A Reflection on Forty-Five Years of Ordained Ministry

On this day forty-five years ago, September 21, 1975, I was ordained into the Christian Ministry of Word and Sacrament at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts. I was 26.

I had had my ecclesiastical council weeks before and waited for a call for a church before I could be ordained. Late in the summer it came. I was called to be the pastor of the Congregational Churches of Limerick and West Newfield, a “Two-point charge” serving two small congregations nine miles apart in the Northwest corner of York County, Maine. I had preached my neutral pulpit sermon in nearby Fryeburg, and a candidating sermon in each of the two churches.

I remember my ordination vividly. The church secretary, Irene Fultz, had designed. printed and mailed out the invitations. My family was there. My Associate Conference Minister, Oliver Powell, was there. The Reverend Joanne Hartunian, represented the Metropolitan Boston Association. The Reverend Meredith (Jerry) B. Handspicker, presided over the Laying on of Hands, and gave the Prayer of Ordination (after the ordained ministers were assembled he invited the whole congregation to participate, the first time I had seen this. It is commonplace now in the UCC.) The Reverend Dudne M. Breeze gave the sermon. He admonished me to be a Minister of the Word of God. I now know how wise that counsel was and how hard it would be.

I served those two little churches for four years and have never been happier. I married Martha while there and those churches threw us a big party. I trained as an EMT and became a firefighter.

Next, we went to Bangor, where I was Chaplain at Bangor Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor of the Hammond Street Church, United Church of Christ. There I ministered to students and congregants. I was a founder of Maine Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) a national anti-war organization. I chaired the Social Justice Committee of the Maine Council of Churches.

Finally, I came to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1982 to be the Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield. I had three sabbaticals from there: Oxford (1989), St Andrews (1995) and Cambridge (2000). I studied and wrote articles and books while on those wonderful respites from active ministry.

I stayed in Pittsfield for twenty-two years and would have stayed longer if I hadn’t sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a bicycle accident and had to retire early on disability.

After that I eventually discovered a new chapter as a writer. I started this blog, I wrote devotions for the United Church of Christ, and found a new ministry of the Word in my words.

So, there you have it. Here I am 45 years later. I once kept count of how many weddings I officiated at, but I have lost count well into several hundred. The same for baptisms, confirmations. I can’t count the hospital visits, the funerals and graveside committals I was part of. I’ve held people’s hands in Rehab Facilities and Psychiatric Wards. I’ve put my arms around people in overwhelming grief. I’ve been humbled by theses encounters.

I have heard numerous confessions. I have listened to more kinds of human consternation and misery than you can imagine. I have also been privileged to be part of people’s lives at some of their more poignant moments. I have shared many joys and sorrows. I have “wept with those who weep, and rejoiced with those who have rejoiced.” (Romans 12:15)

I have led countless Bible Studies and other courses for adults. I have authored “A Course in Basic Christianity” for adults. I think of it as a course to teach you “everything you should have learned in Confirmation Class, but probably didn’t because you had your mind on other things.”

I’ve valued the relationships of my clergy friends and colleagues in the United Church of Christ and other Christian denominations. I served  the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as their representative to the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity for twelve years. There, I made many friends and came to appreciate the richness of the “Great Church” of Jesus Christ.

I have also treasured the relationships I have had with my Jewish brothers and sisters in the clergy. We have become trusted friends and interlocators, and in that safe space of friendship have had rich and deep conversations about both what unites and divides us. It was a great honor that the family of my dear friend Rabbi Harold Salzmann asked me to speak at his funeral at Temple Anshe Amunin in Pittsfield last year.

I’ve witnessed people’s lives changed by their confrontation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I, myself, have been profoundly changed by a life-long engagement with Jesus and his Gospel of freedom and grace. Jesus is still the most interesting and engaging piece of our faith, and after forty-five years he is still the one with whom I have to deal in thought and deed and prayer.

I have struggled to be faithful to the truth as I have known it. My reach has exceeded my grasp. I have pondered the deep things of the faith and have written countless articles, papers, and three and a half books. I have spent years trying to reform my denomination and restore its historic theological and ecumenical vision through leadership in such activities as the Confessing Christ movement, the Mercersburg Society, and the Craigville Colloquies.

I have also, to be quite honest, been a leader throughout my forty-five year ministry, in an enterprise that is in decline in institutional vigor and societal esteem. The schools where I received my masters and my doctorate are no longer there. The mainline church in whose rocky vineyard I have labored is smaller, poorer, and less respected than it was before I began. My last church, where I served for 22 years, is selling its grand gothic meeting house.

But I do not despair about this. God will not be left without witnesses. The church of the future, I believe, will be smaller, leaner, and more faithful. People won’t go because it’s “the thing to do” as it once was. They’ll go because they have found something of great value to which they are committed. Or they will go because they are searching for something important that seems missing in their lives, something more durable, something deeper than the shallow seductions and distractions of our consumer culture that values having more than being.

