When You Are History: Old First E-pistle 09.22.17

When You Are History: Old First E-pistle 09.22.17

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Lisa Robinson, is being installed as pastor of the Ridgeview Congregational Church (UCC) in White Plains, NY in October. She’s asked me to preach her installation service. I would do it just to see Lisa. But I also realize that I can bring some history to the occasion.

Geneva, my predecessor, who is now our Pastor Emerita, laughed when we began that planning process for the Capital Campaign work; she suggested that her role as we thought about venturing into new territory was to be some historical credentialing. “I am the history,” she quipped.

I know how she feels. Long before I came to Philly, I realized that having pastored in the Metro NY Association for almost 20 years, I was quickly rising in the ranks of long term pastors… to ‘Old War Horse”! There were still pastors who’d been around longer. But, especially since my seminary years were in NYC too, it seemed like most pastors had come after me.

In the case of Lisa’s installation at Ridgeview, I can remember back to when the national UCC headquarters were still in NYC (before the move to Cleveland), and to when, as a diverse, progressive suburban congregation, Ridgeview was nearby and popular with, and empowered by, a number of members of the national staff who made it their local church home. And I can point to how the move to Cleveland left Ridgeview needing to reinvent itself and figure out how to become a different kind of local church.

And I can remind them when they called Henrietta as their first Black female pastor (Lisa is their second Black woman pastor!).

And I was in the room once when Henrietta quipped that as a single mom who was also a pastor, she bore a double portion of expectations. She was expected to excel at all aspects of local church ministry that are traditionally associated with men in ministry, because she was a woman in ministry and had to prove herself. And there’d be no accommodations for her being a single mother, because as a woman, she was expected ‘almost naturally’ to be a perfect mother —  not only to her own children, but to the rest of the congregation as well.

And I was the Conference staff person when the congregation reported that it was having trouble finding a good candidate for its pulpit and wanted the Committee on Ministry  to grant an exception to the UCC rule that Interim pastors cannot be called for the permanent position- (ok, so they hadn’t yet begun an actual search, but figured that in the UCC, that was just an excusable formality!)

I’ve heard all the discussions about whether or not in these lean church days, the UCC needs 3 congregations in White Plains. And I have listened to passionate explanations about how different each congregation is, some of the as yet only discussions — some realized and some purely theoretical, wishful thinking — of how those three churches might rearrange their ministries to  work together more.

In other words, as an Installation Preacher, I’m History!

Old First turns 290 on Sunday. Geneva will be with us.  I hope you will join us, and invite someone new!

But with such a long history, none of us can know too much of it in person. I tease Jackie W. that, still active in the congregation today, she’s our Church Mother — the one who remembers back the farthest. Marie C., though she doesn’t make it very often, goes back even farther. And Nancy D. combines a long run as a member with her service as our archivist to be a treasure trove of history. And Julie S. in her various roles around Old First that stretch back to her arrival as a college-fresh intern has some stories too.

Bob Schneider has got real some time with us too. And a Ph.D. in American Church History from Harvard. His sermon this Sunday will offer some important reflections, probably personal as well as historical.

But I am struck by the number of people in our current active congregation who have arrived after I did 8+ years ago. That’s a good thing: Old First nowadays is both a very young and a very old congregation.

But as a minister with some history under my belt, and the morning after hearing of dear Lois’ passing,  may I — on the occasion of our 290th Anniversary — both reassure and warn you: the history of an institution like Old First can inform its present life in surprising ways. Ways that hearken way back past the timeframe of those currently involved in the life of the local church.

I have been known to talk about ghosts around churches (particularly when I was a visiting Conference staff person!). And I think it makes a lot of sense to talk about a congregation’s DNA… being passed on.  Inheritance is a biblical concept with its own pedigree. There are these ways the culture of a congregation, a micro-community, have the power to inform us, for good or ill. Actually, that’s in large part what church is about: being the incarnational community that lives out and reinforces the sacred lessons of our faith, for informing our lives and serving our world. Lessons that go all the way back to before the time of Jesus.

Luckily, Old First, at this point in its institutional life, mostly is about a good inheritance: adding to our lives and influencing us positively.

But history, one’s own as well as that of institutions and our world are multi-layered and complex. Join us this Sunday as we give thanks, show respect (and humility!), and learn some more about ourselves!

Oh, and there’s also the good food and fellowship of love that happens over and around the potluck tables after worship!

See you at church,

Michael