I am in the process of hiring a new Associate Chaplain to work with me at the college. As this search progresses I keep recalling my first call as an Associate Pastor. After some painful internship experiences in seminary where I learned that not all pastoral placements are healthy, I wasn’t looking so much for the perfect position in my first call, but rather good people to work with and learn from. I found that at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
Our Senior Pastor was the Rev. Dr. Lamar Potts, a tall Southerner with playful blue eyes and a quick wit. Lamar was Southern to the core. He grew up in Newnan, Georgia, loved country music and quiet fishing trips and answered to his friends as “Bubba.” Lamar was my first real introduction to the South. He made the best cheese grits this Midwesterner has ever tasted (because they were loaded with salt, cheese, and real butter.) He gave me directions not by street signs, but by landmarks and “how the crow flies.” And he taught me what it meant when there was a ribbon on the mailbox and a wreath upon the door. After listening to Lamar long enough, I even started calling you all, “ya’ll.”
But Lamar was more to me than an introduction to Southern culture. In my first professional position, he was the pastor I didn’t know I needed. As the church’s first female minister, Lamar encouraged and empowered me, making sure people saw me as an equal pastor. When it became clear that families preferred Lamar and our other associate pastor, Brad, to baptize their babies, Lamar boldly set up a rotation where families would be assigned a pastor for their child’s baptism, guaranteeing that I would be included in performing this sacrament. Lamar helped me start to find my voice in the pulpit, in public prayers, and by turning to me for my thoughts and opinions during staff and session meetings. Looking back on this time, I recall my young self and am horrified by some of the mistakes I made. But Lamar just kept offering me opportunities to try again.
Spring Valley grew during Lamar’s time as pastor because people were just drawn to him. Children adored him. He’d frequently visit our church’s preschool and disrupt the teacher’s schedule because the kids would mob him for hugs. Observing him and his way of doing ministry, he became a model of the kind of pastor I hoped to be. I appreciated Lamar’s humility, his self-deprecating sense of humor, and his heart—Lamar cared deeply for his parishioners. He was always there when someone was in need.
Of all his wonderful traits, though, I think what I appreciated most was his lack of ego. Most Senior Pastors of large churches have strong (sometimes even narcissistic) egos. But Lamar was as down-to-earth as you could get. He knew he was human and made mistakes. Apologizing wasn’t beneath him. I respected him deeply for that.
I knew Lamar meant a lot to me when I left Spring Valley for a new call. But as things go in life, I didn’t realize how much he had shaped me until much further down the road. It’s been fourteen years since I served as his Associate Pastor, but I still refer to things he taught or modeled for me.
Once, as we were robing up and preparing to lead a devastating funeral for a young man who died in an Alaskan fishing accident, I confessed to Lamar that I was scared. There were so many people flocking to our church for this funeral and I didn’t want to mess up. I wanted to be a good pastor for these grieving people, but I was terrified. Lamar looked at me after I confessed my fear and admitted that he was scared too. “If we weren’t scared, that would be bad,” he said, “because that would mean we didn’t care.” Whenever I lead a funeral, before which I am still always scared, I recall Lamar’s wise and gracious words and feel better about myself.
On a lighter note, a group of young college women made an appointment to see me a couple of years ago. They came to my office, shut the door, and after I was finally able to calm their self-conscious giggling, they told me they needed my help. Their dorm was haunted. They had seen a ghost. I listened, curiously (and a bit skeptically) as they described where and when they had seen this ghost. After asking a few more questions, I found out they were Catholic, which led me to believe they wanted me to perform some sort of exorcism. But most Protestant Books of Common Worship don’t include rituals of exorcism, so I was at a loss—until I remembered a story Lamar told me.
Lamar was asked once to help some church members with a ghost problem they were having at their house. “It was the typical kind of stuff,” I remember Lamar explaining to me in his usual dry banter, “Strange things happening, drawers opening by themselves, doors slamming shut when no one was in the house.”
“Lamar! What did you do?” I exclaimed, baffled by this curious request.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I just went over to the house, prayed some prayers, and threw some water around—holy water, you know.”
I giggled a little, picturing Lamar doing this. But I was also sure he took the people’s fears seriously. “And then what happened?” I asked.
“I didn’t hear about them having problems again,” he responded, with a sly little smile.
Recalling this story, I realized that I needed to take my students’ fear seriously and address their concerns the best I could. So I told them I understood why they were scared. Then I told them to go looking for the ghost. If they saw or experienced anything again, I would come over to their dorm to pray some prayers and throw some water around—holy water, you know. Satisfied, the students left. And I never heard about the ghost again.
I ran into Lamar a few years ago. It was such a random coincidence. I saw him at a restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. I was there for a conference and he was there to visit some old friends. We talked for a while and got caught up. His wife had died and his son, tragically. He was older, his health had declined, and he was clearly struggling with the blows life had dealt him. I tried, in that moment, to articulate what he meant to me. But I didn’t get it right. I didn’t say everything I needed to say.
So I’m writing this post because I fear I will miss the chance to let him know how much he meant and still means to me. I would regret it forever, if I neglected to tell Lamar that I love him, that he taught me more than he could ever know, that he’s been my inspiration these past fourteen years and will continue to be as long as I am in ministry.
Lots of people shape us in life. Some more than others. The best ones do so never knowing the impact they have had—unless we take the time to tell them.