March 2011


Here’s another of those memories that is so deeply etched that I can tell you exactly where I was standing when I made a decision that changed my life. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, it was.

First week of college. I’m standing at the bulletin board just outside the entrance of “Old Main.” (Full name: Old Main Memorial, because the original Old Main burned to the ground and the new Main was built on its ashes — built of stone.) There are the typical freshman sign-up sheets, and invitations to join campus clubs and organizations. There is a sign encouraging new students to try out for the Vesper Choir.

Now, I had sung in the adult church choir as a high school student, having been invited by Mrs. Loomis, my seventh grade home room and math teacher who was the church’s long-time choir director. And, though I remember very little about it, apparently I had sung some in the high school chorus, at least for an Easter concert. But I didn’t have a solo voice. I didn’t read music. But for some reason, when I saw that audition notice for the larger college choir, I decided to try out. And, as I said, it was literally a life-changing experience.

I’m thinking that someone had told me that there wasn’t much to the audition. If I had thought it would be a humiliating or personally threatening experience, this introvert never would have gone down to the Westminster Conservatory of Music to try out. I’ll bet that I had gotten the word that all we had to do was sing a verse of a hymn, something familiar, and in our range. That turned out to be the case, and Clarence J. Martin, professor of music, couldn’t have been less threatening. I sang a verse of a hymn or two while he accompanied me. He was warmly supportive, and he made me feel welcome. Later, when the new basses were posted on another bulletin board, there was my name.

And it turned out to be (ready?) “a life-changing experience.

The Vesper Choir rehearsed once (or twice?) a week to provide music for the Sunday night Vesper Services in the college’s Gothic chapel. There were well over a hundred voices in that group, and we sang from a rich catalog of classic anthems and serious religious works. The service was fairly liturgical for 1960s Presbyterians, with an introit (echoing from a hallway elsewhere in the building, various musical responses throughout the service, and, as I mentioned, some challenging choral classics.

The first year I sang with the choir, we rehearsed for and performed at a choral festival held at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. It was glorious! Not life-changing, but an unforgettable musical event. Later in my college years, we would sing the Brahms German Requiem, which remains one of my favorite choral pieces. And speaking of “glorious,” the annual Christmas Concerts absolutely made Christmas for me, and now and then, all these years later, I’ll hear a Christmas anthem we did in that Vesper Choir, and I feel as if I have found my old homestead after wandering aimlessly in a dark, thick forest. Almost life-changing…but not quite.

At this point, I have to credit Mr. Martin (whom many called Clancy, though students would not have done so to his face). It was he who let me join the choir in the first place, seeing perhaps some potential for growth. It was he who nurtured my musical vocabulary for the rest of my singing career in church choirs. It was he who chose for us great, lasting, serious, challenging, inspiring, and uplifting music. It was he who helped us grow in worship, and in music leadership of all those services. Plus, he was fun to be around, almost all the time. For example, I recall his telling the basses to help nearby tenors hit higher notes on pitch through this unorthodox method: “Goose ’em, basses!”  

Nested within the larger Vesper Choir, was the smaller “Concert Choir,” made up of  music majors and accomplished singers, all potential soloists, whose voices buttressed the more modest efforts of the rest of us. I mention that because of two things, one of which changed my life! First, the minor reason. Mr. Martin, as we were rehearsing some major work, once actually asked me to sing louder! “Jeff, let me hear more of you,” he encouraged. I may have overdone it, because a page or so later, he said, “OK, Jeff, that’s fine…a little less now, please.” But that meant that maybe I was bordering being “good.”

Now, here it comes, that cantus firmus of this entry. Because Mr. Martin let me pass that first audition, and because our singing for him was such a great pleasure week after week, and because his Concert Choir was within our midst, I was there, just outside the large rehearsal room in the Conservatory when Joan Maisch, a soprano voice major and Concert Choir member, was waiting for me. Or, was I waiting for her? Anyway, we met, we talked, we had a date, and we’ve been meeting, talking, and dating for almost 44 years.

