Clergy Corner, Dec. 7, 2018

Clergy Corner, Dec. 7, 2018

He's the pastor at First Presbyterian of Urbana. She's a chaplain at Carle Foundation Hospital.

The Revs. DAVID and JEAN OLIVER-HOLDER met in seminary school in Kentucky, were ordained six months apart in Wisconsin and remain a happy clergy couple five moves, three kids and nearly three decades later.

David, 53, who grew up a military brat and grew into a Packers fan, is in his second year as pastor of the 162-year-old Urbana church. He sat down with News-Gazette Media for a wide-ranging Q&A.

Tell us about your church's mission work in the southeastern African country of Malawi.

Our partnership has existed for more than 20 years. Two graduate students at the University of Illinois who were here in the late 1990s came here. They liked what they found. Our pastor at the time was wanting to do something to create a sister church. The students connected our church with Jeanes CCAP Church, which is a Presbyterian Church in Domasi, Malawi.

We have gone over there to help build wells. Over 20 years, we have helped them build 796 shallow wells. We partnered with them to build the church. Over the last five years, we are helping them build a preschool.

I went on the trip last year. It was wonderful. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Experiencing that was very eye-opening. Seeing the conditions that people live in while they remain so joyful has been inspirational. We were there for nine days, and I kept hearing laughter. Teachers would come there for continuing education training. Hearing the laughter of the children as they were coming to school was very meaningful fore me.

How did you experience the calling to become a minister?

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be an astronomer. I used to stargaze at night. I loved reading about astronomy and the night sky. In the 10th grade, attending church services, I began to feel the sense that working in a church could be something I might do. I talked to pastor about that. He said, "Son, if you can be happy doing anything else, that's what you need to do."

Looking back, that ended up being very, very good advice.

He was encouraging me to be absolutely clear about what I was doing, because doing this is not the easiest thing. There are challenges a minister faces that are specific to this kind of work. For a couple of weeks, I thought bout it. I remember being outside one particularly clear starry night looking up to the heavens, and I was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. I was convinced I could be happy being an astronomer.

And then what?

I finished high school and went to Wofford College thinking that was what I was going to be trained to be. I majored in physics and was completing the coursework. During my junior year at Wofford, that sense of calling, that nudging from God, came back to me. I realized that ministry was what I should really be doing.

I was involved in the campus Baptist Student Union. The chaplain there, the campus minister, was great. He helped me to discern whether God was in this and how I might proceed. As it happened, a seminary recruiter came to Wofford a month or two after that, and I visited with them. They confirmed my sense that God was nudging me to become a minister.

I went ahead and completed by undergrad degree in physics and went on to seminary in Louisville, where I met my wife.

Did you grow up a Christian?

I did not. My dad was in the Navy, and we traveled around as he was re-assigned. So I did not grow up going to church.

When I was in third grade to seventh grade, my dad was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina. While there, I made friends with another boy down the street. When we were in fifth grade, he invited me to start to go to church with him. I think it was a Methodist church. I didn't become a Christian at that point. I wasn't baptized until later, when I was just entering high school.

My dad's last assignment was in my parents' hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. His last assignment was to do recruiting there, and then he retired out of the service. There I began to go to church with my cousins, who were all Southern Baptists. That's when I was baptized. I was 14 years old.

What do you remember about your ordination?

It was in Richland Center, Wisconsin. My wife an I had completed our seminary training, and we knew that opportunities in the southeastern part of the country were not that positive. Changes were going on in the Southern Baptist denomination. Fundamentalists were taking over and imposing a very specific, narrow and rigid system. We knew that was not who we were and where we wanted to work.In the northern part of the country, the most common Baptists are called American Baptists. I was called to two American Baptist congregations in Richland Center that shared a pastor. I was ordained in May 1992, and my wife was ordained about six months later. We took part in each other's ceremony. I remember presenting a scripture reading and a prayer at my wife's ordination.

How did you end up with the Presbyterian Church?

I was an American Baptist for 10 years in Richland Center and later in Milwaukee. While there, I began to feel less and less at home. There was something I was missing.

In 1998, the Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Reformed Church made a full communion agreement. It really healed a division that went all the way back to the Reformation. I wanted to be a part of that. I made a commitment to do doctoral work at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago because I wanted to study liturgy.

It shared a joint doctor of ministry program with McCormack Theological Seminary and the Lutheran School of Theology. I finished my doctoral work in 2001, and, in the process, I began to make connections with he Presbytery of Milwaukee. They recognized my ordination, and I had be credentials transferred.

I was asked to take the theology exam for the Presbyterian Church and the Polity Exam. My wife made the switch as well. She was feeling some of the same things. We wanted to be with a denomination that valued liturgy and valued ecumenism.

How did you end up in Urbana in March 2017?

I was feeling like I had completed my work where I was before in Wisconsin. It was time to explore what my possible new ministries would be. This church also was looking for a new pastor. We have a system where churches seeking pastors can be connected with pastors seeking churches.

I interviewed with them by phone, and then I met with the search committee. They felt there was a good fit between us. The congregation voted on me in January 2017.

What ministry are you most proud of at the First Presbyterian Church in Urbana?

Two things. This church has a long history of being involved with environmental issues and being good stewards of the Earth. We are an Earthcare Congregation committed to modeling care for the Earth as people of faith. We look at how we emphasize the Earth in worship, in education, in our advocacy and in the way that we take care of the building. Cleaning products that we use, the things we use for fellowship together eliminate Styrofoam and those sort of things.

Secondly, our congregation has completed a process that has led us to fully welcome and inclusive of all people, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That was something that had begun before I was called to this church. Over the last year, we have been working with our congregation to explore what it means to be fully welcoming and inclusive. We invited folks from the United in Pride Center of Champaign County to work with us to offered educational events.

We've looked at our policies and drafted a statement expressing our commitment to be fully inclusive. We are the second congregation after the McKinley Presbyterian Church on campus to do that.

What poster was on your bedroom wall as a kid?

When the first 'Star Wars' film came out in 1977, I had a poster. I was a big 'Star Wars' fan. My favorite movie of the series is still the 'The Empire Strikes Back.'

I think the drama is done really well. I think the story and writing is that movie was the best of the three films in showing the conflict between light and dark, between the good side and the dark side.

What activities were you involved in at Boiling Springs High in Spartanburg?

I was active in the chess club and the AV club. I still play chess today, and I own a couple of chess sets. Chess helped me to be more thoughtful and to understand strategy. The game can develop in a lot of different ways.

I also ran track one year. I competed in the 800 hurdles and the mile.

If you could meet anybody from the Bible, who would it be?

Probably the Apostle Paul. His story is amazing. He was someone who was a rigid, narrow Pharisee. After Jesus was crucified, Paul did his best to try to stamp out this new movement. He found himself encountering Jesus after his resurrection on the road to Damascus. He had such a radical transformation. There is hardly any other story in the Bible like his.

Have a favorite vacation destination?

The North Woods in Wisconsin. We go camping, hiking. We see bears, deer, sometimes elk. The best months to go there are August and September.

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