Shuck and Jive

Friday, August 31, 2007


(It is Conversations with Bob! Bob and I are doing what The Theological Task Force has requested. Keep lines of dialogue open and speak openly of agreements and differences in a respectful way! It is Bob's turn!)

I like to think of myself as a long term pastor. I was in rural PA for 7 ½ years. I was pastor at 1st Presbyterian, Oneida, NY for 12 years.

We moved to Oneida in 1989 and left in 2001. I was a member of Utica Presbytery before John arrived and after he left. In some ways Oneida feels more like home, except when we lived near my parents, than any other place we’ve lived and I’ve served as a pastor. When we moved to Oneida our son was in 3rd grade and my daughter in 1st. Both our children graduated from Oneida High School. Both still look on Oneida as home. For the first time in our lives we bought a house, which frankly isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

This will be a bit of a struggle about how much to reveal about my relationship with the church in Oneida. I’m going to say the good things first.

For the first time in my life I was a head of staff. Oneida 1st had about 400 members on the roll when I arrived. I had taken courses in management and enjoyed being head of staff. We had a secretary, two sextons, a Christian Educator, and sometimes a Music Director and sometimes an Organist and a Choir Director. I tried to be a collegial head of staff. Unfortunately a couple of times I had to fire employees. I hated that, but it was part of the job. Joyce Irwin, our Music Director and later also the Christian Educator was the best organist, choir director I have ever had the pleasure to work with. And she developed innovative programs in C.E.

I continued teaching Kerygma classes, including Beginnings, a class on Genesis, Discovering the Bible, an introductory Bible class, Interpretation, a deeper class on how to interpret the Bible, and Hallelujah, a class on Handel’s Messiah. I urge any pastor to consider the Kerygma classes. I also wrote my own class on Mark a class built on the Kerygma model, classes on The Book of Confessions using Jack Rogers’ wonderful book, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions, and a series of small group Bible studies. All in all I had a blast teaching. And, as most teachers do, I think I learned much more than the students.

At first I had a great deal of support for change, but I didn’t rush into things. My two installed predecessors had lasted 2 ½ years and 10 month respectively and both had resigned but really had been forced out. So I took the process of change very, very slowly. We did experiment with different types of worship on Pentecost each year and incorporated some of the changes into regular worship.

In the long run we started using the Logos Program for youth, a midweek program that included recreation, education, worship education, (mainly a musical experience like choirs), and dinner. It was fun. The high school youth started a rock band that played in worship occasionally and was well accepted by the congregation. This unfortunately led to conflict with the Women’s Association.

And yes I did weddings, funerals and baptisms.

One of the best things about Oneida was the Council of Churches. Most of the congregations in town participated including the Pentecostals and the Roman Catholics. We had some wonderful programs on differences and similarities of worship and even a program on baptism. I did joint weddings and baptisms mostly with the Roman Catholics. We started a voluntary hospital chaplaincy program which I headed for around 5-7 years. We even worked out a program to help people who needed assistance by writing vouchers to a local gas station/convenience store. The Methodists kept the records.

One of the big controversies in Oneida was about the Oneida Indian nation. They bought some land, negotiated with the governor and opened a casino. Then they sued the county government, claiming a lot of land as part of their reservation, including the whole city of Oneida. For some reason this didn’t go over too well with the home owners whose houses were on the land the tribe claimed. We pastors worked for peace and reconciliation, particularly when violence was threatened. This got some of us, including me, in trouble with some of our congregational members who didn’t want any reconciliation.

I took on some responsibilities with the Synod serving first as a member of the Personnel Committee and then as chair of the committee. I was chair of the committee through a rancorous downsizing of staff. It was a heartrending experience.

The biggest spiritual issues in the my time in Oneida, before the last two years, was that my wife became ill and spent 6 weeks in the hospital and later my daughter became ill and besides her time in the hospital, was ill for almost a year.

As John pointed out when we first started this dialogue I was an Evangelical in what, from my point of view, was a progressive presbytery. The good news was that, for the most part I was respected and heard. The presbytery rarely voted my way on important issues but that didn’t stop me from being respected and accepted. And I had one very close friend who was my spiritual advisor and I his. We probably knew more about each other than our wives did.

