“St. Charles, Missouri? Where is that?”
A letter came from the search committee at St. John United Church of Christ exploring my interest in interviewing for the position of Associate Minister/Minister of Education. St. Charles is across the Missouri River from St. Louis, sitting on a bluff overlooking the river and the city of St. Louis. It is an old town, a river town, a conservative town. St. John UCC is an old church, an established church, a conservative church. It had a sizable congregation, for those days, of about 750 members, and a cathedral-size sanctuary and education building with a second facility of near equal size housing a large fellowship hall and a full size gym with a basketball court, separated by a large parking lot. The buildings are of brick and brownstone.
I was charmed and over-whelmed by all of this history and the over-sized institutional trappings that confronted me when the search committee flew me to St. Louis for the interview in late summer of 1971. Apparently my having closed a church on my first full-time pastorate was not counted against me, and I did receive good recommendations from my denominational executives. I received a call to begin in the fall and to my surprise and my wife’s delight, the salary package was twice what we had been getting, a whopping $9,500 plus housing and car allowance. We packed our belongings into a U-haul truck, said goodbye to Lincoln, and moved into a rented house a few blocks from the church. I began my new job, responsible for the church’s education program and youth programs, with the ’71 school year. I was full of renewed hope and enthusiasm.
The senior pastor, Don Burkhalter, was a gentle soul, a good pastor who had been there nearly a decade, had run out of things to say, and did not want anyone rocking the boat. His wife, Mary Lou, the children’s and youth choirs director, was a creative musician but had a bit of an abrasive style infused with a perfectionist temperament. I had more interaction with Mary Lou than with Don, because both of our kids were in the children’s choir, and a lot of the junior and senior high kids I worked with were in the youth choirs. Stories of Mary Lou’s blow-ups abounded, and I witnessed a few of what could be described as tantrums at practice sessions. But Mary Lou wanted so desperately for the kids to perform well, and for the most part they did, that she was given a pass on her issues. I then became a buffer between Mary Lou and the kids. But we were both creative in our own ways, so somehow it worked and the youth program flourished. I was co-opted by Mary Lou on one occasion to accompany the senior high choir on a bus tour across Missouri performing “Jesus Christ, Superstar” and Beatles songs, which were pretty much “out there” among church audiences in those days. But the kids came through and received accolades which made Mary Lou ecstatic and my life a little easier.
Confirmation Class: St. John UCC--1972
Life was good. The job was good. People were good. This lasted a whole year. Then things began to change—again.