Across the UCC
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
March 2003


Retired UCC pastors continue to minister to others

They say bad habits are hard to break. But what about the habit of doing good? Today, there are 2,847 retired UCC clergy. They've spent decades doing God's work, caring for church members, putting the needs of others before their own. Across the UCC, retired clergy are finding new ways of caring, teaching and loving—past age 65.

Ships docking at ports on the east coast come from many countries, including Peru, the Bahamas, the Philippines and Russia. The crews sometimes have not set foot on solid land for three months. Many of the men working on the ships are away from their families for nine to 12 months at a time.

As part of the Seafarer's Friend program, the Rev. Don Jennings (in plaid shirt) visits the crew of the Swan, a vessel flying a Cyprus flag and whose crew are Greek, Polish, Romanian and Filipino. Rev. Douglas W. Johnson photo.
Seafarer's Friend, a UCC-affiliated ministry, is there to welcome these ship workers at the ports of Portsmouth, N.H., Boston and Portland, Maine. Retired pastors like UCC Seafarminister the Rev. Don Jennings and his wife, Bertie, are often the first people the crews see when they dock in the United States.

Armed with scripture, magazines and sometimes rosaries for the Roman Catholic ship workers, the two go aboard to offer welcome, prayer and an invitation to the Seafarer's Friend visitor's center, where fresh clothes, phone and Internet access, and other resources await them. Local churches and community organizations donate knitted caps, clothing and toiletry items. The visitor center owns a van, and Don Jennings often drives crews to a nearby mall for some shopping.

Jennings said this was a ministry he didn't think he'd be interested in, until a friend invited him to come along on a ship visit. Bertie accompanied him, and the rest is history—the two have been faithful volunteers in ship visiting for three years.

Someone once asked Bertie Jennings, "Aren't you afraid?" She laughs at the thought. "They're such very nice people, very hospitable," she says. "They want us to have lunch, or coffee. They can't seem to do enough for us."

Don Jennings says that there are stereotypes about seafarers, and he considers telling their stories a big part of his ministry. "Most [of the seafarminister ers] are doing this as a sacrifice for their families. They just cannot support them at home," he explains. "Many are supporting extended family. In order for them to do that, they have to be away."

With impending war in the Middle East and threats of terrorism, security has been tightened and crews are often detained. "It's such a disappointment for them not to be able to come to shore," Don Jennings says. "Some of them have longed for years to come to America."

Don and Bertie Jennings come aboard with cell phones and international phone cards, so that the workers can at least let their families know they are safe. "It's especially important now to be as hospitable as we can," he says.

Pension Boards program assists, advocates for retired UCC ministers

Who pastors the retired pastors? "Annuitant Visitors," a nationwide program administered by the Rev. Don Stumpf, Director of Ministerial Assistance at the Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ in New York City, tries to fill the gap for retired clergy needing pastoral care.

Annuitant Visitors, often themselves retired clergy, are in charge of visiting retirees and their spouses each year, or as often as needed. Working cooperatively with Conferences and Associations, the Visitors check for retirees needing pastoral care, or needing answers to questions about pension, health or life insurance, or longterm nursing care or retirement homes. They also visit those on long-term disability and some retired lay members.

Stumpf says the pastoral care element of the Annuitant Visitor program is meant to assure ministers that their work is not forgotten. Visitors make sure that ties with the denomination remain strong by seeing to it that retirees are getting their United Church News, Calendar of Prayer and newsletters from their conferences.

The Rev. Carl K. Marks of Orchard Park, N.Y., has been an Annuitant Visitor for seven years, and visits 42 clergy yearly. Last fall he was a speaker at the annual training seminar for annuitant visitors.

"When I first started, somebody said, ÔIt must be a drag, going around visiting all the old people who are sick and so forth,'" says Marks with a laugh. "It is far from being a drag! Sometimes it's challenging when somebody needs assistance. But I'm in a position to make arrangements to change the situation. And sometimes it's just outright thrilling. I think it's as important a ministry as any other I've been involved in in my 55 years in the ministry."

The Rev. Yoshikuni Kaneda, Annuitant Visitor for the San Diego area, feels spiritually fed by the program. "We laugh together," Kaneda says. "It's mutually uplifting. I enjoy reestablishing connections with the UCC church family." He jokes that the toughest part of the job is actually making the appointments. "Some of the people are not at home," he says. "They are retired, but they are hopping around, or meeting their relatives."

Marks, like many Annuitant Visitors, arranges an occasional meeting of a group of retired clergy from the vicinity to gather for fellowship. While it gives him a chance to meet one-on-one with retirees, it also gives them all a chance to reconnect with colleagues, or forge new friendships.

Last year, Marks was able to help a retired UCC pastor and his wife who were struggling financially and were working jobs that made physical demands on their dwindling health. The couple had opted out of social security at a time when health problems demanded extra cash. And the small congregations they had served left them with no income from a pension fund.

Marks made some calls and arranged for some financial assistance. "You are an angel," the retiree told Marks later. "My wife doesn't have to work anymore. You do the Lord's work."

At other times, all that Marks provided was a hand to hold, but the ministry was just as important. Marks called the widow of a retired UCC pastor and discovered that she was in hospice, suffering from terminal cancer.

"May I come visit you?" asked Marks.

The response on the other end of the phone broke Marks' heart: "Do you think it's worth it?"

Marks went to visit the woman right away. They sat and cried together. Two weeks later, Marks received word that the woman died.

"It's not always fun, but it's a ministry," says Marks. "You know you've been supportive and helpful to somebody."

Gifts of Ôhonorary ministers' contribute to life of the church

First Congregational UCC of Falmouth, Mass., has successfully found a way to integrate the many retired pastors on Cape Cod into the ministry of the church.

Shortly after the Rev. Doug Showalter began his tenure in Falmouth 16 years ago, he realized that the rapid growth of the church and the amount of weddings each year required extra help. Utilizing the years of experience of several retired pastors who call First Congregational home, Showalter began a program that continues today: honorary ministers.

The honorary ministers are named by Showalter and the Rev. Nan Geertz, associate pastor, and honored in a special service with the presentation of stoles. Showalter says it's the smartest thing he's ever done.

The honorary ministers assist in Bible study, singles ministry, visitation, a retired men's group, and a lay communion ministry, in addition to weddings and funerals.

Showalter notes that retired pastors are busy folks, and this allows them the freedom to minister without being tied down.

"They travel a lot," says Showalter. "It's not like there's a core just waiting to do something. You catch them as you can."

Currently, there are four honorary ministers at First Congregational, including retired UCC pastors the Rev. H. Alfred Allenby and the Rev. Robert Singer. The Rev. Allan Page, a retired ELCA minister, and the Rev. Donald Nepstad, a Presbyterian minister, round out the group.

Allenby was ordained in First Congregational in 1951 and his father was once the minister there. Now back in his home church, Allenby has the opportunity of seeing things come full circle.

"I enjoy when, from time to time, a couple whose marriage I officiated at comes back to have their child baptized," says Allenby.

Singer is happy with the arrangement, too. Since his retirement in 1994, Singer has embraced the chance to travel abroad. But he always returns home to his first love.

"I enjoy church ministry," he says. "I don't want to leave it entirely." Singer admits that his honorary ministering keeps him connected to the local church. "In that connection there's a status that transmits when people find out you're a minister in the church. It gives you credibility—you're not just passing through."

"It sets them in a position where they get satisfaction, recognition and they're part of a system," says Showalter. "They have the opportunity to keep their hand in the ministry, so to speak, and it allows me to spend more time focusing on other things I need to do in the church."