666 Walpole Street

You will always have something NOT to worry about!
—Joyce Meyer

The church was designated by town numbering to be at 666 Walpole Street but the selectmen acquiesced and changed it to 668. True story.

Strangest thing: I always felt at home when pastoring. It seems, part of whoever I was or was becoming could only find expression here. I was told I would regret leaving the Executive Board. This was not spoken as a threat or an enticement to keep us in Sharpsville, but was the concern of an honest friend, the General Overseer at the time, who wanted me to consider carefully my move out of office.

I never regretted the move. There still is something about me that needs the pastorate to sense fulfillment. And I am beginning now in later years to figure out what it is. Josh, I guess it is a little like you and ambulances. Part of me needs to be helping someone, somehow. Part of me needs to be needed, and what better context for me when you consider my training and age than in a church full of needy people?

The difference might be that church people don’t see themselves as needy. They see themselves as somehow protected by the doctrine of Grace from what ordinary people have to face. They believe that the reward for being there and being a part of whatever God is doing is God’s providential care to keep them from all kinds of woes and troubles.

And yet, notwithstanding their testimony and the strength of their faith, they do have issues, and they do need pastors, or guys like me who would be pastors, to care.

The rain falls on the just and the unjust; so, even Christians need to face the reality of getting wet. They need a Biblical umbrella, if that Scriptural directive is available. Some of us are going to end up in deep water. We need to learn how to swim or at least tread water.

I have always felt there was a pulpit for me somewhere, even if I was always having difficulty finding it.

Congregations, because they are representative of people with personal problems, need pastors, and Norwood was no exception. We had a growing congregation, and like most churches, I assume, the growth represented a percentage of needy people who came there looking for quick solutions. TV preachers get people hoping for fast cures and elixirs, where one Scripture heals all. There is no such thing, but people keep hoping and thinking that tomorrow the big miracle will come and with it, instant fortune.

But tomorrow, God’s solution will be to have some caring pastor ready with a realistic encouragement. Sometimes, something miraculous does happen, but one should not build a theology around it. Some things happen that go beyond coincidence and beyond explanation, and because they are good things, I have no problem crediting God. Some pastors may take partial credit, because they were there when it happened, and they may even think it had something to do with their prayer life or organizational skills, but I sincerely doubt it.

People need pastors, but, not withstanding, the Norwood church did not prove to be my home away from home. What went wrong? Something happened in Norwood for which I had documentation that I discarded in the name of forgiveness. I can be open with family here, though.

As we grew, we became a church of diverse beliefs. No heresy, mind you, but conflicting interpretations of Scriptures that, as it turned out, became the bone of contention that would eventually discipline me out of the pulpit.

I can’t explain it much better, because all the dynamics of a court seem to be in play. There was denial, lots of it. There were conflicting opinions, or at least multiple opinions, that suggested a myriad of reasons for wanting me to leave. But no one actually wanted us to leave. I learned this later by a congregant, who probably to this day wonders why we did leave. Years later, there would be apologies all around, and a few hugs, but I only see this as a wish that things could have proceeded less painfully for all concerned.

Bottom line: Someone did want someone to leave the church. There may have been some who wanted me out, or maybe they just wanted people of a differing theology to leave, which they felt had come into the church because of me. Who can be sure of who’s who in this battle of words that no doubt ended up injuring a few innocent folk as well.

One such issue, on the possibility of gaining and then afterward losing one’s salvation, I could identify, because it was brought up in meetings. It was a doctrinal issue on which I could not take a definite stand, because I could not see it Biblically. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s comment on the subject, in a letter dated February, 1946, “The controversy is one I can’t join on either side for I think that in the real (Timeless) world it is meaningless.”

My sentiments exactly. And I have had no trouble interpreting the emphasis of Scripture in alignment with this opinion.

Whether it was the last straw or the only straw, I will never know. But when stones are being hurled, people get into the fever of the thing and start throwing for any reason.

