Pastor's Note

Pastor's Note


By Robert M. Chapman, II
Spiritual Leader

ALONG THE PATH

With a few articles remaining for this column, in the next issues I thought I would share reflections on living a called and appointed life. Since the announcement of my retirement, we have begun sharing a unique journey, being the first pastor in recent memory at Chestnut to retire. Every year in December or early January, the pastor and Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) of United Methodist churches begin the process of meeting to discuss the pastoral appointment for the congregation. The current form has several boxes which the committee and the current pastor must agree upon. The choices are spelled out rather clearly, and for the first time we have checked: “The pastor intends to request retirement.”

Of my five pastoral appointments to local churches, I have been blessed in never having the SPRC ask me to leave a congregation. I attribute this to some wonderful souls who have welcomed me to work beside them in the congregations I have served. That is not to suggest that there have never been difficult or challenging moments to withstand, but overall, I have been the beneficiary of much support and encouragement within the congregations I have served. Thankfully, throughout my appointments, I have always been invited to return, and when I did leave, it was at my initiative or at the discretion of the bishop and cabinet, appointing me to another congregation.

This was the case before moving to Chestnut, as I was expected to return to Market Street for my sixth year. I happened to be on an afternoon walk with Mr. Dozer when the unexpected call came from my district superintendent. I immediately stopped in my tracks along the path. Elaine noticed something was up, as at the same time, she happened to see me from the upstairs window of her counseling office above Janet’s Café. I remember my district superintendent asked if I knew of Chestnut. I said: “Yes, I know where it is. It’s off Route 17, and my good friend Rudy Tucker had once served there.” In addition to Rudy, I also remembered attending a funeral at Chestnut for Michael Snapp, grandson of the late Penn and Hilda Snapp, who happened to be a student at Virginia Wesleyan when I was serving as the chaplain at the college. We also had a brief service in his memory on the baseball field at the college with his family, as his teammates retired his jersey. That evening after the phone call, Elaine and I had a long heartfelt discussion over dinner at Bizzoto’s Gallery-Café. It meant she would have to close her counseling practice, a move which proved to be a significant financial loss for her. The collective memories of these appointment calls, announcing where you are being sent, are moments you never forget. They are life-changing calls. Soon, a new pastor will be receiving the call, announcing he/or she has been “projected” to receive an appointment at Chestnut.

The appointment process of United Methodist pastors to local congregations has lasted for over 200 years. Amongst many changes, the process of a bishop, cabinet, pastors and parish committees has withstood the test of time. My first meeting with a local church SPRC was at Graham Road United Methodist Church on Apr. 12, 1981. It happened to be the same Sunday morning when Columbia, the first space shuttle was launched from the Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen were onboard for the ride of their lives. A few months later, I arrived in a U-Haul truck beginning the journey of a lifetime, responding to the call, serving at my first pastoral appointment. Unfortunately, this beloved congregation is no longer there. However, I was able to tour the grounds and reminisce through the building on a brief visit to Falls Church last June. Sights, sounds, smells and memories from 40 years ago remain strong. Even amidst much change, the Holy Spirit remains and the memories live on.

Over the years, I have remembered the counsel and charge of one of my first mentors. Like an Old Testament prophet, Dr. Owen T. Kelly revealed truth from experience and wisdom from above, which only a respected and beloved pastor could render. Like Eli, his beloved way and guidance toward me was patient, loving, simple and profound. Like a young Samuel, he helped me in the process of discerning my call from God. More than once he said to me, anyone who entered the ordained ministry without a call from God would more than likely be “miserable” throughout their career. “They seldom last,” he said. While my religious studies classmates from college were excited to enter Duke and Wesley, asking why I was not, I stayed behind, as I could never see myself as a “minister” in a local church.

After college, I followed my path, entering a career in photography, working at a commercial studio in Norfolk. My boss, the late George B. Haycox, a devout Presbyterian, was the first to enter William & Mary on an athletic scholarship, without ever throwing or running with the pigskin, becoming the official football team photographer. Continuing his craft of taking pictures from Granby High School and William & Mary, he eventually did a lot of photography and motion picture work with the Mercury and Gemini programs at NASA Langley. After working with him for two years, before leaving for seminary, he treated me to lunch at the Aberdeen Barn Restaurant on Northampton Boulevard in Norfolk. While there, we ran into the late Dr. Lambuth M. Clarke, then President at Virginia Wesleyan College, who was thrilled, I would even say proud, to hear another one of his graduates was now headed to seminary.

So, what was the nature behind this Divine call from over 40 years ago? What happened, what was it that spoke to me, what or who did I hear calling me in the night? I can honestly say, it certainly was not like a sudden Damascus road experience. Rather, “the call” evolved in time through a traumatic event, resulting in some rather difficult and extenuating circumstances in my life. Some memories I would rather forget, some I simply cannot. Wondering how to cope, or where I could go for consolation and support, I discovered a renewed understanding and practice in the ministry of pastoral care through a United Methodist pastor. Sharing with him the harm, distress and brokenness within our family system, I discovered in this pastor someone who I could call on for support. Someone who genuinely cared. Someone who authentically stood beside me. Someone who would be there to listen, listen and listen. He was always just a phone call away, and from the model of his ministry toward me, the call from God was received. Over the years, its authenticity has remained, embedded within my being and without a doubt, I knew this was to be the course of my vocation. To this day, this is how I have interpreted “the call,” and without it, I would never have entered the ordained ministry. This call has always sustained me. It has kept me going when there were times I wondered if I could go any further. The call from God which caught my attention and changed my life was like this: “Okay, despite what you think you may know, now I have shown you what the ministry of the church is all about. Being there for someone when they needed help. I have sent this pastor to you. Now it is time for you to answer my call. I want you to go and do likewise, and I will send you to people who will need your care.”

The call has taken me from Northern Virginia to the Eastern Shore and places in between, localities not even on a map. In the next few issues, I will introduce you to some of the wonderful characters, the saints and sinners, I have met along the path.