It’s been a long time since I have written, and I hope to do more this summer, but wanted to share some reflections on the life of one of the greatest influences in my life, Prentiss Gordon,Sr., who died on May 6.  It took me a while to collect and compile my thoughts because of the depth and breadth of his impact on my life.

Just a few months before I turned four years old, my family moved to Starkville because my dad had been appointed as the associate pastor of Starkville First UMC.  Back in those days, it was not common for someone like my dad who had served his own churches to choose to go back to be an associate.  The senior pastor had a lot of say in who came to be the associate during that time, and Prentiss Gordon, Sr. wanted my dad to come serve with him in Starkville.  Thankfully, my dad chose to accept that appointment.

We lived there for seven years, five with Prentiss and two with Allen Bailey. Those years were formative for me in many ways even though I was quite young, and I have many fond memories of that church every time I walk through its doors.  Of course, I had no awareness at that time of how profoundly this early childhood would impact me as I met and became close to Prentiss and Mary Lee Gordon.  After five years as Prentiss’s associate, Prentiss was appointed to be the District Superintendent of the Cleveland District in the old North Mississippi Annual Conference.  We lived in Starkville for two more years, and then moved to Columbus in 1979 when my dad became the first director of Trinity Place Retirement Home, changing his ministry focus from the local church pastorate to serving older adults through Methodist Senior Services.

In June, 1983, Prentiss was appointed as the senior pastor of Tupelo FUMC, and in July, 1983 we moved to Tupelo when my dad became the administrator of Traceway Manor Retirement Home and Cedars Health Center Nursing Home.  We moved to Tupelo on a Thursday, and that Sunday we joined Tupelo FUMC.  We knew that we were going to be members of wherever Prentiss and Mary Lee were serving.

We had visited them a few times in Cleveland, but it wasn’t until we were all in Tupelo together that the relationship with them was fully re-established.  Rev. Gordon, as I called him then, had been a special influence on my life as a young child, but now as I was a youth and college student, I was able to see in new ways just how special he was.  His voice was not a strong one due to some different health situations he had experienced in the previous decades, but his sermon delivery was strong, and his content was fantastic.  He had a great ability to mix admonition, encouragement, and humor as he preached solid theological content.  The church service was on television, and Prentiss had the service timed down perfectly.  He stood up to preach at almost the exact same time every Sunday, and rarely were his sermons less than sixteen minutes or more than 18 minutes.  It was usually right at 17 minutes, but he could say more in those 17 minutes than most preachers who preached twice that long.  He crafted his sermons, and that great preparation was evident in his preaching.  He would sometimes wag his finger as he preached, which meant you knew he was making a particularly strong point. Mary Lee would tell him to not point that finger, but he replied, “Mary Lee, sometimes people need a finger pointed at them!”  And you knew that when he said “Oh, dear friends…” that he was wrapping up!

When I felt called to ministry in the spring of my freshman year of college, I told only a few people.  I talked with my Bible study leader Kay Verrall, with my parents, and with Prentiss, but didn’t tell anyone else for a few months as I prayed and waited and discerned whether this call was real or not.  Once I accepted that call, Prentiss was a constant source of help and encouragement, and I would discover later when I talked with others who went into the ministry that he was a source of support and encouragement to many young pastors who heard God’s call.

Even as a young adult in college, I noticed how he was able to preach so well, how he knew the names of everyone in the church, and was impressed at how he was able to lead congregations to not only dream big dreams but to achieve great goals for Christ.

Mary Lee was a major influence on Becky as they got to know each other.  She wasn’t so sure about Becky at first because she was very protective of me.  After my first year of seminary, I came home for Annual Conference weighing 123 pounds, 5 pounds less than when I had graduated college.  When she saw me and that my cheeks were a little shallow and sunken, she asked my mom, “Does that little wife of his know how to cook?!”  She wanted to make sure I was okay.  But as she got to know Becky, they became very close.  Her signature piece of advice to Becky was this:  “Read your Bible every day, and take your birth control.”