Clancy, thanks for your affectionate tutelage of Joan as a voice major, for letting me enjoy singing in the same rehearsal room as she each week, and  for creating a sacred musical space where the God to whom we all sing moved Joan and me toward one another, truly a life-changing experience! It was a pleasure following your baton!

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I have no doubt that almost any of the hundreds of alumni of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education would include Isabel Rogers on their list of people who touched their lives in a significant way.

Not having been a student of hers at PSCE, I never took a course from her. But learn from her I did. And find inspiration in her, yes, I did. She had been on the PSCE  faculty for many years by the time I went on staff there in the early 1980s. She taught Christian Ethics and Theology, and I listened and learned from her on many occasions, sometimes while holding a microphone or pointing a video camera, or just having a good conversation with her.

We all, students and faculty colleagues alike, called her Dr. Izzie. Except when we called her Madam Moderator. That was on the occasion of her elevation to the highest elected post in our denomination, Moderator of the General Assembly, in 1987. Serving in that position for a year, she became teacher and spiritual leader of the whole Church, not just its graduate school for church educators. We were sorry to lose her for that year, but so proud of her leadership and happy that her classroom became global during her tenure.

Dr. Izzie was an early advocate for gay/lesbian inclusion in the life of the church. Her previous advocacy for civil rights of African Americans and “liberation” of women fed her sense of justice for all, and was rooted in her understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She was also an environmentalist, a hiker, and one who took seriously our stewardship of the earth. She preached passionately, taught fervently, and “walked the walk” in her own life.

My “media coverage” of this woman of faith included a radio interview we taped when she had been elected Moderator, plus a video interview that followed an academic Sabbatical during which she worked at a downtown YWCA women’s shelter, offering loving support to women who had been physically and psychologically battered and abused. (She had worked there as a volunteer every Thursday night for over four years, but the Sabbatical put her on staff full time.) Available on line, an excerpt of that interview is archived as a result of  Isabel Wood Rogers being honored in 2008 as a part of the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Women in History program. That honor came a year after her death.

PSCE Video also produced a half-hour resource for churches entitled “Controversy and Community in the Church.” With doctoral student David Hindman, Dr. Izzie discussed three topics that the church was finding divisive in the late 80s: abortion, homosexuality, and war tax resistance.  Her willingness to engage in such public dialogue was part of her determination to help students and church folk  form their own theological systems, in other words, to think for themselves.

Students loved her, of course. She was accessible, so open and engaging. Her classes were stimulating. And she honored the views of those who disagreed with her, never threatened by those views, but debating them honestly and fairly.

I was honored that she accepted my invitation to preach at my installation as Associate Pastor of Bon Air Presbyterian Church. Honored? I was thrilled.

 As I think about what her life means to mine, one memory off-campus stands out. I was an adult advisor at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium one year at Purdue University. Isabel Rogers was coming in to preach the sermon at the close of the week, to a “congregation” of 6000, most of whom were high school youth. I recall being a little nervous for her. Those kids were used to high energy, youthful leaders, and here came Dr. Izzie, an older woman, professor from a school most of them had never heard of, a tall, lanky woman named Isabel, in a suit with frilly white shirt and what appeared to be a string bow tie. I so wanted them to accept her, and for her to inspire them.

I needn’t have worried. Her sermon was perfectly on target, her communication skills went right to the heart, and her message included an admonition to openly express  our love for one another. I don’t know that she had quoted the Stevie Wonder song, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” but had I known her topic and could have gotten to her before she spoke, I’d have made that suggestion. She didn’t need it. She had those teens in the palm of her hand.

As she was speaking, it occurred to me that there was one kid there in that crowd that needed to hear me tell him that he was loved. He had been a member of the break-out group that I was leading, and after our five days of morning group meetings, he had come up to me and thanked me “for being the one who isn’t here.” I was puzzled at that at first, but remembering what he’d  shared with our small group earlier in the week, I realized that he was thanking me for being in his life, when his own father wasn’t. In other words, he was thanking me for being like a Dad to him that week.

