If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in the pastor’s office of the First Congregational Church of Lyndonville on an autumn day in October 1980, soon after the young Rev. Bruce Comiskey had arrived as the new pastor, and if Rip had awoken 38 years later, he could have found Comiskey in the same place, being interviewed by the same reporter, for an article in the same newspaper, about the same new pastor, at the same church.
Rip might be forgiven for borrowing an expression from Yogi Berra: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
But he would be wrong. Because nothing in that little tableau is really the same.
In 1980 Comiskey was coming to his first job as pastor of his own church. This time he has years of experience behind him: seven years in Lyndonville in the 1980s followed by 28 years in the Stowe Community Church — a long run. Most tenures in the ministry don’t last for a single decade, never mind nearly three.
Comiskey arrived in 1980 with his wife Katie and their first child, to be followed by a second born while they were in Lyndonville. Now, he is a single empty-nester.
Back in the 1980s Comiskey was a strong athlete, often running on the roads around Lyndonville with a group of vigorous young men whose camaraderie and energy he found inspiring. Now, after two hip and two knee replacements, he still loves sports but he participates at a slower pace — kayaking and cross-country skiing.
This time he even brings a little experience as a retiree. When he retired from the Stowe Community Church in 2015, he was looking forward to a change. “I just need to step back and do something different,” he told the Stowe Reporter at the time. “The routine of ministry is grinding.”
Much of the “grinding” arose from the nature of Stowe as a longstanding tourist mecca. The Stowe Community Church’s white steeple nestled in the green hills of a quaint New England village was beloved not just by its local members, but also by the hordes of tourists who came and went. It was the go-to place in Stowe for any occasion that called for a church.
So many couples wanted it for their weddings that Comiskey often officiated at as many as three a week. One time he did three in a day — and said, “Never again.”
His plan in retirement was to put all that aside, return to New Jersey where he grew up, and enroll in a doctoral program. However, after about a year he realized that he still longed for Vermont and its lifestyle. He also found that he missed the ministry far more than he had expected to.
But he returned to Vermont only to find that he lacked a clear path forward.
Changes in codes of ethics for retired clergy now forbid them from being active in the church they retired from. Even after a year’s wait, attendance at the church that for 28 years had been the focus of Comiskey’s life in Stowe was no longer open to him, despite the fact that he had forged strong ties with people there — forged in good times and bad — and those ties were all that he had.
It came as a shock when he fully grasped that he was going to have to essentially break the bonds he had formed with his parishioners. His friends.
“That was my family, my social network, everything,” he said. “I felt utterly alone. It was pretty sobering.”
In addition, he found that he could not afford to buy a house in or around Stowe. The one in which he formerly lived now belonged to his former wife. (They were divorced in 2007.) So he rented an apartment. And felt even more unmoored.
“I was essentially homeless,” he said.
He began doing “pulpit supply,” which means that he filled in at churches when the “settled” pastor — the regular one — was unavailable, or when the church had no settled pastor but was looking for one. That brought him to Lyndonville occasionally after the departure of the Rev. Judi Horgan — and also to the East Burke Congregational Church, which has shared a minister and some activities with Lyndonville for the past several years.
One Sunday, returning from pulpit supply in Lyndonville and East Burke, he experienced a revelation.
“It came to me that I might want to be a settled pastor again,” he said. “I was immensely touched by how loving and caring the Lyndonville and East Burke communities were to me.”
He let it be known that he was interested in becoming the settled pastor, and right after Easter the two boards of deacons and the two congregations voted to issue him a call. He accepted and began looking for a house to buy.
He soon found one, a lovely log cabin in a woodsy setting in Burke. He could never have afforded anything like it in Stowe, he said. And when he and another prospective buyer were about to enter into a bidding war, the seller stopped the bidding and sold the house to him because she remembered Comiskey from the 1980s and remembered having his son as a student.
He was immensely touched. He felt that providence had sent him signs that he belonged back in the Northeast Kingdom.
So now he is able to look back on a year of his new endeavor, in an environment both old and new but one that is a big change from what he was accustomed to at the larger, more prosperous church in Stowe.
The teaming up of Lyndonville with East Burke (both are affiliated with the United Church of Christ) is probably the biggest change for Comiskey since he was in Lyndonville in the 1980s. It means that the committees, boards and Sunday services are now multiplied by two. He has entered enthusiastically into the lives of both churches and communities, going well beyond the basics. He sings in the choir, leads two Bible studies, participates in joint naval exercises (i.e. kayak trips), and hosted a church picnic at his house last summer.
But he is not naïve about the declines in attendance and the survival struggles over the past 40 years, which are what brought Lyndonville and East Burke together in the first place. Nor are they alone.
“It’s not just us,” he said. “The same thing is going on all over Vermont, indeed, all over the country.”
Those may not be changes that churches welcome, but they do present their own opportunities as well as challenges. Comiskey keeps that in mind as he ponders the future.
He would like to see both Lyndonville and East Burke churches “get out of our survival mode,” he said. “I would like to see us do more together. We can be good ambassadors. We can be more comfortable with who we are as a small church and not be apologetic. We do have a place in the community.
“We still have things to do.”
This article by Mary Beausoleil first appeared in the Caledonian-Record of St. Johnsbury.