fields of Seward and Moose Pass, Alaska. This afforded new challenges in ministry and new opportunities for growth and service. Instead of one church, there were now two. There were other boards and agencies to be on and partner with. And there were other clergy with whom to minister.
I feel that, after only 2.5 years I don’t yet have the ability to reflect on my time in this setting as I still feel so new. I’m still learning so much. Yet the words of my father, that I’d “never live in a more beautiful place” than Girdwood are challenged here. While the rain as I type this hampers the view, it’s every bit as beautiful here as anywhere I’ve ever been.
Now, as for the Alaska Conference, we said goodbye to a beloved pastor and friend a year ago. He left Alaska after having his own kids grow up here, becoming a big part of conference life and fully embracing the environment. But it was time to move on. He had been serving as a pastor up here longer than anyone else who was then active in the life of the conference. As he left he handed off “Marvin the Moose” to the one who would claim the title of “Old Fart” — the longest-serving active clergy person up here at 22 years. It was a new tradition he intended to start with his leaving.
Well, that pastor who was given Marvin is retiring this year after a long time in Alaska. She’ll stay up here. But “Marvin the Moose” has now been given to me. I am now the longest-serving, active clergy person in the Alaska United Methodist Conference. I don’t claim my longevity has much to do with pastoral skill but more with a lot of just being where God needed me to be at the time God needed me to be there. There are many clergy who have come and gone who have been better preachers and administrators and prayer warriors than I am. In the same way I think the long careers of baseball players is often less because of greatness and more a because they’ve steered clear of injury just kept plugging along.
I came up to Alaska when I was 28 years old. And I’ve been “plugging along” for 18 years. Now at age 46 I’m thankful to have stayed here this long and I’m thankful I’m here for the foreseeable future. I’m thankful God called me to this place to begin with. I’m thankful that God has provided a way for me to be in ministry over all these years. I’m thankful that, until very recently, we’ve avoided the multitude of reasons persons seem to be pulled away from Alaska. I’m thankful that, year in and year out, our Bishop and Superintendent have seen fit to keep me around.
And so, Marvin sits on a shelf in my office. And he’ll remain there until it’s time for him to be handed off to the next person in line whenever it is that God calls us to another new adventure.
It will then be someone else’s turn to be the “Old Fart.”