“I don’t know how to explain the call immediately. I was only a child. I knew right then that this was the direction I was going to take. How it was going to work out, I didn’t know.” — Pastor Bertha Brown, Union Village (VT) UMC
Bertha Brown first heard the call to ministry when she was in elementary school.
Now, at age 96, the retired local pastor (don’t confuse retired with inactive, please), continues to serve the small but dedicated congregation of Union Village United Methodist Church in Vermont.
“We’re a small church currently meeting in this room,” Pastor Brown said, gesturing to her living room. “It’s a small group – six regulars. We have had as many as 15.”
The congregation has been meeting here since the pandemic, and it has worked out very well, Pastor Brown said.
“The guy who sits in that chair on Sunday,” she said, “at the end of our first service [here], he jumped up and said, ‘This was wonderful!’”
Expanding on that remark from member Robert Parker, Pastor Brown said, “We were a circle; you could see one another instead of looking at the back of heads, and I didn’t have to shout.”
The chairs are comfortable for everyone, she said, and for herself, not having to stand makes a big difference.
While Pastor Brown expressed her disappointment at the trend of church buildings being sold and repurposed, not having to heat the church is a significant savings as well.
“Every once in a while, I’d say, ‘Do you want to go back?’” But the answer was always “No,” she said.
Meeting in a living room also seems to encourage members to spend more time.
The weekly service begins at 10 am. “There are not very many Sundays when they leave before 12,” Pastor Brown said. “That’s the kind of fellowship we’ve built after the service. We talk about everything, but that’s okay.”
“That’s half of the benefit,” Pastor Brown said. “Most churches, you hear the benediction and whoosh …”
Pastor Brown has spent some time reflecting on her call to ministry, and has created a written record of it titled “My Calling.”
“It started when I was in elementary school,” she said. “I declared that I was the Lord’s and I want to work for Him.”
Pastor Brown’s “My Calling” document ends with a summary of sorts in these words: Compassion, Forgiveness, Love, Joy, Thanksgiving, Community.”
“I just accepted it,” Pastor Brown said of her response as a child. “I told my mother that I wanted to go to Sunday School, and she saw every single week that I got there.”
She admitted that her mother “did a little complaining.” Quoting her, Pastor Brown said, “’She gets up, eats breakfast and goes to church, and I have to do dishes.’”
Pastor Brown recalled that when she was in high school there were weekend gatherings of church young people about four times a year, “and, man, did I go,” she said, “and got a lot out of it.”
After college, she got a job teaching. At the end of her second year, a bit of school politics changed Pastor Brown’s career trajectory.
She doesn’t recall the issue now, but whatever it was she voted against it. “I was called in by the superintendent and told my contract would not be renewed,” she said.
Though she says school officials felt bad afterward, she’s thankful for the way things turned out. That’s when she decided to attend seminary.
She worked in Christian education at churches in Virginia and Rhode Island before coming to New Hampshire where she served as Education Director for a conference of 185 churches. She held that job for a year.
“Then my old buddy Elmer came along,” Pastor Brown said speaking of her husband. “I left and married him.” Brown, who started the nursery that remains a family business, died in 2019.
Pastor Brown had become a Methodist; she served 10 years at Thetford Center UMC. She retired as a local pastor and started serving Union Village UMC in 2006.
In preparing for worship, Pastor Brown spends the week reading and meditating on the scripture in that week’s lectionary. One thing she does not do is write a sermon.
“I don’t write sermons,” Pastor Brown said. “I’m not completely sure what’s coming out until it comes. The Spirit will feed me. I’m not deciding, altogether, what’s being said.”
Asked if she get nervous without any notes or script to reference, Pastor Brown said:
“I suppose you can get caught [without anything to say], but I haven’t been caught yet. That’s the only reason I can keep on doing this … somehow it’s my ability to read, mediate, and then to speak. I can’t explain it.”
“Jill [Rev. Jill Colley Robinson, Green Mountain DS] wanted me to send one of my sermons – sermons come, go, gone … The idea doesn’t disappear, but the words used to convey it do,” Pastor Brown said.
She may not record her sermons, but Pastor Brown knows that the words she’s spoken over the years have had an impact.
“The number one thing is that God becomes so real to them that they can’t just push Him away or forget,” she said of what she hopes the congregation is taking away from her sermons.
“And you see people who seemingly are helped by what is said. … Not that I think I’m special in any way, but if I can help somebody, I think that’s what God wants me to do,” she said.