I once substitute-taught in a grammar school in Cape May. It was a fourth grade class, and most of the students were attentive. One girl stood out as exceptionally brilliant and cooperative. She sat quietly, front and center in the room, with her full attention on learning, except this one day. One of the more unruly boys began cutting up, and I failed to stop it. Before long, the class, student by student, was joining in, until at last—and to my amazement—even Miss Proper had joined the party. It took the principal to bring peace. It is a social condition that causes good people to chime in when someone starts something. It is common.

Perhaps the person who threw the first stone had a serious rationalization behind their action, but after that it is every man and woman for himself. Pick and toss. It is a favorite church pastime, according to the observations of history.

Could I have prevented it? We were in Norwood for four years, and I didn’t see it coming. Honestly. I knew about the controversy, but I had been having that discussion with Christians for decades, and it had always been just a delightful disagreement. I never thought someone might turn it into a threat to ministry.

There were other issues raised as well. Some wondered what my vision was. I guess that meant that according to what they could observe, there were no favorable things happening in the church.

Some thought the offerings were not as healthy as they could be. Money seemed to be at issue.

Let’s see. What else? Someone might have found out about the roll of scotch tape, Josh—you were three—you wound around my office chair. Maybe, or maybe not. Anyway, I was told to get a babysitter. Where was Mom? She had to work in order for us to have adequate medical coverage. The insurance which was eventually provided by the denomination had an expensive co-pay.

Anyway, at the time, one of my favorite characters from history was Abraham Lincoln, who even allowed his Joshua, Willy and Tad, to play in the Oval office, and that was during a civil war. I saw similarities, even if that was inappropriate of me. There would be no babysitter. Being with my boys was therapy for me, more and more. So as things got harder to deal with, I enjoyed playing with my young son and being a part of my older sons’ worlds, even if all it meant was driving them to and from school or work. I also took regular walks with Mom to the public library to check out and read books on Lincoln.

I mention these tidbits of personal history because I believe that these are representative of what happens in ministry. I think today’s pastors are successful because they have political savvy and have taken hold of their futures. After all, they do have the microphone and the congregation’s attention. In some cases, they have invited dissidents to leave. In today’s church, I think, pastors have discovered that a little take-charge attitude goes a long way to securing their interests and leadership options.

For me, this was more difficult to do, because of what I was. It genuinely pained me to have to confront someone, with a view to engineer their removal from ministry or from the church. I didn’t like the idea of a fight or a debate in front of an innocent congregation who, unsuspecting, could be offended.

But you will be pleased to hear that I have since changed my mind on this subject. Sheep need shepherds to fend off wolves and put rams in their pens.

I also started up with the bonsai trees. I needed to relax. I needed to find my escapes from growing tensions. I bought hundreds of dollars worth of the little trees, and even built a cold frame at the back of the parsonage to keep them during the winter months.

These four years were not all bad, of course not. Many church services and counseling times provided me opportunity to do my pastoral thing, and I found that repeatedly meaningful.

I maintained a weekly newsletter as well that outlined my thoughts for anyone who cared to read about it. And many did.

I was visiting less than in Burgettstown, but I was indeed visiting people, and enjoying that as well. The older generation of Italians who made up the core of the faithful were the most supportive. I could include visits to them, and often eating lunch with them, among my most refreshing and memorable moments in Norwood. They were nothing short of saints, if anyone is a saint. They probably added to my reserve of strength. I would list their names if I could spell them. God has their names. That alone is necessary.

I painted a grim picture, but there were successes and good times as well. There were people who loved us and gifts at Christmas and, as I probably mentioned, a deep sense of fulfillment when my sermons and teachings were “right on.” Nothing is ever all one color or all one thing. There were the good times along with the bad times.

I missed sea shells and a state forest and railroad tracks, yes. But I had bonsai and a library. And we met new friends, the Lathrops.

