Under the Bubble

We judge of man’s wisdom by his hope
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

It had to be one of the happiest days in recent years to be packing up our few belongings and heading into Burgettstown to pastor the Christian Assembly on Shady Avenue, just across the creek from the main road. I refer to Burgettstown as being under a bubble, because at the time—and this was before they built The Post Gazette Pavilion—the town seemed isolated from the world around it. The local folk in Burgettstown, in the old days, were miners primarily, and they were fiercely independent. The community was named for Fort Burgett, built here during the Revolutionary War by Sebastian Burgett. Each local community originally represented an entire ethnic group, such as on “Dago Hill.” That name was spoken with affection, and not pejoratively. Slovan, just a few miles south, is where the Polish sector lived. When we arrived, the town boasted a population of just over 1,700 citizens, plus 11 saloons. This exceeded the legal limit by 10, since the rule was one bar per mile, and that was the length of route 18 as it wound its way through town.

That first Wednesday, as I walked down the short set of stairs into the basement off the sanctuary, I remember remarking to myself that I was home.

We all have many memories of Burgettstown since we were there for seven years which was the longest stay in any one ministry before or since. Here is where Timmy, age 7, and Jamie, age 3, were raised. Here is where I purchased a bag of lime and used it to paint white lines on a small patch of lawn next to the church’s parking lot, turning this grassy area into a child-size football field. Here is where I was introduced to electronics and to the computer. I remember the Bell and Howell 11-book series on building a color TV set, which we borrowed from Rip, who lived up the hill behind us. We made it through two books and into the third before the interest in computers took center stage. I recall Tim’s joy when his first computer, a Sinclair ZX81, finally arrived in the mail with just 1K of RAM. And Burgettstown is where we were gifted with our first color TV set which we later hooked up to the then popular VIC-20 computer and played for endless hours at games like Serpentine and Shamus.

I remember playing in the snow with James, and the walks with both boys to the ice-cream stand by the Presbyterian Church. My favorite memory is playing hide and seek with the boys in the state park. We would pick one of three separate paths that worked their way through the trees and among wild flowers and plants, some of them high enough to hide a small boy standing among them. The state park was a favorite retreat for me.

And do you remember Shorty’s and Mary Ellen’s swimming pool? Ralph “Shorty” Camp became one of my most trusted trustees, and Mary Ellen Camp was the church secretary. Both became life-long friends. We spent hours in their above-ground pool enjoying the summer air.

Like a newborn, there is a period of immunity. In ministry, it is the initial popularity you have that protects the new pastor from failing relationships, frustrated dreams, and yes, power struggles, where each leader seeks the vote for his or her vision for the church. Every ministry comes with a honeymoon period of about six months, when people are so glad you’re there and so proud to call you pastor that you can do no wrong. I had one elder, who would later –I believe— have at least some regret that we were still there. During that first month, however, he passed out copies of my Wednesday-evening Bible study notes to visitors as a way of inviting them back to hear me.

Yes, Burgettstown would provide its own brand of hurt, once the honeymoon ended. Some of the things that had happened so far seemed small change, compared to the price we would be asked to pay here, and neither Mom nor I could have ever expected it. I want to be careful not to go negative, because the cost of pastoring a church is in part the cost of all ministries.

One former pastor of the Burgettstown church told me that in another ministry—it was his experience—I would find circumstances more cooperative with what he believed God was calling me to do. With all deference, in looking back, I can politely disagree with him. Many of the people of this small town were the best thing that could have happened to us. It just took some time to see it, and of course, they had to get around to attending a service or two and meeting us. The Camps, for one, became life-long friends and were a support I genuinely missed in later ministries after we left. And who could possibly forget Butchie their son! Although Butchie was handicapped in what he could learn, he taught me that cheerfulness and a song can get us by.

There are seven years of memories, some of which are harder to put into words than others. My problem is twofold. One, I want to suggest that the job was what it was. Like any career, it comes with its challenges, its rewards, and its price. Pastoring should not be viewed as something exempt or separate and aloft from the normal flow of life. Pastoring means working with people. Some will come to love you, and some will come to disapprove of you, even hate you, though no one cares to admit that. Some will join and some will leave and the leaving is never pleasant.