After Dr. Izzie’s benediction that afternoon, I walked out the stage door of the huge auditorium and walked into the crowds who were leaving the campus for home. How I wished I could find that boy among the masses.

Well, some wishes are prayers, I suppose. And there, walking toward me was the boy, Mark. What a coincidence. Well, what providence! Pure grace. So that I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends, I guided him a few feet away and, telling him how much Izzie’s words had meant to me, I told him I loved him. Without flinching, he returned the blessing, and rejoined his friends. I think we corresponded by letter once or twice that summer, and then lost track of each other.

But I never lost track of Dr. Izzie’s guidance, her social conscience, or her friendship. A few years later (1996), after Joan and I had moved to Vermont, we came home from our son’s college graduation to find a note on the front door of the manse. It was from Dr. Izzie! She had found her way to Craftsbury, discovered our church, and left us a note expressing her disappointment that we weren’t home.  She promised that if she were ever in our neighborhood again…

A truly remarkable woman, and one whom I followed, along with quite a crowd of witnesses!

Bernice Smith wasn’t a colleague. She wasn’t one of my teachers. And she wasn’t my pastor at one time. Yet, she did pastor me, and taught me. As a Christian friend, I figure you could say she and I had a collegial relationship.

Bernice was a member of the last church where I served as pastor. By the time I got to town, she was on the frail side. She lived in a modest retirement community, and wasn’t really up to attending church. If she had been active at one time, that is, serving on committees or working on the rummage sale, or leading circle meetings, I wasn’t aware of it.

But here is the thing that made Bernice so special, not only in my life but in the lives of many other folks in that church. She still had the strength to dial a telephone, and she still had a heart that cared for people she could reach by phone. So, she called us. Not every day, but regularly. And ever so briefly.

I would be at the church office and would answer the church phone. This was before “caller ID” was so popular, so I wouldn’t know who was calling until I heard her crackily little voice: “Good morning, Jeff. This is Bernice Smith. I just called to ask how you were doing today. I hope you are well.” I would express my appreciation for her call, and assure her that I was fine.

“Well, that’s good. I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you this morning. I won’t keep you; I have some other calls to make. Have a good day, all right?” Yes, I thought. Now that you have blessed me with your thoughtful call, I will indeed have a good day!

Such a simple gesture. Church members told me of her calls to them, and how much it meant to them. I hope they told her, too, how much it meant.

Her calls came for only a few months early in my pastorate. Her failing health stilled her calls, and then her life. I still tell people about Bernice, about how none of us, as we age or face some disability, can do all we used to do for folks. But as long as we are able to push the buttons on a phone and speak into it, we are able to pastor the lambs in our care. We are able to teach and act out simple kindnesses, and we are able to build a community of neighbors who remember to reach out and touch somebody’s heart.

Bernice taught me that. And now I am sharing her kindness with you. I wish I could have called you.

In my previous post, I mentioned going to hear William Sloane Coffin, Jr. with my friend Bill Lingelbach. When I first started thinking about this Lenten discipline of giving up time to write each day about my mentors, teachers, pastors, and friends — those whom I have followed along the path of faith and ministry — Bill Lingelbach was one whose name came to mind early on.

They say that pastors have few friends. We have parishioners and acquaintances, but perhaps because so many people in ministry are introverts, we lack close friends. (One caution is that getting too close to a member of the congregation negates one’s ability to shepherd or counsel that person objectively. At least I think that’s how it goes.) Especially in small towns, colleagues in ministry are few, and time constraints and miles keep us apart. That is why Bill Lingelbach was such a gift to me.

