Introduction as written by long-time friend and clergy colleague, Dan Duncan
“Chris honors me with the invitation to write an overview of his pastoral career, on the event of his retirement from Traverse City Central UMC. Since he has previously requested that I give a eulogy at his funeral, this is a trial run, in a focused way, for that project. I just have to outlive him. “
Call and Formation
Author W.H. Auden was once asked during a college presentation how to make decisions. He said, “We only have three or maybe four big decisions to make in life: what will be our life’s work; shall we have a life partner or not, and if so, with whom; where we will live. And the reality is that we often do not know when we are making those.”
Chris noticed in high school that he was often asked for advice by friends about personal questions and struggles, often about relationships. He was seen as someone who could keep confidences, as well as someone who was perceptive about surviving teen angst. Here he wondered “Is this something I need to pay attention to, that people come to me?” It could be that he honed these abilities as the middle of five sons in a family experiencing a divorce, in which he intuitively learned to be a mediator, as he experienced his parents navigate the challenges of remaining civil even as their relationship changed dramatically.
Chris originally saw himself as a teacher or youth pastor. Active in his local U.M. church in Knoxville, Tennessee, his pastor was a Boston University alum (a U.M.-affiliated school and also home to one of our thirteen U.M. seminaries) who also saw the pastoral potential in Chris, and encouraged him to “dream big.” As a freshman in college, a local pastor invited Chris to shadow him in a number of pastoral roles such as home visitation, preaching, and end-of-life care. The variety of tasks, emotional depth, and spiritual significance of this time alerted Chris to how his interests and abilities intersected with God’s movement in the world, which is one definition of vocation.
Chris was drawn to study theater and drama, as well as theology, taking those degrees from Scarritt College, including some classes at Vanderbilt University and Fisk University, an historically Black college. Boston University School of Theology was where Chris took his academic pastoral education, influenced by his aforementioned mentor, and also the value of experiencing a different region of the country. His first, and brief marriage ended as a result of this chapter, largely because his spouse did not want to be in the role that Chris’ would entail for her, highlighting just one of the many ways that we often do not choose between good and evil, but between one good and another good, between one commitment and another. It was at seminary that Chris then met Jane Lippert, another ministerial student, who remains his beloved life partner.
Chris graduated with his Master of Divinity a year before Jane did, so he worked as a social worker in the “Southie” area of Boston, where he developed an understanding of the power of listening deeply as a key part of helping another.
A year of Clinical Pastoral Education followed graduation, taking place in the Pacific northwest. CPE is a required first step for those pursuing an institutional/clinical ministry, typically in a specialized setting. It is also excellent training for local church pastors. Chris’ setting turned out to be working with incarcerated sex offenders, in which he learned that “sin and addiction run deep, yet redemption and self-knowledge is possible for all of us.” He also learned to look beyond how people become labeled, even if the label is not wrong, to see the deeper and common humanity of all. Chris became a trusted partner in multi-disciplinary treatment teams when clinicians recognized that he understood that faith has a role in healing, along with the role that other disciplines play.
Local Church Pastoral Leadership
Chris and Jane explored remaining in the Pacific northwest to begin their pastoral ministry, but no openings were available at that time. Jane’s connection with the West Michigan Annual Conference through her home church of Manistee led to their arrival here in 1986.
Chris’ appointment was to three churches, which had four names as the result of a prior merger: Winn/Coomer/Blanchard & Pine River. Located in the rural central part of lower Michigan, this was a very different environment than Boston or Portland. It also meant driving from one church to another on Sunday morning just in time to lead yet another service. One Sunday Chris left his eyeglasses on the pulpit, and a little girl exclaimed on finding them: “Look mom, the creature left his glasses here!” Farm fields surrounded all the churches, which were full of people who knew how to grow and hunt their own food and repair just about anything. While meeting in the old fieldstone basement with some of the matriarchs who ran the smallest of these churches (Coomer) Chris noticed some small brown thing wriggle under a door. He’s convinced that the women in the room were evaluating him on the spot based on how effective he was at trapping a bat and removing it. That church celebrated their centennial during Chris’ four years there, with special guest Bishop Judith Craig.