John and Cindy walked into the church office one day. I was at the time the district overseer. They had a passionate interest in pastoring, but no door had opened for them, and they wanted to inquire about opportunities in our district. It happened that the Newton church needed a pastor, and to shorten this account, they were candidates and accepted the pastorate at the Newton CCNA church. This was the beginning of a long and reliable friendship and, as it turned out, our roles would be reversed. Mom and I would need their friendship as once in a small way they might have needed ours. John would be with me at a future congregational meeting, called to vote us out of another church. That is another chapter.

Here, I mention the emotional support John and Cindy provided that helped us maintain our emotional balance when otherwise we might have been swept off our feet with troubles. We could have done something reckless. Eventually, part of the emotional healing process would take place at the Newton church. Mom and I attended there for months until Mom’s Sunday work schedule moved us closer to home.

I owe it to you to record the final events of our ministry in the Norwood church. This is not sour grapes but a piece of personal history with which we need to be reconciled. I have said my goodbyes and am okay with what happened. Denying it or projecting blame is not an option here. So to the best of my recollection here is the short of it.

October 16, 1988, a meeting was called with district and church officers in attendance. I had received a registered letter requiring my presence, and thinking it had something to do with money, I cut a check for the district which I handed to the district treasurer just before commenting that now we can all go home. Make a mental note of my “smart” attitude. It would show up now and then when I was convinced that I had the right of way. The treasurer wasn’t impressed. He told me it was more serious than that.

It turned out that some national and district officers had met the week before to discuss the agenda, and this meeting was well organized. It had little to do with money. The short of it was they had an interest in my theology regarding the possible loss of salvation —the Calvinist-Wesleyan controversy, which I mentioned already. I understood later from another national official, who was not at the October 16 meeting, that if they could have shown that my theology had changed from what it was when I became the pastor, they would have had grounds for dismissal.

I was put on a 90-day disciplinary leave of absence, which carried little to no meaning in the scheme of things, as it turned out. Ninety days later, I spoke with a church official, who told me that I had been fired. Later, he denied this. Go figure.

What happened next is the next chapter in our adventure, but what might be worth mentioning here is my meeting with CCNA officers at the motel where I took employment after I left the payroll of the Norwood church.

National and district officials met with me on December 7, 1988 at the Howard Johnson’s Motel. The meeting was probably uneventful. Actually I doubt that it was worth their time, unless the executive board was simply inquiring about our departure from Norwood. The only question I recall is one of accountability. My response was that we are all accountable to each other. It is a fellowship, not a hierarchy where the person at the top has no one to police his actions —another one of my smart remarks aimed at the general overseer, to let him know that in my mind he too needed to be policed. After the meeting the general overseer sought out an audience with me in private, wondering if he had done anything to offend me. I told him there was nothing that I could think of, not knowing at the time about the meeting he had attended to draft the agenda for October the 16th.

Messy? Messy. But it did happen that way, and I would be careful finding people to blame. I know I seem to be pointing at the top CCNA leadership, but in all honesty I could not then nor now be sure of who took what responsibility. Since then, I have been reconciled with a number of principal players in this mini-drama.

For now, it was time to move on.

Today, if I could do it all over again, would I react or act in the same fashion? I would probably fight to keep my pulpit, by guaranteeing an audience with the Vice President of the organization. He was not called in, because he was not part of the plan to discipline me. If he would have advised my staying, I would have stayed.

And if I stayed, I would have taken this issue before the people. They had a right to know and—God knows—the grapevine was not silent. Certain board members would probably have been asked to leave the board. This would be difficult for me to recommend, since I have believed in the general goodness of Christians and still like the idea of forgiveness as a working principal in relationships.

I say this because I believe it is Scripturally the best approach in defense of the gospel message and the spiritual interest of the congregation. Attacking a pastor without cause is attacking the pastorate as a principal of Biblical leadership, and it is very wrong.

They felt they had cause. I give them that.

Let’s move on.