I first met Bill when we were active on the Northeast Kingdom Habitat For Humanity board. I was in my first “solo” pastorate, a rural church in Vermont.  Bill was a psychotherapist, in private practice, but also serving in schools. My first impression of him, one reinforced over the years, was that Bill was one of the most gentle spirits I ‘ve ever met. He was almost childlike, sometimes even seeming naive, I thought. It’s not that he wasn’t bright — because he was — but he had such an appreciation of wonder. Now, that word encompasses a number of meanings, and all fit Bill, from simple curiosity to genuine awe.

I saw in his work with Habitat a soul-stirring compassion, and sensed in conversations with him a free-hearted spirituality that I admired. I remember a visit Bill made to a broken-down house trailer, with  an old stove  filling the home with far more smoke than heat, evidence of a bad leak in the roof, the residents among the poorest of the rural poor of Vermont. As Bill described the visit, there were tears in his eyes. Not the best kind of wonder.

I think that at that time, Bill was the supply pastor of a nearby church, which was between ministers. Bill was a layperson, but had had some theological studies in his background. It was only a part-time position, yet he knew how to be a shepherd to a flock, and he was well-liked there.  

A few years after we became friends, Bill made the decision to take the necessary ecclesiastical examinations, and he was ordained and installed as pastor of a struggling little UCC church. I was privileged to join in the service that day, and I occasionally still wear the liturgical stole he gave me as a sign of friendship and gratitude. With a “regular” pastor on board, the church’s membership increased and the contributions Bill made there helped build the church’s spirit.

Even before his formal call to that church, he and I had been meeting every Tuesday morning at his house to consider the Lectionary texts for the week and share our study and ideas for sermons. More often than not,we would choose different readings to preach from, but just the idea of getting together every week was helpful. The wood stove would warm the room, and Bill’s dog would cozy up to one of us. Bill would make coffee with his French press, and I would search high and low for something sweet to put in my mug. (Apparently, refined sugar in the Lingelbach household was a rarity.)  Gosh, that coffee was bitter. (Not so, the cheap stuff I was used to.)

Often, we would trade our sermon manuscripts from the previous week, and I wondered (that word again) at the warm simplicity of Bill’s writing: the stories, the honest wrestling with the text, the people whose life situations he shared (while maintaining confidentiality I must add). My sermons rambled on, showing off my homework with the text, my words often in the way of the meaning. In fact, sometimes I admitted to Bill that I didn’t see much of the text in his sermons. He’d shrug and ask if that was a bad thing. I’d smile and say, no, not necessarily, but since we Presbyterians were people of the Word, I spent more of them trying to prove it!

During the years of our friendship, Bill’s marriage ended, he endured no little loneliness for quite some time, and then he met Jackie, whom he eventually married on a sunny afternoon amid a happy gathering of  folks who laughed and ate and drank there in his yard. The occasion reminded me of the scripture that said, “There was a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee…”

One other thing that was very significant in Bill’s life — he shared with me some times in his life when God intervened in very mysterious ways. Bill had seen what I considered more than his share of “signs.” I don’t mean little coincidences that we take to be “leadings” of some kind. I’m talking about visual appearances, faith informed by things seen with the eyes, and discerned with the heart. If anyone else had shared such things with me (well, of course, people did, but…) I would have been suspicious. But Bill I trusted. And I was relieved that God is (as the UCC reminds us even today) still speaking!

More than one Tuesday morning, on leaving his old Vermont house, I would drive home aware that he was just about my only close friend in town. When he told me in the parking lot of the Community Care Center one morning  that he had prostate cancer, it took my breath away. I remember the sound of his voice and the look on his face as he said it. It was as if he had just then gotten the news, and couldn’t quite believe it. He had had some tests, and the results didn’t look at all good.

He received treatment a couple of hours away in New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and the many drives over there and back gave several of us some quality “drive time” with Bill. As his health declined, it still strikes me as strange, very strange, that we saw much less of each other. One would have thought that friendship be a healing bridge, but there was this mysterious gulf instead.

Bill  and Jackie had joined the church where my wife Joan was the church musician. I knew the pastor there, and I guess I must have unconsciously, but very appropriately, given Bill over to her pastoral care. I just can’t explain it now, but my visits with him were so very few toward the end.  His funeral came tragically soon after that joyful wedding afternoon.

