2018-10-12 / Front Page

Grateful minister reflects on 27 years

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

The Rev. Charles Whiston, at the pulpit of the South Congregational Church on North Street in Kennebunkport, from which he led the congregation of about 350 souls for 27 years. Whiston has recently retired and relocated to North Carolina. (Courtesy photo) The Rev. Charles Whiston, at the pulpit of the South Congregational Church on North Street in Kennebunkport, from which he led the congregation of about 350 souls for 27 years. Whiston has recently retired and relocated to North Carolina. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — An era has passed in Kennebunkport following the retirement of the Rev. Charles Whiston from the pulpit of South Congregational Church, after 27 years.

With quiet resoluteness, Whiston, 66, led his flock, often taking them far afield from their sleepy North Street parish, whether that meant monthly missions to staff the Bon Appetit Soup Kitchen in Biddeford for the past 20 years, or annual house-building pilgrimages to the Gulf Coast region following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Through it all, Whiston has refused credit for any act of kindness, whether sent afar or provided close to home. All credit he says, goes to the congregation.

The Rev. Charles Whiston, pastor at the South Congregational Church on North Street in Kennebunkport for 27 years, seen on a recent house-building mission to Biloxi, Mississippi, a project he organized following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that has been an annual tradition for church members. (Courtesy photo) The Rev. Charles Whiston, pastor at the South Congregational Church on North Street in Kennebunkport for 27 years, seen on a recent house-building mission to Biloxi, Mississippi, a project he organized following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that has been an annual tradition for church members. (Courtesy photo) “None of us can do this alone, nor is that part of God’s plan that we all be soloists. God likely enjoys a symphony of multiple instruments, a tapestry of many colors and textures,” he said.

Given his long standing efforts to help hurricane victims, Whiston, in his retirement, is himself at the mercy of the elements. He has chosen to retire to North Carolina, the state of his birth, largely to be closer to his children — two daughters who live in the Washington D. C. area, and a son in Pittsburgh. But on Monday, when he spoke to the Post by phone about his life and career in Kennebunkport, Whiston was in a holding pattern, his moving van unable to get into Wilmington, North Carolina, as of yet, due to ongoing repair efforts in the wake of Hurricane Michael.

Q: Where were you raised?

A: I was born in North Carolina, so my life is sort of coming full circle in a way. My dad was a professor and when I was 5 years old we moved to St. Louis where he continued teaching graduate seminary studies.

Q: What led you to choose the church as a vocation? Was it your father’s example?

A: Well, I never really knew him in a church setting. I always knew him in the classroom, academic arena. The only church he ever served was in Newbury, Massachusetts, while he finished up his doctoral studies in the 1940s. But my grandfather was also a minister. His last church was in Wrenthem, Massachusetts. So, even though I grew up in the Midwest, New England was always a part of our DNA. But in high school and college, I really thought I’d go more into sociology than religious studies. But after college in Wisconsin I decided to try the seminary for a year, and if it fit, I’d go into that and if not, I’d go on to grad school.

Q: What was it that sealed the deal, as it were, on a theological career?

A: Working with people, being part of something bigger than myself, has always been satisfying. Fulfilling. Because it’s always teaching me in return.

Q: Was there a precise moment when you knew your life’s path was set?

A: No, it was a gradual process for me, more evolutionary than revolutionary. And there was no pressure from family to enter the church. But I’d say it all sort of began when I was active in a high school youth group in St. Louis. We did mission trips to camps around the county. And that kind of began my thinking of, how do you blend good works with some sort of a faith structure, or understanding of there being powers and mysteries in this world that are beyond us. I think we have opportunities to get glimpses of those and sometimes those glimpses pull us to want to go just another step further.

Q: What brought you to Maine?

A: After college I did seminary in the Boston area, and Andover-Newton, and from there it’s really an interview process. Churches look at profiles of potential candidates and people like me look at profiles of various churches. I looked at churches in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine, and I chose a congregational church in Gray because it was a good small town for me to begin, not too far north, which was too isolated for me, but close to Portland, which I love. It was really the right time and the right place. I was there for 12 years.

Q: What led to the transition to Kennebunkport?

A: It was hard to leave Gray, but I was ready for some new challenges and some new opportunities. What South Church offered was something that was in many ways very similar — a church deeply rooted and active in the local community — but on a but larger scale with a larger membership. It also had a support staff. Although it’s just five people on a part-time basis — for music, youth groups, bookkeeping, front office, a sexton. One of the amazing things for me is that three of those people on the staff have been there over 20 years with me. I think that’s a statement about the climate and culture of the church there. But back in Gray I had just one volunteer in the office a few hours per week and that was it, which was somewhat limiting in what I could do.

Q: How has your congregation at South Church changed over your tenure?

A: One of the areas I see is that families are much busier. There is much less unstructured time available to people. There is more need for two-income families, and many single parent families. So, the time available for church is limited. I think all churches are seeing a squeeze on time for volunteers, particularly on boards and committees. Meanwhile, there’s more competition on children for their time, such as more opportunities for sports and extracurriculars through the school system. That’s always been a gentle conflict with the church setting. The challenge for all of us is to find a healthy and restful pace for our living, because we can all, including the clergy, overextend ourselves much too easily, and much to our detriment, in terms of family, friends and work.

The other thing I see is that there is less denominational loyalty. So that, if you move to a new community, you might seek out a church similar to the one you grew up in, but it might not be the exact same denomination — Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian — in which you grew up. And also, we see more crossing of paths between Catholic and Protestant. Many folks of South Church grew up with roots in the Roman Catholic Church. So, denominations are shifting.

