The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 26, 2007


Rev. Victor Carpenter serves FRS at its turning point

Interim Minister Victor Carpenter (Photo by Mollie McPhee)
The First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist (FRS) of Carlisle celebrates its 250th birthday next year at a turning point. Having survived the retirement of long-time minister Dr. Eugene Widrick in 2001, and the recent departure of his replacement Reverend Tim Jensen, the church is under the temporary stewardship of Interim Minister Reverend Victor H. Carpenter. Over the next year, Carpenter will draw on his half century of experience guiding congregations from South Africa to California to mentor the FRS through the process of finding a new minister. Out of that process he hopes the church will forge a new understanding of itself and a vision to sustain it through the next decade and beyond.

Carpenter's spry step belies his 77 years. His resonant voice and ability to draw on a life of scholarship and experience combine with a disarmingly candid manner and great enthusiasm for the philosophy of the Unitarian Universalist church he serves. His experience as a change agent spans two continents and several congregations. He was born in Boston, earned degrees from Boston University and Harvard Divinity School, and was ordained nearly 50 years ago in 1958. After a stint in Norwell, Mass., from 1962 to 1968 he was pastor of a church in Capetown, South Africa, where "I was involved in things that got me in trouble with the [apartheid] government," Carpenter said. Using his cover as minister to churches in Capetown, Johannesburg, and Durbin, Carpenter became the "bag man" for the Defensive Aid Fund, an organization that raised money to hire lawyers for people accused of crimes. "Many of our members were arrested, but my American citizenship protected me," he recalls.

Social activism in Philadelphia

The medical needs of a disabled daughter (the Carpenters have another daughter and a son) forced Carpenter and his wife Catherine to move back to the United States, where he became pastor of the First Church of Philadelphia. Tne 2006 congregational record of that church notes, "Beginning in 1968, Reverend Victor H. Carpenter led our congregation into social activism on issues such as prison reform, civil rights, black empowerment, woman's liberation and especially the peace movement. Long-time members recall candle vigils on our main entrance porch to protest the Vietnam War."

Carpenter himself notes that, while in Philadelphia, he became president of Horizon House, a half-way home for the mentally disabled, and points to the "very, very happy coincidence" that Carlisle is considering a group home just as he arrives here. The success his daughter (now deceased) experienced in a group home inspires his continued advocacy that the disabled "should not be avoided or hidden" but need to "move into the community and into relationships."

In each posting Carpenter maintained his advocacy for the downtrodden, including the homeless, the disabled, and those with AIDS.

From 1976 to 1986 Carpenter was senior minister at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, which had been without a pastor for two years. According to the church's web site, Carpenter's tenure allowed it to rebuild membership and start to plan a restoration project which began in 1988. Six years in San Francisco and Rancho Palos Verdes, followed, and after eight years at the First Church in Belmont, Carpenter retired in 2002. In each of these postings Carpenter maintained his advocacy for the downtrodden, including the homeless, the disabled, and those with AIDS. Since his retirement, he has continued his service with episodes as interim pastor in Dorchester and Hingham. He and his wife live in Belmont.

The call to Carlisle

How did he arrive in Carlisle? "They asked me," he says. He had visited the church and delivered a sermon last spring, and when he received the call asking him to come back, his reaction was, "This isn't done. We don't do this kind of calling up." The correct channel would have been to approach the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Department of the Ministry, but apparently the Carlisle method worked — Carpenter agreed to a one year ministry during which a search committee will seek his permanent replacement.

Once the search committee has narrowed the choices to two or three, each finalist is invited to a "free pulpit" where the search committee can hear him/her speak. From these, one is chosen to appear at a Sunday meeting and respond to questions from the congregation. The following Sunday, the candidate preaches and the congregation votes to hire or not. If the decision is not to hire, the next candidate appears until there is an acceptance.

The role of Interim Minister

Carpenter notes the role of Interim Minister (IM) is "a profession in and of itself." The focus must remain on the congregation, and healing the wounds. "Whether the last minister was loved or hated, they need to get over it," says Carpenter. The IM stays removed from the search process, and "the Golden Rule is you can't stay on" as permanent minister. Carpenter is not even allowed to make recommendations, though he admits, "of course it's terribly tempting."

FRS is one of Carlisle's oldest landmarks. (Photo by Dave Ives)
One of the challenges he sees at FRS is moving beyond the 27-year ministry of Eugene Widrick, affectionately known as "Woody." Carpenter has met Widrick for coffee and understands the difficulty. "Woody was a father figure," he says, and notes that it's not unusual for a congregation that loses a long-term minister to have trouble replacing him. "People get set in their ways," Carpenter observes. "They think his way is the only way it ever was or will ever be." But if the church continues to keep Widrick as its model, Carpenter believes, it will not accept the changes necessary to attract and retain new ministerial talent.

The church community

Carpenter believes that the community of the church is "in pretty good shape with high churchmanship, and people who take care of each other." The departure of the last minister "was handled so well there are fewer wounds to bandage." Carlisle's FRS is a well-kept secret that he was unaware of until recently, in spite of many years in Massachusetts and several visits to First Parish Church in Concord. "Outside the hustle and bustle, in a sylvan forest, is this glorious little site that is just charming," he says.

But he believes the church members need to take a hard look at themselves, critically and honestly. What kind of minister is right? Is the church well-positioned to attract good candidates? And is it realistic in this day and age to expect to hire a minister who will stay for more than a few years? Society has changed," says Carpenter, noting that, as in other professions, ministers now move around and do not expect to stay tied to a small church for the long term. "This is a little town church and Carlisle is cozy," he says. But unless the church raises its profile and fundraising ability, "don't plan on the next minister's staying for more than five years," cautions Carpenter.

In the meantime, Carpenter will be helping the church prepare for its 250th

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito