1967—teaching assignment at Cotner over as of June. My ministerial portfolio was being circulated far and wide. I was interviewed by a couple of small town churches in Iowa and Wisconsin. Though I received a few letters of interest, nothing seemed to be “clicking.” Academia was no longer a viable option. Then two offers came at the same time, and both were right there in Lincoln. We liked Lincoln. We had made lots of friends there. Our kids were doing well. Both job offers, however, were uncertain as possibilities for long-term employment.
The first offer was with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” as a community organizer. The second was from a local congregation on the southern edge of the city—Trinity United Church of Christ. I was conflicted for more than one reason. I was in conflict over staying with the Church and especially a career within an institution with which I had a love/hate relationship. To use an image from the Old Testament prophets “The Church was a prostitute, but the Church was my mother.” Or should I choose to act out my passion for social justice and get paid by the government. I was wavering and waffling.
But I had been preaching at Trinity Church for a couple of months on an ad interim basis. So when they offered me a full time permanent position at nearly twice what I had been making, $5500 annual salary plus housing and a car allowance, after consulting with my family it was hard to turn down. I accepted the call at the end of the summer of ’67 and moved into the house owned by the congregation, a three-bedroom ranch-style on a corner lot. Members of the church held a work day and together we painted the entire inside. Then on moving day they came to help us move in. It was the perfect job. My own little parish church. My own little flock of about 100 families to feed, while feeding my own not-so-little ego.
Not satisfied with being a good preacher and pastor, I tried to lead the congregation toward being “relevant” to the times, to be a servant of God in the unjust world. The founding pastor of the congregation had left three years before to be the first “Night Minister of San Francisco.” His parish was the Tenderloin District; he was pastor to the prostitutes and pimps, the down-and-outers and drug dealers. So I got this bright idea that Lincoln needed a ministry to its night life and organized a group of young ministers to take turns, one night each, to visit the taverns and clubs in town. We connected with the local police department and accompanied officers in squad card. We wore clerical collars so as to be easily identified. The only hitch with that was no matter where we went we were known as “Father.” “Let me buy the father a drink” was a common mantra and we would often have a line-up of beverages in front of us wherever we sat. The biggest problem with my little project turned out to be of a sociological nature. Lincoln is not San Francisco. The night life just did not quite measure up in terms of dire need for a ministry. The Lincoln Night Ministry lasted less than 3 months.
Trinity UCC was a small congregation whose roots were in the Evangelical Church of North America, which in turn came out of the German Lutheran tradition. It was one of the first new-start congregations after the merger in 1957 of the Congregational-Christian and Evangelical and Reformed denominations. So you had this weird amalgam of Lutheran, Calvinist, New England Congregationalism, and Baptist traditions forming one new body, the proverbial camel that looked like it had been created by committee. Trinity had retained some of the old conservatism of its parents, but since it was a young congregation attracted a number of families from the neighborhood, which was as close to a suburb as a “cow-town” on the edge of the prairie might be expected to have. It is amazing to me now that they put up with me as long as they did. Yet some of my best friendships and memories were formed during the four years I spent as pastor there.
My 1st Confirmation Class
In many ways the people themselves were open and caring, willing to allow me to try new things. For example, during the 1968 presidential election campaign, following assassinations and Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term, I was approached by Eugene McCarthy’s campaign, the infamous “Children’s Crusade,” to allow campaign volunteers to use our church building as a headquarters for two weeks, sleeping, eating, using phones, etc. I approached the church council and their only question was “Has any other campaign asked to use the building?” When I said “No” they gave immediate and unanimous approval. So Trinity was the only congregation in Lincoln that housed about 50 volunteers for two-weeks during that historic and turbulent campaign.
The patience of the congregation was stretched to the limit, however, when theological issues came to a head and 2 disparate images of the church’s mission collided. That will be told in the next couple of chapters.