Bill’s influence on my life path involved finding that friendship is (as one might expect but not often enough experience) a sure foundation for faith-sharing; that we who preach each week must work harder at wonder; that what we preach can be communicated most effectively when we speak from the heart, warmly, honestly, sincerely; and that holding to some decidedly unorthodox theological views is refreshingly freeing, a liberation from what is expected, to what is more surprising as the Spirit moves.

Bill: gentle friend, compassionate intellect, child-like faith, a bit of mystery, and very strong coffee.

When I began this exercise of reflecting on the people whose lives touched mine in significant ways, and who became my guides along the path of faith, I had in mind folks with whom I had a personal relationship: pastors, teachers, friends, colleagues. However, now and then a few people come to mind whose light shone from a distance. I will do my best to avoid certain authors whose art and theology have combined to bring spiritual growth in my life, for example Frederick Buechner.  But if our paths crossed more directly, they are fair game for this space. One of those would be William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

We met at least three times. Once was during the Worship and Music Conference at Montreat, NC. Coffin was the preacher for the week. Having enjoyed his writing and his powerful preaching style, and long in awe of his reputation for social action and peacemaking, I expected him to be inspiring there on the Montreat stage. And he was. But what I will always remember from that week was his loving and compassionate pastoral presence. A young woman, a conference participant, died suddenly mid-week. Joan and I hadn’t heard the news, but headed toward the huge auditorium that evening  for what had been scheduled to be a talent show. As we took our seats, we sensed that something was wrong.

Coffin led an impromptu memorial service, and preached to the thousand or so gathered in that space with a profound message of comfort and hope. He could well have distanced himself from the tragedy, letting the conference staff lead a service of scripture and song. But with a heart of compassion he warmly spoke to us of sorrow and resurrection. I don’t recall the date, so I can only assume that this service took place sometime after his own 24 year-old son had died in an automobile accident. (A month before that loss, Coffin’s mother had died.) It is clear to me now, however, that this former Yale chaplain, crusader against nuclear arms, fervent advocate for peace, and minister at New York’s Riverside Church — this man had the heart of a pastor, a good shepherd, and his grace that evening spoke to me as powerfully as his words.

[In a sermon preached at Riverside a week after his son’s death, Coffin proclaimed, “And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Yes, but at least, ‘My God, my God’; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way.” And, “So I shall — so let us all  — seek consolation in that love that never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.”]

Another time I encountered him was in Richmond. He was at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for a Lenten series. My friends Bob Edwards and Bill Sachs and I were doing a weekly ecumenical cable TV show and Coffin agreed to sit down with us for an interview. I regret that my role wasn’t “on camera,” for I would love to have had the opportunity to sit beside him and conduct the interview. But that evening, my role was to run camera, and later to edit the tape (a copy of which I still have). Of course, considering the crew and the church, we were all pretty, um, liberal. so, Coffin was among friends and admirers. His personality was wildly winsome, his conversation full of exuberant candor and delightful (to me) wordplay. It was during the years of the Reagan presidency and the Iran-Contra debacle, and Coffin was loose in the room! I loved his heady confidence and appreciated his forthright and prophetic speech.

Pastor. Check. Prophet. Check. And sage. The third time I saw him was in Vermont, when my friend Bill Lingelbach and I drove to a church-sponsored program at which Coffin was speaking. He had aged so much since I saw him last. Feeble, and hard of hearing. But still, there was immeasurable strength of heart, and wisdom flowed from every sentence. I have a book that Coffin wrote late in life, and I’m sure a lot of the words in that book were spoken that night in Vermont. The book is entitled Credo, and I look in its pages almost every time I write a new sermon. I may not quote it, but it reminds me of the wisdom of a preacher I so admired. Sage advice, sometimes put into words too-clever, but always clear, honest, and deeply Biblical.

