A retired pastor and his wife share the blessings of serving at a vacancy.
Over the past nine years, Thomas Hilliard has worked at 24 different places in almost 20 states. His occupation? He’s not in the military, as you might suspect. He’s also not a salesperson with a large territory to cover. Thomas Hilliard is a retired WELS pastor—or, more specifically, a retired WELS vacancy pastor.
In 2008, Thomas retired from the full-time ministry after serving for 34 years. He then worked for three years in a rehab center/nursing home—but still felt compelled to minister to God’s people.
At first, he traveled to a nearby WELS church to serve that congregation on weekends after their pastor had taken a call to serve elsewhere. Then, after serving in a vacancy capacity at several WELS churches close to his Florida home, Thomas reached out to the district presidents with his willingness to travel even farther —from coast to coast—to serve churches that didn’t currently have a full-time shepherd. And so began his journey of serving congregations throughout the country as a retired vacancy pastor.
Nine years of travel
As I talk with Thomas and his wife of over 40 years, Cathy, they pull out a photo album—the good old-fashioned kind with sticky pages. In it are photos of the churches he has served, the people he has met, and the places he has seen as vacancy pastor. The album serves as a memory book of ministry. “It’s the only way to keep it straight,” admits Cathy, due to the sheer number of congregations her husband has served in the past nine years.
Initially, Cathy had mixed feelings about Thomas leaving retirement to serve in this way. She knew that once he offered to fill vacancies throughout the country, he would be away from home—away from her—for months at a time, since she is currently teaching and can’t always accompany him. She has endured long separations from her husband and even Florida hurricanes on her own. But Cathy trusts where God has led them: “It proves that God knows better than we do. Abraham was 75 when God called him to leave and go to Canaan, and he just did it. Overall, it has been a wonderful blessing that we never expected.”
As her schedule permits, Cathy joins Thomas at the churches he serves. She likes to help him settle into his new surroundings, which always include a furnished and equipped residence or apartment provided by the congregation. During her visits to join him, the Hilliards take time to enjoy the local sites. They consider it a blessing to see parts of the country they otherwise wouldn’t get to see.
A need for vacancy pastors
Thomas Hilliard isn’t the only retired WELS pastor serving in this way. There is steady work for vacancy pastors as currently over one hundred WELS churches are without a full-time shepherd. The need for vacancy pastors has increased in the past 10 to 12 years. During this time, WELS has relied even more heavily on the willingness of retired pastors to serve in vacancy roles.
Pastor emeritus John Seifert, retired Michigan District president, is instrumental in recommending pastors to cover those vacancies. He adds information to an online database after retired pastors indicate their willingness to fill a vacancy. When WELS district presidents need to fill a vacancy in their district, Seifert provides a list of men who have offered to serve.
Seifert says that the length of vacancy varies based on a congregation’s needs—from several weeks to a year or longer. Some vacancies are filled by nearby WELS pastors. For others, retired pastors, like Hilliard, relocate temporarily to serve the congregation. “There is also a great need outside the Midwest,” says Seifert. “It’s harder to fill vacancies in the outlying districts since the nearest sister congregation might be 150 miles away.”
Although his work takes him far from home, Thomas says he is blessed through it: “I get to know new people and lead them in worship and help them with their relationship with the Lord.” He’s had the privilege of presiding at weddings. He’s welcomed children into God’s family through Baptism. He’s confirmed teens and adults in the faith. And he’s also sat at the bedsides of believers, comforting them with God’s promises as Jesus takes them home. He becomes their shepherd.
When I ask what characteristics are needed to serve in a vacancy pastor role, the Hilliards quickly respond: a servant’s heart, flexibility, and a sense of humor.
Seifert agrees that the most important characteristic is having a shepherd’s heart. “These pastors are willing to serve God’s people as they need to be served. They are coming in to help a congregation while it looks forward to the arrival of its new pastor.”
What does Thomas want WELS members to know if they have a vacancy pastor? “Treat your vacancy pastor like you do your permanent pastor,” he suggests. “He is there to serve you.”
Cathy adds, “Vacancy pastors preach the Word in season and out of season. They serve the Lord with gladness, to the glory of God. It doesn’t really matter where you are serving—you are serving the Lord.”
In reflection, Thomas is grateful to all the members, young and old, in those 24 congregations in almost 20 states. “They have welcomed me with open arms,” he simply says. “What a privilege I have had to serve the Lord from the east coast to the west coast, from the border with Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.” In all those places, he has faithfully ministered to God’s people with Word and sacrament.
Author: Ann Jahns
Volume 108, Number 5
Issue: May 2021
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