Rev. Richard Bennett retires

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

To be a good minister, one needs to spend time in one place, see where the need is, and try to be helpful.

Richard Bennett has served the First Congregational Church for the past 12 years as pastor, teacher, confidant, healer and friend.

He followed a “calling” that required deep emotional and physical commitment to parishioners and his community. Unlike most careers, a pastor’s time

Rev. Richard Bennett

clock knows no restrictions. Ministry work happens at a all hours. There are early morning wake-up calls that ill patients are close to death. A parishioner calls unexpectedly, needing to seek spiritual advice following a domestic dispute. And, there is the “I can never prepare myself for” late night notification that a person has been critically hurt in an automobile accident and will likely succumb to those injuries.

There are joys — baptisms and weddings.

There are times of grief — moments of passing and funerals.

Rev. Bennett describes pastoral work as both exhilarating and exhausting.

In August, he came to the conclusion that after 25 years as a spiritual leader, his life’s work had finally taken a toll on his mind and body.

“Nothing is worse than a minister who stays too long and is no longer helpful,” he said.

The often-seen wide smile left his face and gave way to a more solemn expression as Rev. Bennett explained his difficult decision to leave full-time ministry at the “First Church.” His final service was this past Sunday, Oct. 31. Church leadership will now work with an interim pastor to evaluate needs of the First Church and develop a vision for the future. Based on these findings, a Call Committee will search for a new pastor.

“I felt it was time for the church to have new leadership; I don’t think I can work as much as I need to work to keep the organization going. We have great leadership, and if I go at this time, it sets the church up in a favorable way to go after a new minister. We’ll be ahead of other churches. Churches usually start looking for new pastors at the beginning of the year or end of the year. So, we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “What led to the decision? Exhaustion. Let me rephrase it. I am unable to keep up with the demands of a pastor. I’ve been here 12 years, September of 1998. You have to live on 24-hour call, which I have for the bulk of 25 years. A lot of the work a pastor does is not seen by the public. My primary ministry is providing people with a safe place to talk to someone in confidence about their spiritual journey, as well as having the privilege of working with a number of incredible people to worship, celebrate and practice in growing in one’s faith. There’s a lot to it (being a pastor). Working, working, intensely for a while, then rest, then it hits again. There is no regular schedule. Luckily, this church, I have some fantastic people who handle a variety of areas. We work together in developing services. Most folks think a pastor works one hour a week. Not true at all. If you talk to most ministers, things begin to mount, pressure begins to rise, and it never stops. Some of us, we get worn down a little bit. You get worn down by trying to do good. I’m 65, so I’d like to pursue some other types of ministries that don’t require 50 to 60 hours a week.”

For the time being, Rev. Bennett will stay in the area. He is chairman of a local group of 20-some United Church of Christ ministries, and in time, he will go back to pastor ministry.

“A normal transition for full-time pastors is to retire, take a rest, and then help out other churches as an interim minister. Our church has an interim minister who will come and serve during the process of selecting a new pastor. The church will reassess what its history is, and where does it want to go in the future,” he said. “The church forms its own profile (we are a free market church, so no one sends us anyone, we choose our own minister). The process can be quite exhausting, finding a person that will meet the needs of the church. Word is put out through the organization structure of the United Church of Christ.”

Bridgton was Pastor Bennett’s fourth ministry after stops in Connecticut, Wolfeboro, N.H., and Westbrook. If a potential pastor were to ask him his thoughts about leading the First Church, Rev. Bennett would open his talk by saying, “I tell folks, if you have to work hard, it’s good to be able to look at Mt. Washington and Pleasant Mountain every day.” Secondly, the First Church has a history of stability. Rev. Bennett’s predecessor, Rev. John Swanson, served here for 29 years.

“At a time when there is a lot of people leaving church, the church as remained pretty constant — 200-plus, 55 kids registered in church school. Vacation Bible: 15 adults, 17 teens, 45 campers suggests great strengths. We have a number of young families, which is a very positive sign,” Rev. Bennett said.