Because pastoring involves people, it involves opinion and rumor. It involves defensive posturing, unfortunately, and detailed explanations of what you meant and what you did. It means exposing every action to public criticism. In Leadership magazine, written for Protestant clergy, there was a certain cartoon, with no caption necessary. The pastor and his family are seated at the dinner table in a house made completely of glass. The picture shows a couple probably from the church walking by and looking in while the pastor and his family eat.

Because pastoring involves people, it involves relationships, and therefore things like forgiveness and repentance and communication, things hard to do for some people for various reasons.

Some problems are unavoidable. The grass isn’t greener elsewhere. They are also in the grass on the other side of the fence. They are part of life. They are part of growing up into the job. And where these experiences impacted Mom and our marriage, that too was not to be avoided.

I know, some might say, such and such would never have happened if I had chosen another career, and this almost seems plausible, since now I write computer programs for a living. The problem with this theory is that other things are not equal. For one, Mom and I, in particular, are a lot wiser, and some of the things that mattered intensely when we were younger are unimportant to us now. So let’s be slower to judge and quicker to accept the experiences of life. Let’s pick through them, in memories recalled to enjoy the good times and appreciate the lessons learned, and if possible, let’s throw the rest away.

Two, some experiences were quite hurtful, and trying to relate them will not benefit anyone. Besides, since hurt means someone else is in the picture, and since I have absolutely no interest in showing anyone in a bad light, or even running the risk of doing that, I find it difficult to speak of these experiences.

I remember one man in the church which I came to hate briefly, before I came to appreciate him. I would not want to leave you with the hate and fail to lead you to the appreciation. And this was true in a sense over and over again. It is like some of the TV series that Mom and I watch. Enter a character whose initial impression is unfavorable. For the first season or so I detest him. I have told Mom that some of these parts in the series hang around too long, too much tension, too much negative vibration generated as a result of them. But as is the case again and again, something changes in the story to turn the Mr. Hyde into a Doctor Jekyll. And someone I hated becomes the most beloved character. Go figure.

If I were to begin to introduce someone in a poor light, and you were angered or hurt to hear about him, I would have to lead you through that and out into acceptance so that you could say goodbye to them in this narrative on an up note. I don’t think I am that good a writer. I fear I would leave you with unresolved tension. Remember, the purpose behind this letter is to encourage you, not to leave you with unresolved anger, relived hurt, or painful regret.

Yes, in our ministry and marriage, Burgettstown made that big of a difference. Seven years in one place could not be overlooked in terms of our development and the aging process that makes one smarter and wiser, if it can.

My interest in being a pastor to a small group of people was guided by my then-notion of what true pastoring was about. My impression from reading Scripture, for right or wrong, was that pastoring meant caring about the spiritual well-being of people. This was not some vague abstract concept, but a concrete idea replete with Biblical examples: Paul weeping for the Ephesians, the prayer meeting for Peter at Mary’s house while he was imprisoned, Jesus weary at the well. All spoke of personal involvement. There was here no administrative distance from the people. So I got involved. I attempted in a general sense to call each one friend, and when necessary would pray with them, counsel them, and teach them. I visited them by the hour, ate meals with them, held continued question and answer sessions after service.

I became close to the people not just of Christian Assembly but at times of Burgettstown and the surrounding communities. I think in wise reflection, I overdid it. I burned myself out by not recognizing a difference between my immediate family and my church family, by not recognizing that friendships are more unique and the honored role of a select few, by working until 2 AM, by praying all night or far into the night in preparing sermons and studies. My hospital calls were too frequent as well. Back then, someone would stay in the hospital for days, and I would try to see them at least every other day. The hospitals were, all but two of them, in Pittsburgh.

Memory begs, therefore, an audience for some topics and thoughts that I can relate: My hospital stay in the Washington General Hospital; the Charismatic Conference in 1979; legal matters and the church as a 501(c)(3) organization; teaching at Faith Community Seminary in Bethel Park, at The Washington Homes for Youth in 1982, and in other community based studies; preschool at CA; personal interests, from painting houses, to burning incense, to the birth of little Joshua.

It will not be possible for me to remember some things in sufficient chronological detail to justify telling them. I imagine I will shuttle back and forth across this seven year period weaving the threads of our family history that made up the tapestry of our stay in this pleasant and unforgettable town.