When it comes to people like William Sloane Coffin (there are so few, sadly), I am like Peter following Jesus on the night Jesus was betrayed. The scriptures say that Peter followed…at a distance. I never preached with Coffin’s courage, never, or rarely, with his conscience. I suppose my heart was as liberal in both love and politics, but I must admit that if he was one of the forty I followed, it was only at the greatest distance. I confess, and ask God’s (and my churches’)  forgiveness for that.

I’ve already written about my childhood pastor, Wilbur J. Kerr. But his successor at my home church also had quite a positive influence on my spiritual growth and vocational path.

Gerald Hertzog (“Gerry” I would call him nowadays) came to the Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott while I was in college. Our paths crossed almost immediately when it came time for me to go “under care” of the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley. That is church polity language for beginning the official journey toward ordination as a minister. Rev. Hertzog drove me to that first Presbytery meeting where I must have answered some questions and received the body’s blessing, and then found myself under the guidance and oversight of what is called these days the Committee on Preparation.

One thing I remember about that night was how fast I thought Rev. Hertzog drove! The rest of that night’s process is a bit of a fog now; after all, it was almost fifty years ago! What I do recall was that Gerry Hertzog was very supportive, and not only that night, but throughout my less-than-stellar academic career. He was always approachable, easy to talk with, and helpful in my securing college and seminary financial help from my church, both grants and loans.

I grew under his preaching when I was home for vacations, but when my family moved south, a good career move for my IBM-employed Dad, my trips back to Endicott were few. The Presbytery and Rev. Hertzog kept up with me through letters, from late college years through seminary. But that didn’t build a very close relationship between my hometown pastor and me. When my seminary education was reaching its last months, it was necessary to begin the process that led to ordination to my specialized call. Gerry Hertzog was again my advocate and guide through that process, even at a distance.

I guess I should backtrack a bit here, to the unfortunate occasion of my flunking out of college. I’ve already belabored that situation in earlier posts, but I do need to express thanksgiving to Rev. Hertzog for his unending support during those sad days. I had every right to question my call, but he never did. Being at home during that spring semester meant that I could be in church each week, and that is where I especially appreciated his worship leadership style and sermons. I suspect that he spoke to a few church folk to make sure I was welcomed back to church, even when I should have been finishing out my junior year. He made sure my transition at my home congregation wasn’t too awkward for me.

 Even as he pastored me on site, he had two other church youth in college preparing for ministry, so I’m sure he had his hands full when it came to encouraging us all to stay the course. (Or in my case, to pass a course or two!)

I know Rev. Hertzog must have been quite relieved when I passed my “ords” (denominational ordination exams) on the first try, something many of my seminary classmates failed to do. I even passed the standard exam in Hebrew, surprising even myself. I have to smile now as I recall the letter I received from Presbytery — not from Rev. Hertzog — expressing downright surprise that I had passed the ords on the first go-round. I think one line began, “Needless to say, you gave us some reason to doubt your success during your academic career…” or something to that effect.

Gerry Hertzog was also very supportive when my vocational track led me into a ministry in media, rather than a pastorate. He helped design a special service of ordination based on my unique call, and I remember well that special day in my life.

In later years, Rev. Hertzog would move from the pastorate to an administrative position heading up the presbytery that ordained me. Joan and I have kept in touch with him at Christmas each year since those days. And not long ago (but now as I think about it, too long ago…) we drove to his home to visit him and Evelyn, his wife.  The conversation was warm and welcomed, and it was as if we had been getting together regularly. We were probably both relieved to find that we share a certain, shall we say, liberality in our theology and social consciousness.

He’s a good guy, and one of the forty I’ve followed in friendship and ministry.

This Lenten discipline of mine has been a fascinating experiment for me thus far. I am writing each day in Lent (except those non-Lenten Sundays) about a person who has been a spiritual guide along my life’s path. In some cases, that person may be more a vocational mentor, or someone who otherwise has had a significant influence on who I am still becoming as a child of God. I have refrained from calling this my personal “Top 40” list, since that might imply a ranking in one direction or the other. No ranking here. Just a daily discernment that brings to mind someone important to me.

