Guiding the Ark and Fighting the Woodpeckers

Long time pal Phil is retiring. I write, inviting him to join me in forming a senior step ball team. We were champs in seminary -- in the game where the batter throws a tennis ball against the Alexander Hall steps at Princeton and the fielders have to catch it before it bounces.

I’m sure he and I can dominate the Sun City crowd. Trouble is, he replies, he has just had rotator cuff surgery. There goes his curve!

I didn’t really expect him to take up my offer; ’cause I know in retirement he isn’t going to do much hangin’ around. He’s a true son of Calvin and loves the feeling of nose on grindstone. He’s been a church bureaucrat most of his ministry. Most of those folks are workaholics like Phil. I’m never sure whether it’s a chicken or an egg kind of thing — do the jobs make one a workaholic or do workaholics seek out the jobs?

Phil is one of the smartest, most sensitive, creative and pastoral folks I have ever known. He’s been a crackerjack pastor in several churches, but he tends to gravitate to the administrative jobs, first with the Board of National Missions working in the South, then as a presbytery exec in Montana and finally as synod exec on the West Coast.

I remember how tickled I was when he and Betty Jean moved into Terra Linda some 15 years ago when he took the synod job. Boy, I thought, my old pal is now practically next door. I looked forward to golfing together, going to ball games, movies and stuff. But that ain’t Phil. He doesn’t take days off. There is always some meeting he has to attend or some trip he must take or some place or people that need his presence. And even in his free time he is ultra organized as Joan often points out to her messy husband, as we walk through his garage where everything is neat and clean and put away. Phil isn’t much for goofin’ off.

Yet he’s not a drudge. He’s a person who knows how to have fun and to play, and is a joy to be around. It’s just that he does most of this in and around his service to the church, not in his free time. And most of all he is a person of great integrity and insight. If Phil is involved I feel confident the best will happen.

Through the years I’ve known a number of folk like Phil serving the church in presbytery or synod or G.A. offices and a lot of them have meant a great deal to my growth and my soul. I honor their contribution to my life — folks like Walton, Bill, Bob, Maggie, Don and Ed — the list goes on and on. Many of the folk in our bureaucratic offices are our brightest and best!

The other day I got one of those Internet jokes that have to do with lessons to be learned from Noah’s Ark. One of them caught my attention: The woodpeckers inside the ark are more dangerous than the storm outside.

Through the years I’ve seen how much time Phil has had to spend dealing with the woodpeckers and the damage they do. We ask our brightest and best folks like him to help guide this great ship, which is the church, through the stormy seas of our time and then we treat them like dirt. From time to time I get this paper from the church I don’t attend and there is always a flier inside that says in effect send us a bunch more money so we can buy more woodpeckers to hassle the folks in Louisville.

I don’t know why we enjoy hassling Phil and his ilk. I’m glad he’s retiring and doesn’t have to fight those woodpeckers full time. But I doubt if he’ll go for Elysian fields and I know that already he has agreed to serve here and there and so on. ‘Cause he knows many of the possibilities of our Presbyterian Ark and believes in our mission and is good at caging the woodpeckers.

I just hope that now and then, he and I can get together to play step ball.


DAVID STEELE is “a parson on the loose,” from Sun City, AZ, who writes a regular column, “Tuesday Morning,” for The Outlook.