Not All Pastors Serve Churches

Today I would lobby hard that the church remember a contemporary saint who just recently was welcomed into eternity: Frederick Buechner, Pastor, Author and Imagination Specialist.

I should begin by noting that Buechner did not die on this date, and usually saints are remembered on their holy exits. But because he died on the Feast of Saint Mary (August 15th), it is sometimes customary to transfer a feast when it falls on a previous one, especially one of great importance. Because we honor Mary on the 15th and Saint Stephen of Hungary on the 16th, and the 17th really doesn’t have a special saint (in my opinion), Saint Frederick Buechner makes so much sense.

Frederick was actually born Carl Frederick in 1926 in New York City. His father was often searching for work, and so Frederick (as he preferred to be called) didn’t have a very stable home life, constantly on the move. This instability intensified when his father died by suicide in 1936 when Frederick was only 10 years old. His family immediately moved to Bermuda, where things were relatively stable for a few years until they had to evacuate at the outset of World War II. Regardless, Bermuda felt like home for this young one.

Returning to the mainland, Buechner enrolled in school with an interest in writing, going on to Princeton (which was briefly interrupted by service in the Army), and graduated with a B.A. in English. In his senior year he won an award for poetry and began work on his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying. Published in 1950 it was a critical success. Shortly thereafter he left teaching, moved to New York City, and resolved himself to being a writer full time.

In New York City he continued to have success and reaped awards, but his interests expanded from just writing to now including religion in the mix. Having gotten involved in his local Presbyterian parish, he heard one Sunday from Pastor Buttrick a sermon and call that would compel him to enter seminary.

Note to pastors: sometimes this happens…words matter.

He entered Union Seminary in New York and became a pastor without a parish, having been invited to start a religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Saint Buechner would serve Exeter for nine years, honing his preaching and continuing his prolific writing. He moved to Vermont in 1967 and once again dedicated his life and time to writing.

Buechner had the amazing ability to create characters that were imbued with honesty, spirit, and a good dash of humor, never making the religious symbolism or subtext (found in a lot of his work) a stumbling block to just a plain, good story. I’m not in love with all of his work, but how could you be?! He wrote so much. And not just novels, but plays, poetry, essays…the man was a writing machine, and the world is better for it.

Sometimes it’s just nice to have a novel that is not “religious” and yet it is, you know? It plumbs those depths in interesting and inviting ways. Only a few writers can do this well, in my opinion, Buechner chief amongst them. He was never dogmatic, but always inviting you deeper and deeper into the existential-yet-hopeful shrug of what it means to be alive with other humans.

Saint Frederick died on August 15th, 2022 at the age of 96. Though he never served a parish, I have to think those of us who read his novels, spiritual writings, and poetry were his pew-sitters, marveling at the wonder of the characters and thoughts he brought into being.

Saint Frederick Buechner is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes serving a parish isn’t the end-all and be-all of pastoral work. In fact, his own Pastor Buttrick once quipped, at the thought of Buechner serving a parish, “It would be a shame to lose a great novelist in exchange for a mediocre preacher.”

In other words: not all pastors serve parishes. And that’s ok. This is most certainly true.

-historical bits taken from public access sources

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