Fred Anderson is one of a kind. And everyone who knows him knows what I mean.
I can’t quite believe that the day has arrived when I would write a tribute to him, but I am honored to do so. In fact, I feel compelled to do so. Few people have had a greater impact on my life and work.
When news came to me that Fred’s farewell celebration would be held in May – at a time when I would not be able to travel to New York City – I was deeply disappointed, more so than you can possibly imagine. I write these words in lieu of being present. I hope you sense in them the genuine affection I have for him.
I first met Fred when I, along with a few dozen other graduating Princeton Seminary seniors, interviewed for church positions. I have no idea how the process works now, but back then pastors came to Princeton, usually along with an elder or two, and they would interview seminary students like me who were hoping to find work in the church.
We were coached to say that we were “looking for a call,” but we knew better. This was the job market, and jobs were scarce. We were coached, further, to sign up for as many interviews as possible, mostly to get interview experience.
As it turned out, I need not have signed up for as many as I did.
Fred was the first person I interviewed with. I liked him immediately. And I eagerly accepted his invitation to be his “assistant pastor,” which is what we were in those days, a kind of a two-year audition before becoming an “associate pastor,” a title which carried with it a bit more job security. I was the first in what has become a long list of associates whom Fred has invited to serve and learn with him.
To be honest, I had never dreamed of living and working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, few people do, but as some wise person once told me (it was probably Fred), “If you get along with the senior pastor, you can live just about anywhere.” Fred presented Harrisburg to me in a way that Harrisburg has never been presented before. After riding around town with Fred in his tiny Chevy Chevette, and hearing him extol the virtues of life in Harrisburg, I would easily have chosen to live there over, say, Zurich, Switzerland. Such were his powers of persuasion, finely tuned during one of his previous careers – no kidding – as a Fuller Brush salesman. Fred could sell sand to Saudis.
My wife and I stayed at Fred’s home for our first visit to Harrisburg because, as he put it, it was important to know “if we could live together.” I am reasonably certain that Fred does not give this advice concerning other areas of life, but his reasoning made sense to me and I went along with it. Fred and Questa warmly welcomed us, and looking back I think one of the key tests during that visit was whether or not I could stay up late talking about the church and still function reasonably well the next day. We were to have many of those late-into-the-night conversations about the church over the years.
Fred told me early on that he had learned his administrative skills in the Air Force, and that piece of information should have set off an alarm in me. And when it didn’t, he added that “when I tell you to jump, you should ask me how high on the way up.” I had never before heard authority claimed so easily and comfortably. I half expected him to be joking, but it turned out that he wasn’t.
And curiously, you may find this hard to believe, that’s why I trusted him. Fred knew who he was, and he always challenged other people to figure out who they were.
As comfortable as Fred was in his role as senior pastor, I don’t recall that he ever felt threatened by my own achievements, accomplishments, and successes. In fact, Fred repeatedly looked for ways for me to succeed. He opened doors. He introduced me to people I should know. He sincerely wanted me to do well – expected me to do well. And since I was never a threat to him, I could find success every day of the week as far he was concerned. I didn’t, of course, but it would have been alright with him if I had.
Some of the best and most memorable sermons I have ever heard were ones that Fred preached. I had never seen anyone own a pulpit the way Fred did. He overpowered it and made it his. The pulpit at Pine Street Church was actually quite large – “twelve feet above contradiction,” we used to say – but Fred’s presence was equal to it. I have seen piano players take command of a piano and bend the instrument to their will, and that’s what Fred did with the pulpit most Sundays. He made it his.
One of the sermons I remember – not because it was his best, but because of the sheer audacity of it – was titled “Gross or Net?” It was a stewardship sermon, and the title referred to an often-asked question when Presbyterians are challenged to tithe. “Before or after taxes?” they usually wanted to know, and Fred responded by demolishing the question. If I can summarize his point, it was that “if you have to ask the question, then you don’t understand Jesus’ claim on your life.” Fred made a tither out of me in my first years of ministry, something that simply would not have happened without his conviction and example.
