By DAVE PAXTON
Editor and Publisher
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, verse 11 reads, “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
Somehow that verse rings very true to Pastor Lynda Carlson as she prepares for a May 1 retirement after 23 years serving First Christian Church in Albia, while being locked away from her parishioners because of the cornonavirus pandemic. It is both an expectant time and a painful time.
It is not how the 66-year-old lady pastor wanted to leave Albia. She was looking forward to two farewells, one from her church, the other from a much broader community she has served. It was to have been with hugs and handshakes and words exchanged from six inches, not six feet.
The fact is, she’s really not sure when and how her retirement will work out. “I’m not comfortable at all leaving the church without a pastor while we’re apart,” she said from her office, a day before Good Friday. The original plan was to have a church farewell on April 19, a community farewell and final sermon on April 26 and a month of well-deserved vacation in May as she made her move to her retirement home in West Des Moines.
All of that is very much up in the air.
“It’s really crazy,” she said. “We had 10 baptisms planned for Palm Sunday and those were postponed. Maybe we can do it May 31. This was my last confirmation class.”
She is still preaching, even if it’s a livestream on the church website. “The first time I did it, it was a novelty,” she said. “I kept trying to make sure I was focused on the camera. It’s no longer a novelty. I don’t like it at all that I have no response. Even if it’s from a guy falling asleep in the back pew.”
Pastor Carlson has carved out a ministry of 23 years in Albia (38 in all) by doing the exact opposite of social distancing, whether it was one-on-one with members of her congregation, being involved intimately with the Albia Ministerial Association or being in the crowds at high school sporting events, at the King Opera House for fine arts productions or attending community celebrations.
She grew up on a farm in Alexis, Ill., the same farm a brother still works. She graduated from high school in 1972, went off to college at Western Illinois University studying to be a home economics teacher and fell into the grips of a
cult, “New Life Center International, Inc.”
It is a story that she has shared often over the course of her ministry, a story that likely has helped other young people from making the same mistake she did.
“I grew up regularly attending my parent’s Disciples of Christ Church, but wasn’t really happy with my spiritual life when I got to college,” she said. “Like a lot of people in the post Vietnam world, I was seeking and searching.”
She was introduced to a young man who invited her to a meeting led by a religious leader from New Zealand. A man who fashioned himself an apostle…on equal footing with the Apostle Paul.
She attended meetings for two years, then moved into a communal setting in Bloomington, Ill., attending their “Bible” school for two and a half years. Her parents finally had her kidnapped from the cult and deprogrammed. Still trying to find her footing in the non-cult world, she taught public school for two years in Pecatonica, Ill. “It took me a couple of years to lose the desire to go back into the cult,” she said.
Coming out the other side, she decided to enter seminary. “I didn’t have the idea of becoming a pastor in mind when I started,” she said. “I wanted to benefit from the instruction.” Then a funny thing happened on her way through seminary. She felt the call to become a pastor.
Disciples of Christ have been ordaining women since the 1880’s, but in the late 1970s it was still very much a novelty to have women pastors. She started her ministry at Wakonda Christian Church in Des Moines, then went to Pleasantville and Fairview. The Pleasantville church burned to the ground in March. “It broke my heart to see that,” she said.
From there she served as a chaplain in Lexington, Ky for four years, in the same city she attended seminary. Then she was called to become the first female pastor in the Albia First Christian Church history.
Some things about First Christian in Albia don’t change. It is a generational congregation with some of the relatives of the founders of the church still attending. The Mocks, the Ammons family, Reeds, Belzers, Stockers and others, great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and children have been part of Carlson’s flock. And it is something she loves.
“Having been able to do baptisms and weddings, anniversaries and funerals for the same family is something I cherish,” she said.
Others things have changed in the church, not just First Christian, but within the American church, Catholic and protestant.
“Sunday is not longer considered sacred,” she said. “Ball games and shopping have crowded out Sunday worship. It no longer holds the same priority. Sunday worship used to be a focal point. It isn’t as much any more.”
That doesn’t mean people aren’t still seeking and aren’t still hungry for spiritual truth. “People who attend every four or six weeks consider themselves active,” said Pastor Carlson. “It’s frustrating we don’t make church a priority. And it makes it more difficult to reach people for the Lord.”
Still, there’s no one else Pastor Carlson would rather be with now, particularly as Holy Week and Easter have come and gone. “These people are my family and I’m already missing them,” she said, holding back tears. “The Easter season is a lot like preparing for retirement. A life of ministry, an ending or death and the promise of a new life. I’m going to have to ask myself, ‘who am I now.’”
She has been preparing for retirement, in part, by having to say goodbye to great friends in the ministry. “I loved Father Mike,” she said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever met a more compassionate and more outgoing pastor. We’ve all been missing him since he left.”
She also had a close friendship with now retired St. Paul’s Lutheran Pastor Nancy Reed. “Both being female clergy, we had a special bond,” she said. She also forged a special friendship with Trinity United Methodist Church Pastor Neil Montz, who retired three years ago.
Places like the Highway Restaurant (once it reopens) will miss Pastor Carlson. She was a regular at Sunday lunch with friends Karen Johannes, Becky Frye, Sharon Reed and Linda Tucker.
Her immediate plans once she finally gets settled in West Des Moines are to rest up a bit. “I’m kind of worn out right now,” she said. She doesn’t expect to completely leave ministry. “There are lots of needs for interim pastors and pulpit supply,” she said. “We’ll see.”