What is Deryl Fleming’s “call to the ministry” story?
Pastor Meg wondered this aloud in a sermon recently, as she described a Bible “B-side” character named Nathan who gets a passing mention in 2 Samuel.
“I know Deryl’s a foodie,” Meg said. “I know he’s witty and reads good books … Maybe he has told me his call story before, and I just can’t remember it. But my guess is, it’s more likely that Deryl has learned to be like Nathan … He just does the work that God sets before him because God told him to do it.”
If you ask Deryl about his call story, he will say that growing up, the church in southeast Texas was his second mother. Adults all around him, over fried chicken at potlucks and Wednesday evening prayer meetings, encouraged him to pursue the ministry. His call, then, was gradual, and he doesn’t remember a time when ministry wasn’t part of his plan.
Still, there is one moment that sticks in his head, a time when he sort of confronted God on the subject.
He was about 15, on his hands and knees with a pair of gardening clippers. As he trimmed stray bits of grass and weeds around the concrete foundation of his home, he remembers stopping and saying: “If you want me to do this, God, to pursue the ministry, then you need to let me know,” Deryl said.
“And then I lived my life. And I didn’t get any negative messages, so I kept going.”
Deryl’s mother was the one who took him to a Southern Baptist church in town. “She was always at church,” Deryl said, when she wasn’t cutting and setting hair or teaching classes at the local beauty school.
Deryl’s father was a boilermaker in a nearby oil refinery. It was a hot and dirty job. He never came home with black, oil-stained hands or clothes, though; he always showered at work first before heading home for supper. Deryl wonders sometimes whether his own concern for cleanliness came from his dad.
Deryl’s father wasn’t a regular churchgoer; something about the place upset or offended him at some point and he didn’t go back. Deryl doesn’t know what happened.
But for Deryl, “I had to go. Something inside of me drew me there.”
Deryl usually came home from school to an empty house because his parents worked. “If we locked our doors in those days, I would have been a latchkey kid, but we didn’t,” he said.
He wasn’t lonely. He had his books—in those days, things like Hardy Boys adventures.
And he had his “people,” from church. Many of his neighbors were fellow youth group friends, so he could play with them in his sandy, swampy coastal community.
The church and the library: That’s where Deryl felt at home.
And at age 79, not much has changed.
That’s why Deryl’s plan to retire in a few weeks stirs up complicated feelings for him. He has been pastoring for more than 50 years, first in churches—both Southern and American Baptist congregations in Texas and Virginia— and later in a Mennonite psychiatric hospital in Maryland.
There, he ministered both to patients and local pastors. He ran seminars and training sessions designed to help local clergy take care of themselves by addressing their own feelings of such things as sadness, anger and envy.
Deryl worked there for 17 years, and he shifted to part-time before he left.
So not unlike Deryl’s call to ministry, his retirement from ministry has been gradual as well.
He came to BPC because of his wife, Kathy, who had joined this community in 1995 after going through a divorce. She was looking for a church home both for herself and her son. After Kathy and Deryl married, BPC was where Deryl worshipped, too.
At first, he preached an occasional Sunday when then-Pastor Beth (pictured above, center) asked him for his help. Then he started making some pastoral calls and agreed to help coach the deacons. He was on staff as a parish associate by the time Pastors Meg and Jarrett were hired in 2013.
Lately, a voice has been rising inside him. It’s time, he said.
“I have seen pastors who die spiritually and emotionally because they don’t know when to stop,” he said.
But he does.
So he will travel. He and Kathy plan to take one big trip every year and lots of smaller ones.
He will try out new restaurants in new cities and revisit old favorites, because Pastor Meg was right: Deryl Fleming enjoys good food.
He will get reacquainted with Washington, visiting museums and landmarks.
And he will read books.
“I’m never bored unless I’m somewhere without a book,” he said.