As he looked back over his tenure, Rev. Bennett is pleased to see growth, both physically and spiritually, at the First Church. Here are a few of his thoughts:

On people attending church? RB. “The pressures on families are so great, that something has to go, you have to give up good things. Most people who come regularly realize on some days, church is the best thing that could happen to them. There are other Sundays, which may not be as good as other times. I think one problem is people don’t realize what good can happen by coming to church. I tell people that are tired to go to church, find a place that works for you, at least you will be resting for an hour. A lot of it is families are busy. We live in a culture of ‘me,’ versus a culture of ‘we.’ A lot of it is a culture of selfishness rather than giving. Churches like ours, and others in our community, are very giving. This church, for 22 years, has given free clothing to people. We’ve been a leader in giving out Thanksgiving boxes. There is a lot of giving. Life’s busyness takes its toll.”

What is he most proud of? RB. “Keeping the word I gave when I was first called. I said, ‘Don’t ask me to come unless you allow me to work with all of God’s people.’ I’m proud that I have worked with theological progressives, theological conservatives, in a personal way. This church understands that the spirit of God comes to us in different ways. My way may not be their way, but we have something important in common. I am proud of the fact that we’ve maintained that kind of energy throughout.”

What were some of his goals? RB. “I thought it was important in being part of a small-town community was to be a medium-size fish in a medium-size pond, and raise our daughter in a good, solid small community. To provide people with a safe place for their being. That’s what I really wanted to do, and have done.”

Any regrets? RB. “There is always regrets, probably wishing we could have done a better job. I’m a caretaker kind of person — being with people during bad times.”

How tough is it helping people through their grief? RB. “My father told me that if I want a fantastic, fascinating life, make it your business to understand and to be able to speak in a language of all people. If you can use their language, you will be a help. It’s really more about listening. To me, caring is listening heart to heart. To me, prayer is listening to the essentials of the soul of the other person talking to. So, when you go in to help someone, you need to listen intently. You can’t judge people. One of the quotes that is very good is, ‘What is most personal and private and painful for each individual is also most universal.’ We all have lessons in those, it depends on which happens when. My job is to be there. I can go from the death of a child to the baptism of a child. It can change instantly from the course of a day or week. I’m sitting hear talking about having some fun at a worship service, and boom, I’m then going to the emergency room.”

What has been a challenge for you? RB. “”As a pastor, he get to know and love people. An area that has been difficult for me is I tend to get over-impacted. Having been here for 12 years, when things happen to people I know, I don’t get over it. It takes me longer to recover, to come back after grief.”

What has been the response since you’ve announced your impending retirement? RB. “What has been amazing to me over the past two weeks since announcing my retirement has been the number of people who have thanked me for helping them. To be honest, some of the things they thanked me for I couldn’t remember. You don’t keep score, you just keep on going. Sure, it’s wonderful to hear those thanks. Everyone should be appreciated for the work they do.”

What is one of your strengths? RB. “I like to make people laugh. I’m known for giving people the gift of laughter, particularly folks doing ordinary things. One of the things I do as part of my ministry, in the world that people don’t even know I am a minister, is when someone does something nice for me in Renys or some other place, I say, ‘The next good deed I do is going to be in your name.’ And they just light up.

Around town, I try to have some fun, lighten and brighten up someone’s day.”

When you are feeling emotional overload, how do you find some peace? RB. “Several things work at different times. In the winter, snowshoeing and animal tracking. It takes great attention. It’s quiet. And you get to appreciate nature’s beauty. There probably aren’t a number of pastors who ride a motorcycle as much as I do. It’s good for me. It takes incredible attention. I really get a kick out of spending time with non-church people. I go to high school games. To be able to support the kids and their parents, you could say it is a ministry. A lot of those folks are not my parishioners, so more of the full me is used. I read, I pray, I write, I do poetry. These all have a calming effect.”

What makes your congregation special? RB. “They are hard working, hopeful, caring and sharing. That sounds simple, but it isn’t. The health of a church is really generated in different kinds of ways. There are some people who like to run things. The health of this church, for the most part in my 12 years, is that the leadership has not been controlling. If you have leaders who reach out and look always for the good of the whole, there is plenty of room for everybody to fit in. All our differences can be worked together. That is one reason why this church will get a good, next minister. This is a healthy church. It is in a growing phase with a lot of young people coming in. As I step aside, I give them space for the next person to accomplish some things I wasn’t able to.”

What’s the appeal to come to the First Church? RB. “It’s a very generous church, both spiritually and materially. When our building went down — the foundation was actually falling down — this church raised above the amount of money project (it totaled $1.2 million) without any big givers. Hard work put this church back together again (a pretty big task raising an 1850s building in the area 12 feet and expanding the space below to build a first-class parish hall).  The goal was to preserve the beautiful, historic sanctuary and to provide the town an upgraded area where people can meet. It is getting a lot of use.”

Do people church shop? RB. “The nice thing about having a number of small churches in a community is that the spirit of God comes to us in a number of ways. Some people come to this church, and we may not be for them. So, I might say to them they should check out the Alliance Church, because they have a different kind of practice. Some people go and are totally happy. The important thing is not how many you have, it is how well are you serving the people that come in. Sometimes, you have to help them find the right place. There is a progression. People come back to church when they have children. As teenagers, they go away. Maybe to find God, you don’t know God. Maybe to find fulfillment, you need to know emptiness. Emptiness knows no time. It can happen to anyone. Midlife crises, economic pressures, all affect our spirituality. The times of disbelief or logical anger due to tragedy or life is too busy, church sometimes doesn’t meet our needs or we don’t allow church to meet our needs. So, I tell people, ‘Come to church. Rest. Drop everything for one hour, and see what can happen in that one hour. I’ve had people go out the door and thank me, saying ‘It really helped.’ I also get people asking me to call them on Monday.”

Is it tough to write a sermon each week? RB. “No matter how bad my week is, no matter how hectic and demanding the schedule is, you still have to prepare for Sunday. That means you have to be constantly aware what is happening in the world and community. We’re given scripture choices during the week, you’re looking at life through the lenses of that scripture. Sometimes, you give a “barking dog” sermon, it just isn’t very good. You’re so tired and you didn’t get it right, and then you feel bad.”

How tough will it be to give your last sermon at the First Church? RB. “It will be tough. I’ll make a formal declaration, ‘I let you go, you let me go.’ We’ll celebrate images of leaving. How our lives woven together, sometimes the fabric gets worn. A strand needs patching. Sometimes, it breaks but overall we live in the fabric of God’s love. I’ll thank them for allowing me to be part of that fabric. You’re not supposed to cry, it is considered bad form. But, I’ve been known for more heart than brains. That is who I am. I’ve been practicing not crying. I know it is going to be a huge emptiness after Oct. 31.”

Empty yet fulfilled.

Sad yet happy to re-energize.

Regretful that the time has come to leave, yet privileged to have worked with a “great group of people whom I consider my friends.”

“One of my privileges as pastor has been being the calm in the middle of a storm — to help people make sense out of a tragedy or difficulty,” he said. “I hope I have brought calm to people’s lives when they’ve really needed it.”

There is an art to stepping aside, to pull away from a life that has been both rewarding yet consuming. Rev. Bennett is looking forward to both prayer and quiet time.

“I need to not know everyone’s business for a while,” he said. “I need not to flinch when the phone rings, being on 24-hour call waiting for someone I love to die. I’ll miss Sundays. I’ll miss the choir and tell children a story each week. I’ll miss doing the hokey-pokey with them. But, it is time.”

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