When I retired, I didn’t look back.

I treated retirement from my last church as answering a call, a call that came just as clearly as any call to move from one church to another, or one non-clergy position to another. And when the deed was accomplished and I settled into a new lifestyle, I didn’t miss the clergy life. That said, there is one thing I would love to recover from my last pastorate: the weekly meeting at the Falls.

On the edge of Trumansburg, NY, there is a restaurant, “The Falls,” a neighborhood gathering place that is a couple of steps up from a diner, but not a table-cloth and crystal fine dining experience. Very popular with the locals, it was also the gathering space for us in the local clergy, every Thursday at 10 a.m. My immediate predecessor (an interim pastor) told me about the group, and assured me that it was strictly social, that is, no book study, no agenda of any kind. I looked forward to it.

And it did not disappoint. The local Catholic priest would be there, having celebrated daily Mass just blocks away, and now ready for his breakfast of pancakes and sausages. Ordinarily we had a couple of United Methodists pastors there, and the American Baptist pastor…as opposed to the independent Baptist guy who never came. Never. None of us were Christians to him. (That independent church never joined us in any ecumenical services, nor communicated with the rest of us in any way. Sad.)

The Episcopal priest came often, though he lived some distance away. Sometimes we’d be joined by a couple of other pastors (Presbyterian and Reformed Churches), as well as a retiree and his wife. Our table was smack dab in the middle of the place, so there was no huddling in secret to complain about one’s church treasurer or another’s musician (perish the thought!) or a governing board made up of clueless Christians. Mostly, we met just for the pure fellowship of the moment, a respite of sorts just past mid-week. Many of us were “Lectionary preachers,” and now and then we’d share an idea or resource, but, again, no “agenda.”

Parishioners might wave or stop by briefly to bid a good morning. And there was always some good-natured kidding around with the waitress. It felt really good to have her welcome us with a cup of coffee and those words, “The usual?” I don’t go anywhere these days where someone knows my “usual.” In fact, I don’t go anywhere that colleagues gather regularly and without some agenda or business to attend to. That’s the part I miss about that table time at The Falls.

In ministry,as well as in other professions, I’m sure…but especially in solo pastorate ministry, there is often a “Lone Ranger” kind of feeling, a sense that one is apart from the flock, always guarded, or watched, and there are few places to let one’s hair down (so to speak, in my case). In the multi-staff churches I served in Richmond, there was camaraderie, conversations, sharing of personal thoughts and dreams and frustrations. In my Vermont “solo” parish, I did have some now-and-then contact with other clergy in the area, but not a weekly gathering over coffee (“…and whole wheat toast, buttered, please…”) with a regular circle of friends.

[In Vermont, I did have a special friend with whom I met every week to share thoughts about the Lectionary passages for the coming Sunday. But we spent much of our time in friendly conversation, too. I wrote about Bill Lingelbach in my previous Lenten series “Forty I Have Followed.” Look here:  https://jeffkellam.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/forty-i-followed-bill-lingelbach/   ]

When I reiterate that there was no agenda, I should clarify. Two or three times a year, the group did have some things to plan together, and it made sense to pull out calendars and note pads there at breakfast and talk about ecumenical services for Holy Week or the summer services we shared in Taughannock State Park on Cayuga Lake. (The restaurant we met in — The falls — took its name from Taughannock Falls in the park.) There was also a Christmas concert for many years, where our individual choirs offered special music, or as I called it, “The Battle of the T-burg Choirs.” All of our churches were members of a wider ecumenical group that did mission and service together, including a food pantry, so we’d talk about our modest council of churches too. But, mostly, this warm gathering was for the building of friendships over coffee.

Since this was a small town, many of us knew one another’s parishioners. In fact, as with any church in close proximity to another, some of our members had been members of our colleague’s churches. If a Methodist didn’t care for the new minister the District Superintendent had sent to town, that parishioner might very well cross the street to the Presbyterian church. And if this one-time Baptist couple attending (but never joining) the Presbyterian church had trouble with something decided by the Presbyterian’s national General Assembly, they’d wind up back in one of the Baptist churches around the block. When we lost or gained a member within our circle of churches, we’d just smile at the situation and wish one another well. I don’t recall, ever, any hard feelings among us.

Our meeting at the Falls was sometimes the brightest spot in a routine week. Plus, the toast was excellent.

Next, in this series of forty reflections on my pastoral past, Vermont hills alive with the sound of music (and it had nothing to do with the Von Trapps who lived nearby).

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