Written by the Rev. John H. Thomas
June 27, 2009
General Synod 27
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I must begin with gratitude, with thankfulness to God and to you for the opportunity to serve as General Minister and President for these past ten years. The words tonight, and your reception, are very generous, perhaps overly so. Let me express special gratitude to my family, most of whom are with me tonight. To Lynda who has borne much of the cost of this ministry while tending to our sons and to her own professional career. To Andrew and David who have journeyed successfully into adulthood during these years and of whom we are both very proud. To my brother, Dick and his wife Anne who are attending this Synod and no doubt enduring numerous “twin” comments. To my sister Louise and her husband Richard, especially as she provided the primary care and companionship for my mother in the last eight years of her life when it was difficult for me to be as attentive and present as I would have liked and perhaps should have been. The demands and distractions of this role have not always been easy for them and I would be less than honest if I didn't acknowledge that I regret some of the ways I have allowed my work to diminish their lives.
So I am also grateful to you for your support of us and for the opportunities you have afforded me which have, in turn, been both intended and unintended gifts to them - for Pilgrim Church in Cleveland that has been a wonderful church home and a community for Lynda during my many absences. For enabling me to share in a pastoral letter on faith and science, and in so doing honor both my brother and my father for their lives as scientists and as people of faith. For rallying around us during David's deployment last year in Afghanistan, and for military chaplains and others who helped interpret those rather alien experiences for us. And, not the least, for giving my mother a huge thrill when she saw her TV idol, Peter Jennings, interview me during the controversy over our Stillspeaking commercials.
Tonight is not the night to dwell on disappointments, but I do want to acknowledge that there are many ways in which reach exceeded grasp, hopes were not fulfilled, and challenges not met. We are a smaller church than we were ten years ago. Our national staff has shrunk with all the attendant pain that entails. We have said farewell to one of our Conferences. We are moving in painfully slow ways to acknowledge and claim a new fund raising environment with all of its challenge and opportunity. We are closing more churches than we are opening or welcoming. The ecumenical vision which has been my passion continues, but the organizations embodying that vision are more fragile than ever. Much about our institutional life feels very vulnerable, and efforts to address those urgent concerns still meet denial and resistance. You have been gracious not to lay the burden or the blame for this on me alone, and I have resisted doing that to myself as well. But I do worry about our future, and I lament that we are not where I thought we would be when I began ten years ago.
Yet, even as I worry, I marvel at the creativity of so many of you, and celebrate the fact that over these ten years we have come to a much sharper sense of who we are and who God wants us to be, and I hope we can grow even more bold in sharing that distinctive vocation within the broader Christian witness in our culture. I am grateful to have served a church willing to take risks, and for a community of faith that takes God seriously enough not to take itself too seriously. And I am confident that as we grapple with the urgencies to which Steve and Geoffrey gave such eloquent testimony yesterday, we will not lose hope.
This ministry is never done alone. I have had wonderful colleagues, some of whom are on stage tonight - Edith, Steve, Cally, Linda - along with my own staff who have been gifts in ways too numerous to name. The leaders of our Conferences, our Seminaries, our Health and Welfare Institutions, our Colleges, and the pastors and lay leaders of our congregations have welcomed me with affection and have worked with me faithfully. Ecumenical and global colleagues have been dear friends and inspiring teachers. Yes, there is much reason for gratitude.
Ben Herbster's very dignified portrait hangs outside my office. I worry that one day my picture with SpongeBob will be next to his and that he won't be entirely pleased! His portrait, and the glimpse of Joe Evans last night, is a reminder of the rich legacy I had the privilege of receiving, which I now prepare to hand over to another. Ben, Bob, Joe, Avery, and Paul have been a wonderful cloud of witnesses for me. One of the privileges of serving in this office is to wear a stole first worn by Bob Moss. It bears his initials and teaches me that this ministry, like any ministry, belongs not to me, but to the church. I have tried to wear my office, like this stole, with gratitude for those who have gone before me and in such a way that it honors their generation of leaders. Tonight I return it to my colleagues with the request and expectation that they will then give it to Geoffrey. With it goes the pledge of my encouragement, the promise of my prayers and the assurance of my friendship. Thank you.