Today it is Ed Willingham. Among the commemorative T-shirts I’ve collected through the years are two that carry the logo “NABS WACC.” I wear them to the gym now and then, but no one has ever asked me what the letters stand for. If someone did, I am prepared to sing the first line of the NABS-WACC jingle (the only line I can remember): “NABS-WACC, NABS-WACC, you gotta love a group with a name like that…”

Ed Willingham was the creative and administrative spark of the North American Broadcast Section of the World Association for Christian Communication. The year I was ordained as a Minister of Electronic Media in the Presbyterian Church, a NABS-WACC member who helped open the door to my specialized ministry, Clifton Dixon, encouraged me to attend the annual NABS conference. It was held each year in Fort Lauderdale, the week after Thanksgiving. (It didn’t take much prodding, that’s for sure!)

NABS-WACC brought together U.S. and Canadian church broadcasters, Protestant and Catholic. United around a different theme each year, we heard plenary speakers, learned about new developments in media, attended workshops, and shared our own productions. We learned the art of collegiality.  Most of each afternoon was kept free for beach and sun time, so that the convention afforded us all some r&r in which we engaged without shame.

Ed Willingham was the anchor of the NABS-WACC yacht. He helped scout locations for the conference, guided the annually-elected steering committee, and provided a decades-long continuity of leadership.  Wonderfully personable, earnestly committed to ecumenism, firmly grounded in his Baptist faith (American Baptist Convention), and a talented broadcaster in Detroit — that is Ed Willingham. His many gifts helped make the NABS-WACC conferences occasions for professional continuing education as well as personal spiritual renewal. 

That brings me to the point of my Lenten exercise. I thank Ed for his leadership and inspiration as I look back at how much those annual conferences provided encouragement and professional growth for me and hundreds of others.

Many of us who attended the NABS gatherings were involved with what I call Lone Ranger ministries. We worked alone, but under the auspices of various church agencies. Our media ministries may have been guided by committees, but essentially we wrote scripts, produced, directed, edited, and delivered our programming ourselves, or with a small group of volunteers. There was a time when my “boss” was an Executive Presbyter who told me following my annual evaluation, “Well, Jeff, I’m not quite sure what you do, but it looks as if you are doing a good job.” To go to NABS-WACC each year led us into a broad circle of folk with whom we had much in common. We didn’t feel alone anymore.

(That said, some NABS-WACC members did work with larger agencies and bigger budgets, and some produced programs for major broadcast networks. I always thought of them as the “big steeple” pastors to us rural parish folk. Not all of us wanted to ascend to the heights of their work, more content to remain where we were, knowing that our more modest resources still communicated the Good News and sometimes even worked miracles.)

It is not at all hyperbole to say that every single NABS-WACC conference gave me new ideas, renewed my call to that unique ministry, encouraged my own creativity, enriched my faith, and even affirmed my own modest efforts. It was one thing to hear from my listeners or supporting churches that my ministry was worthwhile and appreciated, but it was also heartening to hear from one’s peers that you had talents God-given and effectively utilized. I will always remember one official of a different denomination saying to me (after an excerpt of my radio program was played in the “Showcase”) “Kellam, why are you hiding your lamp under a bushel?” Not long after that, he made it possible for my program to be nationally distributed.

As I look back on what I’ve written I realize that there is a NABS-WACC conference component I’ve neglected to mention. We worshipped together each day. We were a group of ecumenical Christian broadcasters, and it meant so much for us as we joined together to pray, sing, and encounter the Word in creative worship that the wider Church is only now catching up to!

More than just a conference administrator, Ed was (and remains) a dear friend to us all, even a loving pastor to a very diverse flock. When I look back at my life and ministry, Ed Willingham has a special place as guide and colleague. Thanks be to God!

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