After three years of seminary, I was waiting to hear where I would be appointed when Prentiss called me and told me he wanted me to come talk with the SPRC at Tupelo FUMC about being the associate. I knew it would be highly unusual for to come back to serve at the church from which I had been approved, and even though I had not grown up in that church, I had been closely associated with that church for 10 years.  But Prentiss saw it as a positive.  Much to my surprise, I was appointed there in June, 1993.  It was very clear I was there because of his influence.  I knew that year would be Prentiss’s last year before he retired, but I knew that a year with him would be valuable to my ministry.  And, it was a neat experience to know that both my dad and I would be able to serve as his associate pastors about two decades apart from each other.  One thing I learned later which was impressive to me was that in spite of the fact that I had known him all of my life and he had watched me grow up, he called the supervisor of the place where I worked to talk with him about my attitude, work ethic, etc.  Prentiss certainly wanted to help me get a good start on my ministry, but his primary goal was what he thought would be best for the church, and it meant a lot to me actually that my appointment there wasn’t out of a sense of favor or nepotism. The fact that he trusted me to do the work meant a lot to me, and I never wanted to do anything other than validate his decision.  I wanted for him to be proud of me.

I can’t go into all I learned that year, but it was tremendous.  I watched how he handled meetings, how he led worship, and how he dealt with people in smaller situations.  I watched him call by name every child in the church, and I watched how much those kids loved him.  It was an important lesson early on that it is a falsehood to say that you need a young pastor with a family to attract young families to the church.  Those parents and those kids saw the delight in Prentiss’ eyes when he saw them.  They saw how he supported the ministries to children and youth.
I watched how he handled difficult situations such as a scholarship fund to Candler School of Theology when a major donor put in a stipulation at the last minute that females would not be allowed to earn the scholarship.  Prentiss refused to accept that stipulation and was then told that the matching funds for the scholarships would therefore not be forthcoming.  Prentiss then raised the matching funds as well, and the scholarship which was going to be named in honor of a particular person was renamed the Tupelo FUMC Scholarship Fund.

I listened as he critiqued my sermon.  Sometimes he looked bored while I preached, and having to listen to my sermons on Sunday night worship he might have been bored!  But then we would talk about the sermon, and he would break it down in a very constructive manner, pointing the good things I was doing and areas of growth as well.  It was clear he wasn’t missing a thing I said.  That was true not just about my preaching but about other aspects of ministry as well.

We lived next door to each other, and that first year Becky stayed home with David.  Most days she did laundry and spent a good bit of her time with Mary Lee.  We ate dinner with them a lot, and often Prentiss and I would go out visiting after supper.  He was 67 years old and I was 24 years old, and I couldn’t keep up with him!  He was always delighted to spend time with David, and David couldn’t wait to see him, crawling or toddling over to see Granddaddy Gordon.  He would hold David and talk with him as David bounced up and down on his knee.  David loved to stand up and bounce, and Prentiss would let him do that as much as he want, to the point that Mary Lee said to him, “Prentiss, if he keeps doing that he is going to be bow-legged!”

I watched him in many different settings so I could learn from him, but though he guided me and helped me tremendously, he let me do my job and he let me take my lumps.  He knew I needed to learn, but he had also brought me in to do a job.  He expected me to do my job and to do it well.  And then he let me do it.  He was always supportive of me publicly, and if there was something which was of concern to him, he would call me into his office, or we would talk about it over supper.

After he retired we would go and visit as we could with the kids, and the eight years we had in the Starkville-Columbus area from 1999-2007 were particularly enjoyable since we were close by.  My kids called Prentiss and Mary Lee “Granny and Granddaddy Gordon.”  Their unconditional love of our children shaped them in ways they probably won’t fully realize until they are even older than they are now.