So, while I have regrets about my failings and limitations as a minister, I have none about choosing this calling and living it out for four and a half decades. My daughter has chosen to be a pastor, and I watch with awe at how gifted and faithful she is. It is young clergy such as she who give me much hope for the church of the future. I thank God for sustaining me through this long calling, and for calling me in the first place despite my manifold frailties and failures. To God be the glory.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” Amen. —Ephesians 3:20-21.

Remembering Horace T. Allen (1933-2019)

My friend Horace Allen died on February 5. Horace was an important ecumenical Christian scholar of worship and liturgy.

The Reverend Doctor Horace Thaddeus Allen. Jr. received his B.A. from Princeton University, his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary. Continue reading

“Small Beginnings” A Baptismal Sermon on Mark 4:30-34

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” —Mark 4:30-34 Continue reading

Gabriel J. Fackre (1926-2018) A Remembrance

I head down to Cape Cod this weekend to mourn the death and celebrate the life of my friend Gabe Fackre. Gabe was very important to my life. I knew him first as my seminary teacher, then my mentor, later a faithful colleague and a life-long friend. Most of all he encouraged me again and again in my ministry. Continue reading

“Cheering for Jesus!” A Daily Devotional

chering“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” —Hebrews 13:8

My friend John, an ophthalmologist and former congregant of mine, led several dozen trips to Ecuador on “eye missions.”

I went with him on a couple of them. Our team worked together with area churches, and one day he introduced me to a local pastor, who immediately invited me to preach at their Sunday evening service. Continue reading

A Tribute to Meredith Brook “Jerry” Handspicker 1932-2016

Jerry(We had a beautiful and moving Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the life of Jerry Handspicker this afternoon at the Second Congregational Church, UCC, of Bennington, Vermont. The Pastor, the Reverend Mary H. Lee-Clark, presided and delivered a fine homily. Jerry was Professor of Practical Theology at Andover Newton Theological School for 36 years, my former teacher, colleague and a family friend. I was asked to give one of the remembrances. Here are my remarks:)

I’m Rick Floyd. Jerry was my teacher, my colleague and my friend. I knew Jerry for 45 years through many ups and downs and changing experiences of life.

I met him when I arrived at Andover Newton in 1971. That very first week I applied for a field education position, running a coffee house (that dates me!), at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church. There were two token youths on the search committee, Amy Handspicker and her best-friend Martha Talis. By Amy’s telling they judged I was hip enough for the job, and convinced the skeptical grown-ups that I was their man.

Thus began a long association with that congregation, where Jerry was the associate pastor, and with the Handspicker family. Jerry and Dee embodied what today we would call “radical hospitality,” and I had many a dinner with them and Amy, Jed and Nathan. I once briefly lived in their attic! (And I wasn’t the only one.) Continue reading

“He’s Back!” A Christmas Story with a Happy Ending

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My friend and former Pittsfield colleague Karen Gygax Rodriguez is the Pastor of the Federated Church of Green Lake, Wisconsin. On the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, the baby Jesus figurine was stolen from the church’s nativity scene.

The police investigated, but had no leads. They speculated that the thief was from outside Green Lake, since “everybody knows everybody here, and it would have been returned by now.” Continue reading

“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time. Continue reading

“Better Late Than Never” Reflections on women in ministry.

C of EI find myself profoundly moved at the news that today the Church of England has consecrated their first woman bishop, Libby Lane.

I am old enough to remember when there were few women in ministry. In fact, in the Episcopal Church of my youth there were none. No bishops, no priests. Not one.

When I was in seminary, one of my teachers was Emily Hewitt, one of the first women “irregularly” ordained into the Episcopal Church, a very inspiring presence. I recall thinking, “This brilliant women is teaching me about ministry, and people are telling her that she can’t do it herself.”

As a young man I migrated to the United Church of Christ, which had done better on this issue, but still I had few women colleagues early in my ministry. I remember with great affection and respect two pioneering women ministers in the UCC: Gladys York from Maine and Catherine Chifelle, from Massachusetts, who later became a congregant of mine in Pittsfield. They served small congregations where they were faithful and well-loved.

My second call was to be the associate minister at Hammond Street Church in Bangor, Maine, where Ansley Coe Throckmorton was the senior minister. I don’t know whether it was true or not, but we were told that Ansley was the first woman senior minister of a “tall steeple” church in the UCC. I was proud of serving with her, and got to see close up some of the challenges she faced from folks who didn’t want to recognize the authenticity of her ministry.

This year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. I would mention all the wonderful women who have been my ordained colleagues through the years, but I might forget somebody. I also supervised several women seminarians in field education, much to my benefit. I give thanks for them all.

Then several years ago my own daughter came home for Thanksgiving and announced that she was going to seminary to discern a call to ordained ministry. She is now ordained and inspires me all the time.

The church is an intrinsically conservative institution. That is not all bad. We don’t move too fast most of the time, and that is both the beauty and the bane of the church.

