If Bill McGregor was my summer mentor at the East Craftsbury United Presbyterian Church in Vermont, Jim MacKellar was my mentor there the rest of the year.

When I first went to the Presbytery meeting to be welcomed as a transferring minister-member, I sat next to someone at lunch who looked vaguely familiar. I looked at his name tag and his name seemed familiar too. So I introduced myself and we started that game where people try to figure out if they’d met, and where, and under what circumstances. Union Seminary? Montreat? No. Came the revelation that Jim MacKellar, the retired pastor with whom I was playing that game, had been, in his first years of ministry, an advisor at the church camp I had attended in high school. I had only gone to church camp for two years, and Jim had been there on the leadership team with Tom “Casey” Denier and Sheldon Seibel.

Jim and I filled each other in on the lives we had led since that time so long ago, and Jim told me that he and his wife Genie had settled in at the church that I would be serving in East Craftsbury. It was one of life’s little coincidences. From church camp to Craftsbury. Jim MacKellar.

It turns out, too, that Jim had not only attended my new church, but had moderated the Session (that is, chaired the governing board, for you non-Presby-types), and had filled in as pastor-preacher on several occasions. Generally when that is the case, one moves out of the way of the new incoming pastor, so as not to interfere or be perceived of as interfering. But when there are only eight Presbyterian churches in the whole state, and none closer than a 35 minute drive over often-snow-covered roads — well, Jim and Genie had hoped to hold that drive to only 35 miles and keep ECPC as their church connection for worship and fellowship. 

I recall Jim’s telling me on my first Sunday morning in that holy place that while he and his wife loved the congregation and hoped to be able to remain there, if I ever felt that Jim was somehow getting in my way, they would leave willingly and worship elsewhere.  I told him I doubted that would happen. I was right. They enriched the fellowship of our faith community for the nine+ years I was their pastor.

More than that, Jim was a pastor to me. And my very knowledgable advisor when issues of church polity (governance) came up. In the Presbytery…in the Synod…even in the General Assembly of the denomination, Jim was considered one of the top “experts” in that field. Whenever some sticky polity question came up, all I had to do was call Jim and check in. He not only had the answer, but the authoritative answer, and ultimately the right answer. He could quote chapter and verse of the Book of Order (figuratively speaking —  the B.O.O. doesn’t have verses).

Jim’s enthusiasm for the wider church wasn’t limited to polity. He was, and remains, committed to church mission work and evangelism, and he and Genie were generous with their stewardship. They supported the work of the Church far and wide, and helped sharpen the already clear focus on mission that our congregation had traditionally embraced.

Jim was a little more evangelical than I, but I want to temper that by adding another adjective. Perhaps he is a liberal or progressive evangelical. Moderate? Or, maybe he is just a “pure evangelical,” a term that to me would imply that he redeems the word from its current cultural context of TV preachers and shrill radio stereotypes. At least he redeemed the word for me. Thoughtful, discerning, fair and just, and loving — his love of Jesus Christ and his love of Christ’s body the Church — these are the attributes of that evangelical friend whose presence in the East Craftsbury Church pastored me. And kept me balanced.

Jim’s ecumenical spirit found the common thread of the Gospel in diverse places, and he was a staunch advocate of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I recall one frigid, snowy January night when we went to a Roman Catholic Church north of our already way-north town, where I was invited to preach the sermon, thanks to Jim’s involvement in the planning. Aha! Maybe he is an “ecumenical evangelical!”

Like Bill McGregor, Jim offered a helpful critique of my sermon content on the occasions where such comments were needed, and I benefitted from his gentle, sometimes off-handed observations. I don’t know if I have these words exactly right, but the spirit in which they were offered was kind of like, “You might want to consider…” This was no thorn in the flesh, I hasten to add. It was a truly appreciated centering that helped keep me both rounded and grounded, if you get my drift.

(One specific example of Jim’s encouragement: Even after many years of leading services of Holy Communion, I continued to read the Words of Institution from the service book. Naturally, the service is much more meaningful when the minister has eye contact with the worshippers and uses some interpretive gestures to communicate “how this sacrament began.” One Sunday, after worship, Jim assured me that I didn’t need the book anymore. Enough said. From that Sunday forward, I proved him right.)

Jim and Genie offered us a hospitable welcome at their lake front home on several occasions. It was good to leave town and drive north to the lake and know there was a place we could both put our feet up and let our hair down! 

Far from “getting in the way,” Jim’s being in that wonderful church helped make our sojourn in Vermont a very happy nine years. His influence on my teenage years got me on the way, vocation-wise. And in my earliest years of solo pastoral ministry, God put us back together so that the way would always be clear.