Robert Busey was the pastor of the Bon Air Presbyterian Church for some very formative years for me and my family. We lived in the Bon Air suburb of Richmond for many years, and that church was a good choice for us since it was very family friendly, committed to social action, and had an outstanding Christian Education program for all ages. That congregation had supported my early ministry at a neighborhood youth center, and our children were alumni of the church’s model pre-school.

So, since I was working in “non-parish” ministry and could align myself with any local church for worship and service, the kids and I went to the Bon Air Church. (When Joan was between church music calls, she even served on the Session at Bon Air; however, since she was most often leading church music programs in other churches, her participation on Sunday mornings was quite limited.)

While Bob Busey wasn’t the first pastor we had during our many years at the church, as I said, he was there during some very significant years for us. He was “head of staff,” an unofficial term foreign to formal Presbyterian polity. He was “senior pastor,” in other words, and that too is a term in only unofficial use in the Presbyterian Church (USA). More precisely, while the staff had other  full-time staff members (Associate Pastor, Christian Educator, Church Musician, and office personnel), only Bob Busey carried the title “Pastor.” 

Bob had come from a church in Asheville, NC, and his many sermon references to his time there indicated that racial justice issues were an important focus of much of his ministry in that western North Carolina city. With Bon Air’s steady reputation in our Presbytery as a long-time leader in social justice and liberal theology, Bob found a home there and the church found a long-time pastor. And I found a pastoral mentor of the highest order.

Sitting in the chairs (no pews there) each Sunday, I heard fine preaching that referenced Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, and Niemoller, along with Jesus, of course, and biblical figures. His preaching style was identified by one presbytery executive as a “teaching” style, rather than passionate preaching. Maybe. I know I learned from him. And I’m glad I paid fairly close attention to other aspects of his leadership, for after a few years, I was called to be the church’s Associate Pastor, Bob’s colleague in ministry there.

Here are the ways he provided me with guidance along my path of faith, as well as in the pastoral vocation which we shared. He was one of the most articulate speakers I’ve ever known, and not just reading from the printed page. He had a gift for practically memorizing his well-written sermons, but he was also sharp in speaking spontaneously, especially on the floor of presbytery when debates on divisive issues needed his progressive voice. I need to point out that I learned from him how effective that kind of communication is — not that I learned from him how to accomplish it. To this day, I follow my sermon “script” carefully, but can’t memorize even the highlights. Nor am I at all confident about speaking extemporaneously on important issues even when I feel passionately about them. Must be the introvert in me. Still, I valued Bob’s mastering of those gifts.

Bob chose to preach from the Lectionary, that schedule of Biblical readings that guide and flesh out the liturgical year. Not all Presbyterian preachers agree with the Lectionary approach, but I learned from Bob its value. [This isn’t the place to define or defend the use of the weekly Lectionary texts; I’ll just say that the discipline has served me well over my many years in the pulpit.]   Bob took the practices of Reformed liturgy seriously, and the services of worship at Bon Air were an appropriate blend of tradition and creativity. That fed my spirit while a worshipper, but also led my spirit as I joined Bob in leadership.

Bob’s administrative gifts helped the church reach out in mission, take courageous stands for peace and justice, and helped shape a church that gained a reputation for being “open and affirming,” before the term became popular among welcoming congregations. Bob loved teaching adult classes, had a voracious appetite for reading and sharing his insights from current titles, and he traveled to Latin America to learn about and later advocate liberation theology.

 I offer one example of Bob’s teaching ministry. When a group of Presbyterian gays and lesbians asked to meet in our church for a monthly fellowship dinner, Bob designed a comprehensive six-week study for the Session, so that they might make an informed and compassionate response to the group. Scripture, psychology, history, theology…all were part of the consultation. (When some Session members asked that Bob invite a more conservative neighboring pastor to share his point of view, I think Bob was more hurt than angry, disappointed that couple of Session members lacked confidence in his ability to be fair.)

Much of what I learned at his feet (or sitting behind him at worship or beside him at Session) strengthened my ministry when I was called from Bon Air to serve as a pastor elsewhere. I would find myself saying things the way Bob did in meetings and conversations. One of his oft-used phrases was, “See if you agree with this…” Bob took the lead with confirmation classes, new member classes, and training for new officers, and I followed in his footsteps in my own work.

Two quick Bob Busey stories… :     I recall one Sunday morning when worshippers arrived at church to find a group of people holding picket signs at the entrance of the parking lot. They were protesting our church’s “support” for abortion. Bob was incensed that one group of Christians would picket another. He walked determinedly from the church to the driveway, clerical robes flapping in his wake. He asked where the protesters were from. They wouldn’t say. He asked what the signs were about. “Your church supports abortion,” one person called out. “How do you know what our church supports?!”  “Oh, we know,” someone answered. Bob had to then go inside and pray with the choir, as we all prepared for worship. “What do I pray for now, in this state of mind?” he asked me. I suggested, “A hard rain?”

[Turns out that one of our church members was a medical doctor (OB-GYN) who did perform abortions when deemed medically appropriate. The protesters blamed our church.]

A lighter story is about an Easter Sunday morning when Bob and I found out that the new wireless mike system worked better than we had planned. We were “vesting” for the early service in Bob’s office, a building away from the sanctuary. I can only remember one joke at a time, so as we pinned our mikes on, I told Bob the only joke I knew, which turned out to be utterly inappropriate for broadcast into the worship space. My mike was muted, of course. Bob’s wasn’t. A parishioner flew from the sanctuary to alert us to the gaff. We entered the sanctuary that morning to some smiles.  But grace prevailed and no one was fired. 

I was privileged to speak about Bob’s ministry at the Presbytery meeting which recognized his retirement. He was my pastor, the pastor of my family, and my mentor. And even now he remains very good friend.

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