For decades, it has been the tradition at First Presbyterian: Ministers come to the Verona church and, when their service to it is done, they retire from it. So it will be for Rev. Erik Spencer, who leads his last mass at First Presbyterian this Sunday, June 23, after 23 years in its pulpit.
The nearly two and a half decades of Spencer’s tenure has been a time of change for First Presbyterian. “When I got here there was not a Sunday school per se,” he says. “Families weren’t coming to church.”
“Now,” says Spencer, “they blast around here like they own the place.”
Indeed. There are children’s music programs and outreach efforts, like the kid-led drives to gather shoes for people in Africa. Under a minister who is also a father of two, First Presbyterian has even had youth events like a Lego contest with a Biblical theme. Along the way, Spencer has seen the children of his parish grow from baptism to confirmation, high school and beyond.
“I like the kids and I like being with them,” Spencer says. “I have a relatively informal style and that has helped.” He concedes, though, that he is baffled by some of the technology that the young people around him use. “They’re tech savvy and their parents are too. They expect their pastor to communicate not only on Sunday morning but via Facebook during the week. ”
Not that it was only about the kids. “I’ve learned so much about faith and aging with dignity,” Spencer says. “Some of the women of the parish live life like I would be able to live it,” he adds with a smile.
But most careers end in retirement, and the ministry is no exception. Spencer and his wife Carol, a history teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy, will be stepping down together and heading to a house on Cape Cod that they purchased many years ago. There will be an interim pastor on Fairview Avenue for the next year or so, and then someone new, someone who may well continue the retirement tradition at First Presbyterian. “I don’t think this congregation will have any trouble finding a good strong pastor,” Spencer says.
Spencer’s departure is one of several high-profile changes in Verona this year. Rev. LucyAnn Dure stepped down from the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in April and Rabbi Aaron Kriegel has announced his retirement from Congregation Beth Ahm. The two had worked actively with Spencer to created interfaith activities in town. Verona’s public schools will be losing three educators who have made long careers here: Kevin Jennings, Frank Albano, and Marilyn Varallo. (Tom Valente, the Forest Avenue principal who was Spencer’s nemesis on the basketball court, retired in June 2010. “He’s got the most obscene hook shot,” Spencer says, shaking his head.)
Basketball defeats aside, Spencer clearly cherishes the time he has spent in Verona. “I am pleased,” he says, “to think that we have provided a place to nurture faith.”
Rev. Spencer’s last service will be Sunday, June 23 at 10:15 a.m.. It will feature trumpeter Max Morden, and will be followed by a farewell luncheon. The church says all are welcome to attend . For further information or to reserve a seat for the luncheon, please e-mail Pam Riley Blake.
Photos courtesy Peg Whiting.