But it took, it has taken, way too long for the church to recognize the God-given gifts of the women among us. And there are still wide swathes of the church where women’s gifts are undervalued, unappreciated and unrecognized.

Thank God that is changing. I pray it will change more and more.

Today the Church of England took an important step. The truth is that it has come very late in this particular game. And it is not the last step that needs to be taken. Not by a long shot.

But perhaps today we should all just celebrate and be glad at what took place.

Remembering Andrew F. Wissemann (1928-2014)

Andrwe F. WissemanMartha and I went down to Springfield on Monday for the funeral of our friend Andrew Wissemann. I had not talked to him recently and so his death caught me very much by surprise. The Service of Thanksgiving at Christ Church Cathedral was quite lovely and would please him.

Before he became bishop he was my colleague next door at St Stephen’s Church in Pittsfield, where he was rector. I came to be the pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield on December 1, 1982. I was taking books out of boxes and putting them on shelves in my new study when a lively bearded gentleman in clericals appeared at my door. He introduced himself and welcomed me and before he left the room we were friends.

We started an ecumenical study group at St Stephen’s that met in the late afternoon on Tuesdays and then we would all go to the chapel for Evening Prayer. We would read the assigned texts from the lectionary and talk about them to prepare for our sermons. I felt such joyful collegiality from that group. There was Fr. Fran the Roman priest, Julie the Methodist, Ed the Lutheran, and Andrew, David and Tom the Episcopalians. We had frank and spirited discussions and then we would pray together. I don’t know how many other churches anywhere had a ecumenical rota of ministers leading Evening Prayer in an Episcopal church but we did over 30 years ago.

Andrew had gravitas, but he also loved to laugh and as he aged the smile lines in his face grew more profound. He was not a big man, more thin and spry, but he had a great big laugh that took over his body.

And he loved to make others laugh. One day we followed him into the chapel and he was standing straight with his back against the wall and his hands folded at his chest as if he were a statue of a saint or an apostle. He had put an offering plate behind his head like a halo. He cracked us up.

In 1983 he was elected bishop, and in 1984 he was consecrated. He called me and asked if I would do him a favor. Would I come forward with the bishops and ask an ecumenical question in addition to the several canonical questions the bishops would be asking? He had secured permission from the Presiding Bishop to have this done. Andrew said the consecration would be in a Roman Catholic Church and it was an important ecumenical sign for there also to be someone there from the Reformed side of the family.

I was honored. And so it came to pass that I lined up with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and (was it 5?) other bishops. I, in my black Geneva gown, and they splendidly arrayed in copes and mitres. I felt a crow among peacocks. My wife Martha took communion from Andrew’s hand. She was nine months pregnant, my daughter Rebecca arriving a few days later. It was just thirty years ago in April and Rebecca herself is now an ordained minister.

Andrew was my model of a faithful parish minister, hardworking, diligent, prayerful, and loving. He brought those habits and qualities to his episcopacy. For years we would meet to have lunch in Springfield (at the Student Prince) or in Lee (at the Morgan House.) We talked theology and ministry and shared personal joys and challenges. Since we weren’t in the same franchise he could be more priest and confessor to me than my own leaders.

He was one of the first people to tell me about P.T. Forsyth, for which I am most grateful. He claimed he wasn’t a scholar, just a good reader and he loved to read (and buy) books. He once joked, “of the buying of books there is no end.”

When I had to leave my pastorate for health reasons ten years ago he came to my goodbye service and spoke at the dinner.

Last week my friend and colleague Jane Dunning sent me the news that Andrew had died, and I called her and asked if it was OK for me to vest and process. She said, “Of course.”

So I did. I vested on Monday and processed with the clergy, and I am especially glad I did, because I think I may have been the only one in the procession who wasn’t an Episcopalian. That sense of what Forsyth called the “Great Church” was so important to Andrew, and an essential part of his belief in the life we share in Jesus Christ.

Before we entered the cathedral Bishop Fisher had a prayer with us. He prefaced it by asking us all to speak one word that came to mind about Andrew. Mine was “kind.”

I could have added many others. One is “humble.” He and I once drove to Hartford to hear N.T. Wright, with whom I studied briefly at Oxford years before. After the seminar I wanted to introduce him to Tom Wright, but he demurred.

Another time we were together at an ecumenical banquet for the judicatory heads from Massachusetts, an annual event for the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity (MCCU.) I was the United Church of Christ’s representative. We wanted to sit together and he led me to the far end of the table. He looked around at all the clerical dignitaries and said, sotto voce, “When you are invited to a feast, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.” (from Luke 12) He smiled that twinkly smile.

Andrew always wrote these encouraging notes in his fine handwriting. I have a bunch of them which I treasure. Rebecca got one last year at her ordination. His fine hand was still the same.

I am blessed to have many dear friends, but Andrew’s death leaves a certain hole in my life, for he was such an extraordinary person and so good at being a friend. He had such a steady faith that I would dishonor him by only grieving, for he believed, as I do, that “we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.”

So I give thanks to God that he was my friend. I give thanks for him. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.