Q: What sort of challenges does that shift present?

A: I don’t think that shift in loyalties is bad or good, per se. It just means there is more of a mix of backgrounds in a congregation. That can be a challenge because people come with certain expectations of how the church ought to be structured, based on where they grew up or come from. But it can also be enriching. I think one of the biggest challenges for South Church with my retirement, and I mentioned this last week in my last sermon, is that this is a good opportunity to realize that there are many ways to ‘do church,’ not just the way we or I have always done it. There can be a freshness to that. Moving around the spiritual furniture from time to time is not a bad thing.

Q: How have you seen Kennebunkport itself change over your 27 years there?

A: There is a certain concern for class restlessness for some, with a lot of old cottages being torn down to be replaced by larger structures — maybe same footprint, but larger structures — even as the number of kids enrolled in consolidated school continues to drop. As land prices go up, there are fewer and fewer families — they have migrated further out of town, to the other side of the turnpike, or even out of town entirely. It will be interesting to see how as those demographics continue to shift, what impact it will have on the church setting and church programs.

Q: What has been your proudest moment as a minster in Kennebunkport?

A: Well, I certainly took great joy in the mission efforts, in the hands-on pieces. For me the excitement was seeing people in a new setting coming together. It’s a good reminder of just how people from different settings have so much to teach us. We all know the human condition, we all know of loss and grief and death that comes sometimes graciously, and sometimes in a very raw fashion. But for me, seeing folks connecting with quote/unquote strangers who nonetheless really kind of grab our hearts and souls, is really quite satisfying. It’s very fulfilling. No question, we need each other, whether it’s across races or church settings, or whatever.

I am also quite pleased to know there are ministers in the deep south, from the Baptist tradition, who are able to say of our home-building efforts, ‘These folks in Maine still haven’t forgotten us,’ even all this time after Katrina, after all the headlines have gone.

And, of course, one of the most humbling things for me has always been to be with people at those great transitional moments in their lives — at baptisms, and weddings, and at grave sides. It’s always very humbling to be allowed into people’s lives in those very deeply personal moments.

Q: And what was the greatest challenge during your time at South Church?

A: Probably the sense that there is always so much more to do than can be done. I remember my grandfather saying the real challenge for the clergy is to work through a messy desk, and I’ve certainly done that for sure. But, of course, what would we do if we ever did get the job done? Wrap it up and lock the door? No, I think we always have to leave the door open for others, in both literal and symbolic ways.

Q: American society has changed so much since you started out as a minister nearly 40 years ago. How has your actual job changed? Are people looking for something different in spiritual guidance?

A: I think it’s definitely shifting. I think that while we still have a traditional, institutional church setting, people are increasingly hungry for a more spiritual element that has not been formally represented. One of the things I like to think that we did well at South Church has been to embrace folks from all kinds of different spiritual journeys, to honor that and to help them connect with other people who have a similar language or yearning inside. So, it makes the minister’s job much more broad.

The call of the ministry also has had to recognize that there are more people living closer to the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and that the tone of politics and the leaders on both sides has become very discouraging to folks. There are things being said in public by our leaders today that we would not allow our children to say in the back yard. We are deeply entrenched in a new lack of civility and even common courtesy. So, I think shift in culture makes it an increasing challenge for us to hold true to our ethics and morals.

Q: With that in mind, why was now the right time time to retire?

A: Well, a little bit is in terms of age. I have been watching and listening to that inner voice of me being ready. My health and energy is good, and the health and energy of South Church is good. I was just feeling ready and feel good heading forth at a time when our programs, finances, buildings and staff are all in a good place. I don’t think there’s much more new or different I could accomplish. So, it was a good time to pass things here on to others.

Q: An interim minister, Don Hammond, is on his way from Idaho, to arrive in November. Do you have any parting advice, either him or the new permanent minister for South Church, who will likely take over 18-to-24 months from now?

A: That’s a good question. I guess maybe just to maintain a spirit of doors and hearts being wide open. There are good, solid folks here, real salt-of-the- Earth people. People who are hungry for meaning in life. People who are wanting to walk a journey that may not always have a clear, final destination, but are committed to the journey.

Q: How emotional was your last sermon here at South Church?

A: That was tough. I told some stories that I like to think marked our lives together. And then, the week before I talked about, ‘Now what?’ And what struck me is that all of our lives are constantly marked by those moments of, “So, now what?’ We are all living our lives constantly at those ‘So, now what,’ junctures, and that’s what a lot of our Biblical stories are about, about people who are in some sort of movement, or motion, or transition. And while we all long for a certain amount of stability, we are also all living lives of shifting cultures, shifting desires, shifting family constellations. So, now what? How do we live our lives? I think it is with as much integrity and authenticity, listening to those inner voices inside us that, I find often don’t lead us astray.

Q: And what is next for you as you make your own great transition?

A: A quote I come back to more and more now as I ponder what next: Watch and ‘wait for my soul to catch up with my body.’ I believe opportunities will present themselves. I simply wish to be attentive to them.

Q: Any final words for your flock?

A: Just my gratitude for the years in a community setting. Whatever good or light that I was able to shed, and for all that I have learned here, in terms of skills and relationships that deepened my understanding, that is simply something I’ll always be grateful for. It’s that simple, but also that profound.

 news@kennebunkpost.com.

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