A tribute to a mentor, colleague, friend, and fine pastor

Pine Street Presbyterian Church

Fred Anderson is one of a kind. And everyone who knows him knows what I mean.

I can’t quite believe that the day has arrived when I would write a tribute to him, but I am honored to do so. In fact, I feel compelled to do so. Few people have had a greater impact on my life and work.

When news came to me that Fred’s farewell celebration would be held in May – at a time when I would not be able to travel to New York City – I was deeply disappointed, more so than you can possibly imagine. I write these words in lieu of being present. I hope you sense in them the genuine affection I have for him.

I first met Fred when I, along with a few dozen other graduating Princeton Seminary seniors, interviewed for church positions. I have no idea how the process works now, but back then pastors came to Princeton, usually along with an elder or two, and they would interview seminary students like me who were hoping to find work in the church.

We were coached to say that we were “looking for a call,” but we knew better. This was the job market, and jobs were scarce. We were coached, further, to sign up for as many interviews as possible, mostly to get interview experience.

As it turned out, I need not have signed up for as many as I did.

Fred was the first person I interviewed with. I liked him immediately. And I eagerly accepted his invitation to be his “assistant pastor,” which is what we were in those days, a kind of a two-year audition before becoming an “associate pastor,” a title which carried with it a bit more job security. I was the first in what has become a long list of associates whom Fred has invited to serve and learn with him.

To be honest, I had never dreamed of living and working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, few people do, but as some wise person once told me (it was probably Fred), “If you get along with the senior pastor, you can live just about anywhere.” Fred presented Harrisburg to me in a way that Harrisburg has never been presented before. After riding around town with Fred in his tiny Chevy Chevette, and hearing him extol the virtues of life in Harrisburg, I would easily have chosen to live there over, say, Zurich, Switzerland. Such were his powers of persuasion, finely tuned during one of his previous careers – no kidding – as a Fuller Brush salesman. Fred could sell sand to Saudis.

My wife and I stayed at Fred’s home for our first visit to Harrisburg because, as he put it, it was important to know “if we could live together.” I am reasonably certain that Fred does not give this advice concerning other areas of life, but his reasoning made sense to me and I went along with it. Fred and Questa warmly welcomed us, and looking back I think one of the key tests during that visit was whether or not I could stay up late talking about the church and still function reasonably well the next day. We were to have many of those late-into-the-night conversations about the church over the years.

Fred told me early on that he had learned his administrative skills in the Air Force, and that piece of information should have set off an alarm in me. And when it didn’t, he added that “when I tell you to jump, you should ask me how high on the way up.” I had never before heard authority claimed so easily and comfortably. I half expected him to be joking, but it turned out that he wasn’t.

And curiously, you may find this hard to believe, that’s why I trusted him. Fred knew who he was, and he always challenged other people to figure out who they were.

As comfortable as Fred was in his role as senior pastor, I don’t recall that he ever felt threatened by my own achievements, accomplishments, and successes. In fact, Fred repeatedly looked for ways for me to succeed. He opened doors. He introduced me to people I should know. He sincerely wanted me to do well – expected me to do well. And since I was never a threat to him, I could find success every day of the week as far he was concerned. I didn’t, of course, but it would have been alright with him if I had.

Some of the best and most memorable sermons I have ever heard were ones that Fred preached. I had never seen anyone own a pulpit the way Fred did. He overpowered it and made it his. The pulpit at Pine Street Church was actually quite large – “twelve feet above contradiction,” we used to say – but Fred’s presence was equal to it. I have seen piano players take command of a piano and bend the instrument to their will, and that’s what Fred did with the pulpit most Sundays. He made it his.

One of the sermons I remember – not because it was his best, but because of the sheer audacity of it – was titled “Gross or Net?” It was a stewardship sermon, and the title referred to an often-asked question when Presbyterians are challenged to tithe. “Before or after taxes?” they usually wanted to know, and Fred responded by demolishing the question. If I can summarize his point, it was that “if you have to ask the question, then you don’t understand Jesus’ claim on your life.” Fred made a tither out of me in my first years of ministry, something that simply would not have happened without his conviction and example.

I regularly heard Fred preach more than once on a Sunday, but his sermons were never the same, which was curious because he always took a manuscript to the pulpit. I never knew what those pieces of paper were for, because he never seemed to refer to them. His sermons were memorable, though, mostly because they were strong and courageous. He always said what needed to be said and never sugar coated anything. When he was finished there was never a question as to where Fred stood. He stood squarely within the Word of God.

And that’s another point that should be made about Fred – his commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember leaving a funeral service for one of our colleagues, a pastor at another downtown church. The service consisted of one tribute after another for the deceased pastor, and I could sense while sitting next to him that Fred very much disliked everything about the service. As we were leaving, he leaned over and whispered, loudly enough for the entire balcony to hear, “If it should ever become your responsibility to lead my funeral service, then preach the gospel!”

