The Rev. Robert Lee Hill (pictured here), senior minister of Community Christian Church in Kansas City, recently told his congregation that after nearly 30 years in their midst he would be retiring at the end of June 2015.
I've known Bob for most of his time in Kansas City and currently serve with him on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care.
He's been a gift to our city. So the other day I sat down with him, turned on my digital tape recorder and had a conversation with him. Today you get to read what we talked about. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, though, speaking of length, you'll find part two of this here tomorrow.)
I began by noting the old story of the great 20th Century theologian Karl Barth being asked late in life what was the most important thing he's learned. Barth's response: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Bob knew that story, of course, and agreed with Barth. "But," I said, "I'm going to assume that there are two or four or eight other things you've learned that are important in your ministry. What are they?
Hill: One is this: That in addition to 'Jesus loves me,' Jesus gives us a way of life resplendent with possibilities for grace and justice, beauty, celebration, reconiciliation, forgiveness, love, the fulfillment of all hopes and dreams and then he bids us to give that way of life away to others. That's my job: To understand that, convey it, transport it and give it to subsequent people, anybody who wants it and others who don't want it but need it. That's my understanding of evangelism. That's my understanding of stewardship. That's my understanding of the vocation of ministry. And that applies whether you're ordained or lay.
Tammeus: So how has that task changed from the time you entered ministry until now?
Hill: When you enter ministry you have high ideals and big, big theological concepts that you believe you're fulfilling. But it develops. It evolves. Part of what happens at the beginning of ministry is that one is trying to find one's footing. What are my gifts for ministry? Then you have some experiences in seminiary and field education placements where you test out the waters and you get better at what you're supposed to be doing -- administering the sacraments and preaching the word and witnessing and serving humanity. I had always thought that I was going to be about peace work. Literally. I was a conscientious objector. I was in the last batch that was drafted and I served my alternative service in south central Los Angeles when I was 19. But I did more peace work in my first five years here at Community Christian Church that I ever could have imagined doing had I been doing specifically designated peace work. So then I'm all in. I'm a pastor.
Tammeus: A lot of pastorates in my Presbyterian tradition run seven or eight years. How many times do you wonder over the course of a long pastorate whether you've stayed too long?
Hill: You have to wonder every three or four years. And it has to be intentional. And in my case it has been. I knew there are these cycles. Every pastor has to reinvent himself every five years and that's what I've done very consciously to keep myself fresh, to try some new things so that the Word, capital W, does not get stale in my stewardship.
Tammeus: Then why is now the time to leave?
Hill: Now is the time because the future is bright for Community. The brightest days of Community Christian Church are ahead of it. There comes a time when, to use the words of John the Baptist, I must decrease so that whoever, she or he, might increase coming after. One wants to finish well in a ministry.
Tomorrow: Three times in his life, including now, Hill has leaped into the future without a net.
* * *
CHICAGO AND THE NEW POPE
It turns out that the way Pope Francis may want to shape the American branch of the Catholic Church will be shown before too long when he names a replacement for Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago. If there's another Joseph Bernardin around, now would be the time to raise your hand.