As if this was not enough, Chris also served as the District Youth Coordinator during this time. These churches were able to welcome Chris and Jane’s first child, Hannah, who was the first child born in that parsonage in a long time.
Crestwood UMC, a neighborhood church in a medium-sized city (Muskegon) came next. For five years Chris had just one congregation to keep track of, a hundred-yard walk across the parking lot from the parsonage. Though the congregation was located in an integrated neighborhood, it was largely white with some in leadership happy to keep it that way. Chris worked to encourage more openness toward all their neighbors. Daughter Rachel was born in this parsonage. During this time Chris got into some “good trouble” participating in a demonstration against nuclear weapons at Wurtsmith Air Force base, along with other faith leaders, motivated by the Biblical understanding that the missiles were aimed at “people for whom Christ died.”
The next appointment would be to a new church start, in the affluent suburbs of Grand Rapids, and would be the first time that Chris and Jane would serve in the same church as a pastoral team. Having complementary skill sets was helpful for the church but not without some stress since they each had to live with their work partner. Their twelve-year stint at what would become Genesis UMC saw them begin the way new churches do: with no congregation, no traditions, and temporary start-up support from the Conference. This is the classic definition of an emergency: where many things have to happen and they all have to happen first. They began with a house that served as their home, and also as a playspace for children in the basement, as well as their offices and space for small group meetings. Chris reports that “it was the hardest and most fulfilling appointment because we went from nothing to something.”
They worked to establish a church culture of welcoming people who had dropped out of or were disillusioned with church, and were one of the first U.M. churches clearly welcoming LGBT people. Seeing ministry as part of a thriving civic life they adopted an elementary school in the city of Grand Rapids and nurtured a partnership with an African-American congregation as a result of an anti-racism study that included sharing worship and cookouts together. Chris and Jane left Genesis as a vibrant and unique congregation with a modern and tasteful building.
The next appointment served as a bridge between Genesis and Traverse City due to the complexities of finding suitable places for each member of a clergy couple. For two years Chris served the two small town churches in Martin and Shelbyville, in a county identified at that time as the “meth capital of the state.” Both churches were committed to serving “hard living” people, with each hosting a food pantry and Martin hosting a Saturday evening service called “Rock at 5 O’Clock” featuring hard rock music, a simple message, and a shared meal.
Which brings us to his longest-lasting appointment of 14 years with you at Traverse City Central! Their youngest daughter Rachel was preparing for her senior year of high school that summer and they gave her the choice of deciding whether to leave all of her friends for that final year, or remain in the Grand Rapids area. The answer, as you know, was “yes,” which is why we’re celebrating Chris’ retirement here instead of somewhere else!
Chris’ experience and passions fit well with Central’s desire to launch an alternative worship experience called “The Well,” which has become an important part of the worship life here. Chris provided leadership and direction in many other dimensions of ministry here, and appreciated long-time lead pastor Dale’s generous colleagueship, and now Pastor Linda’s.
Together they helped Central continue to grow into the intentionally welcoming congregation of all people which returning guests have cited as a prime attraction point. These last two years of stepping into the lead pastor role were unsought by Chris and constituted another redefinition of pastoral role and identity.
Chris has been involved in ministry in our U.M. connection throughout his ministry, including 8 years on the Board of Ordained Ministry (preparing candidates to serve as clergy), the Michigan Area Episcopacy Committee (essentially the personnel committee for the bishop), the District Leadership Team, and close to 20 years of leading summer youth adventure camps.
It is probably good that Chris was not aware as he began a career like this that he would deliver approximately:
-perform over a 100 baptisms
-officiate at over 200 weddings
-preside at over 500 funerals
-confirm over 100 youth
-spend something approaching infinity in meetings…
None of this kind of quantitative accounting captures the winsome, genuine, caring manner in which Chris modeled a faithful Christ-breathed life, and helped enlarge the available reality of God’s presence for others to experience. May we say, as Jesus’ parable has it, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Ann Porter says
What an honor to have such a well written history with such a personal touch. Chris, you truly are a good and faithful servant.