And the thing is, Fred always did. No matter what.

Fred did his best to teach me to be a preacher. On the occasional Sunday mornings when I was preaching, he would pick me up on his way to church, and then he would sit in the back at the sound console while I would nervously preach my sermon, over and over again, to a darkened and nearly-empty sanctuary.

Fred also taught me to baptize babies. On the Sunday morning before my first baptism, he and I arrived early, found a baby doll in the church nursery, and I said the words of the baptismal formula while soaking the doll I was holding in my arms. Somehow I missed the class at seminary where these kinds of things were demonstrated, but am glad now that I learned to do them with Fred.

The morning I baptized my own child, Sarah, I was so overcome with emotion that I only managed to baptize Sarah “in the name of the Father.” When Fred realized I could say no more, he reached into the baptismal font, grabbed a fistful of water, showered both of us with it, and said, “and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It was, I’m sure, one of the few tag-team baptisms in the history of the church, and I still smile about it.

I also learned to chair board (Session) meetings from Fred. As you might imagine, if you have never seen him do it, he chaired board meetings with authority. Part of that came from being the best prepared person in the room. Fred always knew every item on the agenda and how the discussion was going to go. He knew parliamentary procedure too and didn’t hesitate to shepherd the elders through its complexities. But as strong as Fred was in those situations, no one should have felt intimidated or cowed into silence. Everyone with an opinion to express had ample opportunity to do so. And then a decision was made, and we moved on. Fred knew what he wanted and usually got it.

My favorite part of the monthly board meeting was the debriefing later in the evening at the Tuesday Club which was always empty by the time we arrived. Fred seemed to know his way around the kitchen and made the best ham sandwiches I’ve ever had. He also introduced me to Manhattans at those late evening seminars, and over ham sandwiches and Manhattans we would dissect every aspect of the meeting which had just concluded. I realized years later that I had been given a doctoral seminar in managing a church board. My diploma should bear the coat of arms not of Princeton, but of the venerable Tuesday Club.

One more story. I’m pretty sure no other first-year pastor has ever had to officiate at so many funerals. After one particularly difficult stretch, with at least three maybe four funerals in a single week, Fred must have seen my war-weary look, and so he said, “You’d better figure out what you believe about life after death – and do it quickly!”

He was right, as he usually was in those situations, and that year I learned to lean hard on my faith. I have not officiated at a funeral service in the years since then without thinking about those words. You can’t do this work if you don’t know what you believe. Fred knew what he believed, and so do I.

To say that I had a good experience in my first five years of ministry would be an understatement. I realize that I had one of the best transitions into ministry it was possible to have. And I knew at the time, from listening to my classmates who were often in less-than-ideal situations, that I should not take this experience for granted. I hope I didn’t. I tried to learn as much as I could. I tried to enjoy my life as a pastoral staff member as much as I could, because there are many advantages to not being the one ultimately responsible . And I tried to grow into my new identity as a pastor as much as I could.

For all of that, and more, I will always be grateful to a fine mentor and one of the most capable pastors I have ever known.

I love you, Fred. And I am thankful for the ministry we shared over the years.

(Photo: That’s the sanctuary of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church where Fred Anderson was once the pastor and where I was ordained on the chancel steps 34 years ago. Fred is retiring this spring after more than 20 years as pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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12 Responses to A tribute to a mentor, colleague, friend, and fine pastor

  1. Lizzy April 4, 2015 at 12:45 am #

    This was really fun to read. Love you!

  2. Mike H April 4, 2015 at 1:32 am #

    This blog has always been an enjoyable and meaningful read – I’ll miss it. Looking forward to hearing/reading whatever comes next. I bet it will be eternally important. Tschüss

  3. Susan April 4, 2015 at 4:06 am #

    I will miss your blog. We barely overlapped at IPC – I moved to Munich a few months after your arrival. Your writings are a blessing.

    I come from a long line of preachers, and I so enjoyed hearing about your first pastorate, and this fine man.

    God bless your friend, Fred Anderson. And God bless you and your family, Doug, and your ministry in Zurich.

    • Fred April 4, 2015 at 9:22 am #

      If pastoral ministry is the roller-coaster you and I have always known it to be, then retirement from it, after 42 years, is a giant one–mammoth, in fact! Your blog, this morning is one of those giant high points. I’m humbled by it, grateful for it, and thankful for the privilege of those years together. Its a bit like listening in on the tributes at your own funeral. As our mutual friend, Laird Stuart, who himself just retired from Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco said to me, “Let them love you.” Thank you for your love, Doug. I hope you know that it is mutual!

      One thing: you forgot my huffing and puffing as we ran home from church in the evenings, trying to sort out the day, you gliding along with your easy stride, I, earning the title “thunder-foot” given to me by another fellow jogger.

