Kearney, Nebraska. Well, it was not quite living on the prairie, but it was in the middle of the state, if you ignore the panhandle, on the way to North Platte, Ogallala, and finally Denver. Situated on the Platte River, which meandered across the width of Nebraska, until it joined the Missouri just south of Omaha. The locals, cattlemen and farmers, coined the phrase for the Platte: “too thin to run; too thick to plow.” Kearney was a cattle-town and a college town with salt-of-the-earth people and a few intellectuals imported to teach the kids the ways of the world. The town was next to Interstate 80, following the old U.S. route 30; before that it was Fort Kearney, a trading post and stopping point for Wells Fargo Stagecoach Line and the Pony Express.
First Christian Church of Kearney, a congregation of the denomination that ordained me, had just fired their pastor in the wake of one of those “church scandals”: Minister runs off with a) church secretary; b) organist; c) choir director; d) other. Half the congregation had left the church. They needed an interim pastor to help them heal and hopefully recover some of the “lost sheep.” I was wrapping up my 3 months at my former parish at Trinity in Lincoln. That church building was being sold to a family which was going to convert it into their home. I was available and, hey, I was an expert at taking on troubled congregations. So while circulating my ministerial portfolio around the country, awaiting my next career challenge, I accepted First Christian’s invitation. My family was able to remain in our Lincoln home until we found another place to serve. So I moved to Kearney into a small house rented and furnished by the church.
This was, I discovered, a time of healing not only for the congregation, but for me. I remembered the advice of my home church pastor in Minneapolis, Forrest Richeson, my mentor and father figure: “Preach good sermons and love the people and you’ll do well.” Old school for sure but wisdom nonetheless. The five or six months at Kearney were an oasis in my desert. I tried to preach good sermons. I visited church members who were still involved and those who had left, some with bitterness. I started small group sessions for people to share their joy and pain and begin to heal. I organized the annual pledging campaign which turned out to be a huge success because it was a part of the healing process. My nights were spent alone since my family was half-way across Nebraska. But I discovered that being alone on the prairie was a necessary part of my own healing. Kearney had one drive-in theatre. I saw every B movie that came to town that summer.
When I left Kearney First Christian they had just called a pastor and I was able to leave him a much healthier situation than when I arrived. The search committee had approached me with the proposal that I consider staying on as their pastor. I thanked them for the compliment but could not in good conscience accept. I had only come as an interim. I had learned my lesson. The Trinity experience was enough to teach me that going against good advice and my better judgment should not become a habit.
I was a good interim facilitator, not a savior. What next?