I regularly heard Fred preach more than once on a Sunday, but his sermons were never the same, which was curious because he always took a manuscript to the pulpit. I never knew what those pieces of paper were for, because he never seemed to refer to them. His sermons were memorable, though, mostly because they were strong and courageous. He always said what needed to be said and never sugar coated anything. When he was finished there was never a question as to where Fred stood. He stood squarely within the Word of God.
And that’s another point that should be made about Fred – his commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember leaving a funeral service for one of our colleagues, a pastor at another downtown church. The service consisted of one tribute after another for the deceased pastor, and I could sense while sitting next to him that Fred very much disliked everything about the service. As we were leaving, he leaned over and whispered, loudly enough for the entire balcony to hear, “If it should ever become your responsibility to lead my funeral service, then preach the gospel!”
And the thing is, Fred always did. No matter what.
Fred did his best to teach me to be a preacher. On the occasional Sunday mornings when I was preaching, he would pick me up on his way to church, and then he would sit in the back at the sound console while I would nervously preach my sermon, over and over again, to a darkened and nearly-empty sanctuary.
Fred also taught me to baptize babies. On the Sunday morning before my first baptism, he and I arrived early, found a baby doll in the church nursery, and I said the words of the baptismal formula while soaking the doll I was holding in my arms. Somehow I missed the class at seminary where these kinds of things were demonstrated, but am glad now that I learned to do them with Fred.
The morning I baptized my own child, Sarah, I was so overcome with emotion that I only managed to baptize Sarah “in the name of the Father.” When Fred realized I could say no more, he reached into the baptismal font, grabbed a fistful of water, showered both of us with it, and said, “and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” It was, I’m sure, one of the few tag-team baptisms in the history of the church, and I still smile about it.
I also learned to chair board (Session) meetings from Fred. As you might imagine, if you have never seen him do it, he chaired board meetings with authority. Part of that came from being the best prepared person in the room. Fred always knew every item on the agenda and how the discussion was going to go. He knew parliamentary procedure too and didn’t hesitate to shepherd the elders through its complexities. But as strong as Fred was in those situations, no one should have felt intimidated or cowed into silence. Everyone with an opinion to express had ample opportunity to do so. And then a decision was made, and we moved on. Fred knew what he wanted and usually got it.
My favorite part of the monthly board meeting was the debriefing later in the evening at the Tuesday Club which was always empty by the time we arrived. Fred seemed to know his way around the kitchen and made the best ham sandwiches I’ve ever had. He also introduced me to Manhattans at those late evening seminars, and over ham sandwiches and Manhattans we would dissect every aspect of the meeting which had just concluded. I realized years later that I had been given a doctoral seminar in managing a church board. My diploma should bear the coat of arms not of Princeton, but of the venerable Tuesday Club.
One more story. I’m pretty sure no other first-year pastor has ever had to officiate at so many funerals. After one particularly difficult stretch, with at least three maybe four funerals in a single week, Fred must have seen my war-weary look, and so he said, “You’d better figure out what you believe about life after death – and do it quickly!”
He was right, as he usually was in those situations, and that year I learned to lean hard on my faith. I have not officiated at a funeral service in the years since then without thinking about those words. You can’t do this work if you don’t know what you believe. Fred knew what he believed, and so do I.
To say that I had a good experience in my first five years of ministry would be an understatement. I realize that I had one of the best transitions into ministry it was possible to have. And I knew at the time, from listening to my classmates who were often in less-than-ideal situations, that I should not take this experience for granted. I hope I didn’t. I tried to learn as much as I could. I tried to enjoy my life as a pastoral staff member as much as I could, because there are many advantages to not being the one ultimately responsible . And I tried to grow into my new identity as a pastor as much as I could.
For all of that, and more, I will always be grateful to a fine mentor and one of the most capable pastors I have ever known.
I love you, Fred. And I am thankful for the ministry we shared over the years.
(Photo: That’s the sanctuary of the Pine Street Presbyterian Church where Fred Anderson was once the pastor and where I was ordained on the chancel steps 34 years ago. Fred is retiring this spring after more than 20 years as pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. And I am retiring from this blog after this post. Tschüss!)