      I think you know how much I treasure our friendship, the things you taught me (“Short sentences, Fred!”), and your candor, loyalty, freshness, eagerness to learn, and wonder at the privilege of being a Minister of Word and Sacrament. One other thing, speaking of funerals, it was Questa who said, “If I ever need a pastor, it will be Doug!” Questa she saw in you, early on, an enormous gift of authenticity before the gospel, which the people you have served have learned to expect week after week, and one we have all enjoyed in your blog.

      I will miss them. Yet, I know that blogs can be like Sundays, a deadline that comes with disturbing regularity. But please, don’t give up your Christmas letters. They are one of the high points of our annual celebration.

      I’m sorry you can’t be with us on May 1, but you are already there in spirit.
      We look forward to seeing you and Susan when all the smoke of celebration clears, whether in Zurich or at Narnia in New Hampshire, where we move at then end of next month.

      Blessings good and dear friend. My love to Susan as well.


      • Carl Wilton April 5, 2015 at 8:17 am #

        What a beautiful tribute, Doug – and a characteristically gracious response from you, Fred.

        As you’ll recall, Doug, I had a ringside seat for that first year of yours, as I was the intern who hung around Pine Street for a year before returning back to Princeton to finish seminary. My experience of Fred as a mentor was similar to yours, therefore, although not of such a long duration.

        There are people who know Fred’a big personality from afar who find it hard to imagine how anyone could work under his direction. Fred is larger than life, vocal and certainly opinionated, but those of us who have worked with him also know of his deep kindness. I can only say that year was one of the greatest in my life. I learned more from him about how to actually do ministry than I did in any course in seminary – and a great many of my seminary courses were fantastic. Fred has always considered mentoring others to be part of his calling, and I’m pleased to have been a beneficiary.

        Fred, I regret to say I won’t be there on May 1st, either. I was planning to come, but I’ve recently learned that the GA Permanent Judicial Commission had the nerve to schedule a trial that same day, for which I (as chair of the Synod’s Committee of Counsel) have to present the respondent’s testimony. You were the one who first introduced me to the Book of Order, so you can rest assured that the lessons you taught me will be well-applied that day.

        May it be a celebration that you and everyone else present will long remember.

        • Doug April 5, 2015 at 10:14 am #

          Thanks for the kind words, Carlos. The tribute wrote itself, I suppose, but there was a great deal I had to leave out, as you can imagine, such as my relationships with others on staff, beginning with you, but including Greg and Kathy Bostrom, and of course the incomparable Deb McKinley. I remember that weekly staff meetings where we studied the lectionary texts were more helpful than any seminary preaching class, though like you I had many fine seminary classes about preaching and other things. I really wanted to tell the story, too, of Fred’s visit to the hospital after our first child was born. It was textbook pastoral care, with a prayer that left me weeping. But I was already too wordy.

          And to think I once counseled Fred against wordiness! (Physician heal thyself.)

          My hope in writing was that Fred would hear (or read) that the enormous investment he made in all of us has paid for itself many times over the years.

  4. Betty Strunk April 4, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

    God’s blessings on your ministry in Zurich. I will miss this chance to learn from you.

  5. Lawrence Jones April 4, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    Doug, what a joy to read your blog, and Fred, what a joy to read your response! My own retirement will follow Fred’s by about six weeks, and we too are retiring to northern New England (Vermont, though). And I too have learned from both of you, from Doug a bit longer, starting in Alexander Hall, from Fred a bit more starkly and brutally but also on one hazily memorable occasion at the Tuesday Club. What a joy it has been, and what lessons I have learned! Fred, it was from you (via Doug) that I learned to start every session meeting with a worship service. It was that, I am convinced, that made session meetings so productive. People could leave baggage behind and remember what we were doing in the first place. And Doug, I came to appreciate intellectual integrity from you, which I have practiced all of my ministry, most especially in giving Children’s Sermons. Blessings upon you both! Fred, I hope to drop in on you at some point across the next several years. And Doug, I hope to drop in on you, too, although not in the immediate future. Thank God our paths have crossed!

    • Doug April 4, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

      Too many tears to respond now, Larry. More later. Am so glad our paths crossed all those years ago. My life is much richer for it. I love you too, Larry. (Sorry to make you feel uncomfortable.)

  6. Mandana April 5, 2015 at 2:53 am #

    HE has risen! Amen :0)

  7. Joan April 8, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    Beautiful tribute, inspires both the want to be a better mentor and to provide a more comprehensive thank you to those who have helped me. Have really enjoyed your leadership and will miss your blog Doug. Thanks for sharing your insights with us. Grateful, Joan

  8. Georgia Hamilton April 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    Doug, I read with great interest your heartfelt tribute to your friend and Mentor, Fred. As with your other readers, I too, will miss your blog—always so much to think about!. Blessings as you move forward into new horizons.

    Georgia Hamilton