BUT! There was a curious dynamic of conflict in the congregation. I expected this and tried to encourage new styles of dealing with conflict, for the most part unsuccessfully. We got new hymnals but kept the old ones and I tried to use hymns from both, but some people didn’t accept the new hymnal at all. They wouldn’t sing the hymns if they were from the new hymnal. We tried a new method of serving the Lord’s Supper, coming forward to receive the sacrament. Some loved the new method. Some wanted only the old method, being served in the pews. We had a successful negotiation about this, having a congregational wide survey which helped people to not only state their emotional/spiritual reasons for wanting to receive communion in a particular way but also to make theological statements on the issue.

We also had a successfully resolved conflict about change in the chapel. We formed a task force of people who disagreed about how to use and set up the chapel and they came up with an elegant solution that was different than any suggested by any of the sides earlier and satisfied all sides. Unfortunately all problems were not so easily solved.

I started a DMin program at Pittsburgh Seminary in 1997. I loved it. I had spent too much time on administration and not enough on theology. The program gave me the balance.

In the spring of 2000 things came to a head. I had started training small group leaders to encourage spiritual renewal as part of my DMin project and talked with the Session about spiritual renewal. In the meantime I made the mistake of paying attention to the new members of the congregation who wanted change and not paying attention to the needs of older members. Finally, after we called in people from the Committee on Ministry the Session asked for my resignation. But with a twist.

My daughter had another year in high school. The Session allowed me a year to find a new call so my daughter could finish high school in Oneida. I had to drop my DMin project and program. The conflict and solution was hidden from the congregation. We decided to stay so my daughter could graduate. It was a great decision for her. It was a terrible decision for me. I spent a year working in a congregation where the Session had made it clear that I was no longer wanted and it hurt terribly. Fortunately I still had lunch with my friend and got a lot of support from the Interim Presbytery Exec. It was something but it wasn’t enough.

After several interviews all over the country, I ultimately accepted a call to a congregation in New Jersey. I resigned as pastor of Oneida 1st, a decision I’m still not sure was the right one. Sometimes I think the conflict should have been brought to the congregation. And unfortunately I carried with me a lot of anger and pain from Oneida.

Suffice it to say that it was a bad parting. We sold our house and we moved to a church in Titusville, NJ.

I will talk about that next time.


  1. Bob, Thank you. I appreciate that you shared your successes and struggles. I had no idea. I served on the COM during 2000 and still had no idea. Maybe I was asleep during the meeting or missed the one in which you came up, but I didn't know any of this. I was busy working with the session of the Lyons Falls church during that time.

    Aren't churches wild? You did everything. When people decide that they won't sing out of one hymnal, I mean really.

    You served twelve years there. Wow. You touched many lives even though you struggled with the church as a whole. Thank you for your work with the Oneida Native American group.

    On one of the Delaware work camps, a member of your church led the music for us. As I recall, he had high praise for you. The youth that came from your congregation were awesome.

    My regret is that I didn't know you as well as I could have then. I do remember admiring you in your debate with __________ at presbytery and your views on various issues.

    You did a great job, there. Not that you need to hear it from me, but I need to tell you, you did great work.

    Thank you!

  2. Yes, wow, your story paints a picture. What an occupation, this pastor business; all the situations that have to be dealt with, all the things that seminary or education as a whole can't prepare you for; it sounds overwhelming to me. Add to that your story of struggling with inner-church politics, and again, wow. I share your frustration as I read about the decision to not take the conflict to the congregation; a back room deal like that just doesn't seem fair to either the pastor or the congregation, especially since you already had a decade-long run.

  3. Wow, church ministry is hard. I've heard this called "the left of foot of fellowsip," and one pastor I know said he never left a church voluntarily. I don't know why sessions do this. I think Paul's writing first became real to me when I started working with real congregations and I recognized how real many of the themes he discussed are. Ministry is difficult because it often involves such intense rejection, but requires emotional honesty. Thanks for sharing this with us.