At the visitation, one of the family members said to me, “You, Becky, David, and Sarah are like family.  You were as important to them as family.”  It says something about the character and graciousness of this family that they would make a statement like that on that day.  I looked back at him and said, “Maybe almost, but never doubt that as important as your folks were to so many people, none were more important than his actual family.”  This family shared Prentiss with literally thousands of people over the years, and the lives of those families were immeasurably enriched by Prentiss’s friendship and ministry.  My lengthy story is but one of many which similar ones which could be shared, and that is a testimony to the character of Prentiss, Mary Lee, and the family they raised.

When we lived in the southern and western part of the state for the last several years, I didn’t get to see Prentiss often.  It was much more rare than I would have liked, but the kids were in junior high and high school, and after my parents moved from Starkville to North Carolina I was rarely in Starkville, and when I was it was for a quick weekend to take David or Sarah to a band event at State.  I regret that I didn’t spend much time with him in the last several years of his life, but the older I get the greater appreciation I have for all he and Mary Lee poured into me and my family when we were younger.

There is no one who has had a great influence on my life than my own mother and father.  My perspective, principles, and character were shaped and formed by them in ways I am still learning about and appreciate.  My dad is a retired UM minister, so he has been a constant source of guidance and counsel throughout my life.  But my dad left the full-time local church ministry in the late 1970s, and though he continued to serve churches part-time for many years after he went with Methodist Senior Services, when it came to the daily work and grind of local church ministry, I relied on Prentiss’s counsel and guidance as much as anyone else.

It is a safe statement that outside of my mother and father, there is no one person who had a great impact on my life than Prentiss Gordon, Sr.

One final thing.  That legacy of influence has continued in the son and grandson who are UM ministers.  At a particularly difficult time in my early ministry when I was going through a lot of personal and ministerial stuff, I asked Bud Gordon to come preach a revival at Ellison.  I was a mess, but thought I was doing a good job at hiding my pain.  I called Bud and asked if we could talk, and he met with me for several hours one day as I poured out where I was in my life, my struggles, my fears, and my hopes.  That conversation was a major turning point for me in examining where I was in life and ministry at that time, and later on I was able to point to that conversation as a major catalyst for my getting better and for solidifying the kind of minister I knew God wanted me to be.

Fast forward to 2012, and his grandson Brian Gordon and I roomed together on a trip to southern Spain as part of the Shepherd’s Sabbath experience.  While we were in Spain, I got word that my mother-in-law, with whom I was very close, had died. It was expected, but I had hoped she would not die before I got back home.  There were 21 of us all together, and we were at the Alcazar fortress when the news came.  We paused the tour as they gathered around me and prayed for me.  A few of them offered to go with me back to the hotel if I wanted, but I told them there was nothing we could do now, that I didn’t want anyone to miss out on a once in a lifetime trip, and that to stay occupied was the best thing for me, so we all continued to tour.  That afternoon we had a lot of free time to wander around.  Brian, Dayna Goff, and Stacey Parvin walked around with me that afternoon as we talked about this and that.  I was a bit surly in my demeanor, but they just walked with me as I walked here and there.  That time to just be with me in my grief was a gift I can never repay and will never forget.

Prentiss’ legacy continues far beyond his death in his family, in me, and in the lives of all whom he touched, and I am grateful that he was a part of my life.  For those of you who made it all the way to the end of this note, know that I could have easily written three times as much as I did.

Prentiss loved jokes, so I will finish with one of my favorites by him.  A pastor and his wife were walking with a friend one afternoon when a former parishioner came up to them, gave the pastor a big hug, and talked with them for a few minutes.  After she left, the friend asked, “She seemed very nice, but I didn’t get her name.”  The pastor replied, “Oh, well, I am horrible with names, but let me think for a minute.  What’s the name of that flower that has real pretty petals, comes in a lot of colors, has thorns on it?”  The friend replied, “You mean a rose?”  “Yes, that’s it,” he said.  He then turned to his wife and said, “Rose, what’s the name of that lady we just met?”  That’s a Prentiss joke if there ever was one.
Well done, good and faithful servant.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around a world where you aren’t in it.  You are and will be missed.