Bob Blackmer says
Well done, Dan Duncan!
Zeke Fleet says
Wonderful profile of a wonderful man!
Christine Zimmer says
How wonderful to read such a thoughtful history of Chris’s professional life and his caring concern for others. The pictures showed us a young Chris and Jane growing together in leadership and faith which was fun to see. We wish him continuing wisdom and Grace in his exploration of retirement and a deepening understanding of his evolution as an elder.
Jane Lippert says
Brother Dan as always writes beautifully in this heartfelt tribute to Chris’ years of Christ-led ministry. Grateful to have walked beside Chris all these years and grateful for Dan’s presence in our lives.
Joan Post-Brown says
In reading Don’s biography, I was sure that Chris and Jane were a gift from God to our congregation. We have been so blessed to have them as our leaders in Christian Faith. Thank you for all of the wonderful gifts you have shared with us. Your job isn’t over because you are retiring, it is just a new beginning. I don’t like the fact that you are leaving, but know that you will be blessing to people everywhere. Thank you for your guidance and love!
Robbi Rogers says
What a rich and meaningful life of service! Thank you, Chris, for sharing your time, expertise, and commitment with us. Enjoy retirement and the changes it will bring!
KAT BROWN says
I am often filled with tears of gratitude to you Pastor Chris, for when I felt panicked and overwhelmed by all my overwhelming emotions of being scammed of all my savings….your loving voice and true compassion came through that phone and prayed with me. That was not only powerfully positive for me to re-set my faith and hope, but helped me know I can survive this!! And what is so unique about this was I had just joined the church this past November and this happened in January….you barely knew me but you were there for me when I felt so lost, alone and ashamed. Thank you does not express all my appreciation for you, perhaps a rainbow or a jar of moonbeams would be better…until I I have those to give…this sincere thank you 🙏 will have to do! What a gift you are to us all!
Jay Berger says
Love you Chris! What a great summary of where you’ve been. I’m excited for your next chapter! Go get ’em!
Muriel Peavler says
Such fun to read…..learning new things as well as reflecting on your years with us at CUMC. Thanks for the memories- and for working Mondays as a Senior Pastor- and for Kayaking with youth- and for many great sermons- and and and and and….
Bless you, Chris!
Bruce & Helen Wilson says
We are thankful to have been recipients of your ministry at Central. Your encouragement during family health challenges was geatly appreciated. You shepherded our congregation through a difficult transition as we reexamined who we are as Methodists and how Central will go forward in faith and inclusiveness. All the best in this next chapter of your life.
Elsie Randall says
What a masterful capturing of the essence and life of service of our dear Pastor Chris, and Pastor Jane, too. Even coming this late in our sharing, it is clear his many years of study, variety of churches and congregations served and his abundant personal talents have greatly enriched, benefited us all. Besides Chris’ wonderfully prepared and delivered sermons I have personally been grateful for his strong , true singing voice, a great asset in congregational singing. Much more could be said……
PHIL CALLIGHAN says
Proud to have been in a congregation led by Pastor Chris.
Doug Purdue says
I’m sad that I’ve come to the Pastor Chris Fan Club so late. But happy and blessed that I’ve met him at all. This summary of his life shows what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been at CUMC. He is a servant of Christ who truly lives Jesus’s command “Love one another”.
And he has awesome taste in snappy shirts….
Steven Terry says
As a LONG Time Former Traverse City Resident, I have known Pastor Chris for a Long Time. Sorry to see Him Retire. He, and the Pastoral Team have made Central United Methodist Church What it is!
Sorry to see You Retire. I now Live in the San Antonio Area, and Watch the Service online. Yes, it was Last October that I came to Traverse City, and I am Coming Again the First Two Weeks of June to say FARWEWELL.
I do NOT know because of Age, and Health when I can Return, but will be Watching Sunday Nights. Thanks for the Years of Memories!
Karen Anderson says
We have all been blessed by your presence, your caring, and your support. We will miss you but are confident that your best is yet to come! Thank you for all you have done and for being you! Blessings to you and Jane!