My first parish in Richmond, Va. was a small church, planted with modest expectations in a suburban community, and then strangled by the construction of an Interstate highway. The Calvary Presbyterian Church had had a succession of full-time pastors, but it was becoming less and less viable as the highway cut off easy access to the church’s neighborhood.

I had been serving on the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry when the Calvary pulpit was “vacated” and they needed someone to fill in for a short time. This was before interim ministry had gained a foothold in the polity of Presbyterian machinations, so I was asked to serve the church as a “Stated Supply.” Three months. That seemed manageable, even with my own full-time media work already fairly demanding. I thought it might be mutually beneficial for the church and me. They would have someone every week to lead worship and to provide some pastoral support, and I would have my first taste of writing a sermon every week, and having responsibility for a congregation’s care — for the first time since ordination.

[Until that time, I had only preached on rare occasions, a special speaker at some services, or substituting for a vacationing pastor. Writing the occasional sermon was (is) quite a bit less of a challenge than the every-single-week grind…I mean, responsibility.]

The people were wonderful to serve alongside. They understood my limitations, and I so appreciated their patience, their trust, and their encouragement as the weeks went by. Some mental snapshots come to mind:

  • Children didn’t know what to call me and I didn’t know what was proper. When I suggested “Jeff” was OK with me, one parent said to her child, “Oh, no; you call him Rev. Kellam.” She explained to me that she wanted to instill in her elementary school child respect for adult roles.
  • This was the nation’s Bicentennial Year, so I researched what a Presbyterian service might have looked like in 1776, and the congregation found the experience both educational and worshipful.
  • On the first Sunday of the new year, I asked the secretary to print the outside of the worship bulletin normally, but to leave the inside blank — except for a few sentences explaining that as we enter a new year not knowing what will come, so we enter worship that day. Though I assured everyone that the service would be identical to the normal liturgy we followed week-by-week, a few folks were pretty nervous as we moved from the first hymn into the rest of the hour.
  • I had office hours one afternoon a week, so that if anyone needed to meet with me for planning, informal counseling (about all I was qualified to help with), or serious conversation, I’d be available. One afternoon a parishioner called to see if I was there, saying she had something to discuss with me. As she drove over to the church, I wondered if I’d be fielding a complaint, or maybe facing a counseling situation that might be way over my head. After some small talk, she got to the point. Since I was taking on this little extra job at her church, she thought I might be interested in joining her Amway distributorship…to make some extra money. No, but thanks for your concern.
  • Not long after that conversation, I was leading a seminar at our Presbytery camp, and a man in the crowd sought me out and said he’d like to meet with me about an idea he had. He met me at the church office the next week, with an older man in tow, his “supervisor,” and preceded to sell me on his Amway plan. When I explained that a woman in my church had made the same offer, the big guy pulled out his wallet, fat with bills, and said that unless her wallet was as thick as his, I’d certainly be better off going with the more successful offer HE was making. I don’t think I minced words when I told him that I’d never believed that “success” was measured by big wallets. Good grief.
  • My sermons must have been atrocious. Many a Saturday night, I started my sermons, both study and writing. And sometimes with the TV on. Star Trek reruns were on one local station at 11 p.m., and I didn’t let my sermons interfere with Kirk’s and Spock’s “final frontier.” This is the “confession” part of this post. Atrocious.

My tenure at Calvary Church was renewed for another three months. And then for another six.There must have been some redeeming value in my leadership there, for they could have tossed me out at any time. I recall no active “search committee” in place, but I couldn’t stay there indefinitely, so I left, hoping that someone with more time, better skills, and an actual “call” might serve the church more ably. I had definitely gained valuable experience in pastoral work, and for someone in non-parish ministry, that was a good thing. Though inexperienced, I look back with deep affection for the folks there, and I remember being invited back a few years later to write and lead a litany for the closing of that church when its fullness of time had come.

One more story.

Among the people I remember best at Calvary was an older woman who came to church every week with perfectly coiffed bluish hair. Maybe not bluish, but blue! I swear, if she’d bumped that hairdo against a wall sconce on the way to her pew, she’d have had to buy a new sconce. She wasn’t on any committees, didn’t come to Sunday School, or any other function where I might have learned her name, but if someone had called her the blue-haired lady, I’d know who that referred to.

I got a call at my media office mid-week a few months into my time at Calvary. The church secretary told me that an elderly parishioner had fallen in her home, in the kitchen, and hadn’t been found until late the next day. She was in the hospital now. Would I have time to go see her. Of course. I didn’t recognize the name, but the secretary said she was in church every week. You know her, she said. She’s the one with the bluish hair.

When I entered her hospital room, there were two beds there and I didn’t have a clue which woman was my parishioner. Both women were asleep, and both had unkempt gray hair, a hue that almost matched their sickly complexions. I looked at the name cards at the foot of the beds and found that I was indeed in the right room, but how our friend had changed. A novice at hospital visitation, I knew to let her sleep, and I prayed silently for her, and gently read a psalm aloud.

Then just weeks later, it happened again. Another older woman from the church had had a stroke at home, couldn’t get up, and was found the next day by the mailman, who had noticed she hadn’t picked up her mail from the day before…an occurrence so unusual he risked opening her door to see if she was OK. She was asleep when I saw her at the hospital. But didn’t wake up.

When those old TV ads portrayed an old woman crying out, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up,” it became a national joke. It’s not at all funny though, is it, when you know someone so vulnerable, so weak, that they hardly have the breath to cry out, much less to get up? I learned to take life and pastoral ministry much more seriously at Calvary Church. It was a year when I’d like to believe I grew into my call to ministry.

Tomorrow, Leroy and James, the servants with no last names.