Published November 29th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
To start, two quick stories:
1. Two days before the Rev. Rob Carr was to start his first job as a full-time pastor, he got a call from one of that Wyandotte County church’s leaders.
“I know Sunday is your first day,” the caller said. “But one of our members has shot himself in the stomach and his family is waiting for you in Providence Hospital in the emergency room.”
So Carr, fresh out of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, went to Providence and ministered to a family experiencing an attempted suicide. (The man survived, never again tried to kill himself and became friends with Carr.)
2. Rabbi Mark Levin, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, once was called to counsel an elderly woman who had lost her will to live.
“She kept saying, ‘I want to die. There is no purpose to my life,’ ” Levin said.
But he helped her understand that just being alive — just inhaling and exhaling air in the same room with her family — made that family happy and gave her life meaning.
“She lived for another year and a half and she wanted to live,” Levin said. “She was happy being alive and found meaning in her life. She’d say, ‘I don’t know why I’m happy being alive but I am.’ ”
As clergy retire, they finally have time to look back over their years in ministry to assess what went right, what went wrong and what they ran into that they never expected. When I was the Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, I did a series of articles I called “Conversations with Clergy” to give readers an inside feel for the work of the clergy. But I never focused on clergy who were reviewing their careers from retirement. I’m fixing that with this column.
Carr retired just last Sunday after 21 years as pastor of North Oak Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in a career of almost four decades. Levin retired from Beth Torah six years ago and spent the first six months of retirement writing a book called “Praying the Bible.”
Both had successful careers by almost any measure, but the road wasn’t always smooth.
“People’s real spirituality,” Levin said, “is very deep, very hidden. It often takes a lot to get to it. They have deeply held emotional feelings about the meaning of their lives and how they pursue that. You can really be helpful with that through being a minister, a rabbi. But it takes a lot to get to it. It’s very labor intensive. It’s not difficult in the sense of hard work, it’s difficult in the sense of getting the person in a position of trust to tell you their story. And that’s been wonderful. That’s been an enormous pleasure and given my life meaning.”
Carr said that when he first sensed a call to ministry at age 16, “my visceral response to that thought entering my head was ‘No way. That is a frightening prospect.’ The trouble I had at the time was funerals and death and to some extent hospitals. All that was scary to me. It turns out that those have been some of the best pieces of ministry. So God had the last laugh there.”
In fact, when Carr was in seminary, he and some classmates were required to organize some kind of worship service to present to a class. Carr’s group chose a funeral of someone who had died by suicide, largely because one of Carr’s sisters had killed herself at age 26, and “it turned out that I had not grieved her. I did not know it, but I hadn’t. So I said, ‘Let’s do a suicide service for my sister. And why don’t I do the eulogy?’ That’s how I came face to face — theologically and emotionally — with death. So somehow I was ready to go to Providence Hospital on that Friday night (before starting his first full-time pastorate).”
Levin is most proud of his work leading the creation of Beth Torah, but he recognizes that he was on a learning curve.
“The value of presence was something I had to learn,” he said. “I thought in terms of utility and being of service. It took me a while to learn how to speak, to give sermons, to write eulogies. I feel bad for the people who died in the first five years I was around.”
In his retirement ponderings, Levin has concluded that “one of the problems with religion is that we’ve managed to organize it in a way that it’s not meaningful to a great many people. We’ve done pretty well with corporate religion but not very well in applying it to people’s individual lives.” And yet he adds this: “I had some significant pastoral interventions that I’m proud of. People came to me and said, ‘What do I do?’ and we worked through it.”
For Carr, what brings him joy looking back, especially at his time at North Oak, is that “the most important piece of ministry that I lived out or with which I gifted the congregation was the sense of the centrality of prayer (especially contemplative prayer and silence). If you were to ask anyone in the congregation, they would also say that Rob equals prayer. Fortunately, this was a congregation that was ready for me to teach that and to attempt to embody that in my work and presence with them. I came to North Oak just as my interest in prayer and contemplative spirituality was in full bloom. Fortunately, providentially, this group was open and ready for that.
“I had not been much of a pray-er prior to my time (in seminary). But I kept following the breadcrumbs to Christian mystics. All of that had equipped me and it led me to all kinds of rich and new understandings of the church and church leadership. All of that was blooming in my heart when I came to North Oak.”
Both Levin and Carr have a few regrets. Carr wishes he’d learned more about how to use technology in ministry. Levin says this: “I hurt some people’s feelings. I wish I had better judgment in those cases, whether I was right or wrong. Also, I considered myself to be a teacher, but I regret I didn’t study in more depth. I feel as though I could have gotten more into people’s lives and brought the depths of Judaism to their lives in a more personal way.”
Carr plans “to chill out” until the new year and then, with his wife Kathy, spend more time with children and grandchildren in Iowa and Minnesota. He also will continue to lead centering prayer seminars.
Levin still does a little teaching and counseling, leads a few funerals, enjoys photography as a hobby and recently has become fascinated with 14th and 15th Century illustrated Catalonian haggadahs (prayer books used at Seder meals).
Neither man said it quite this way, but it’s clear they hope that while current clergy members are still active they will think about what they may regret doing or not doing and what they’ll be most proud of when they retire. That reflection might be good not just for clergy but also for their flocks.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at email@example.com.