My Dad the preacher
Jan. 20, 2011By Bill Skiff
Back in the 1940s and ’50s, small town churches in rural Vermont fell on hard times. Many, including places like the Northeast Kingdom, could not afford to keep a minister during the summer. That’s where my Dad came in.
Dad graduated with the University of Vermont class of 1929 and was always a literary man. He had been a farmer, librarian, teacher and coach — but most of all a student of the English language. Dad had a gift when it came to putting his ideas into meaningful sermons. He was active in the Second Congregational Church in Jeffersonville and so, when needed, filled the pulpit.
As word went out regarding the quality of his sermons, other churches’ officials asked if he would help fill their pulpits during the summer months. He traveled to places like Craftsbury, Greensboro, Eden or wherever else he received the call.
Mother was busy with her own church work and my brother and sister were too young to go with Dad, so I was elected to travel with him on his preaching missions those summer Sundays. For the most part I didn’t mind, except it meant I missed seeing my girlfriend at our youth service.
I said I didn’t mind, but that was before Dad began preaching three services on the same Sunday! That’s three different churches in three different towns, all in one morning. At the end of one morning, as we were riding home, Dad asked, “Well, Bill what did you think of my sermon?”
“Dad,” I replied, “the first time it was pretty good, the second time it was OK but by the third time I could give it myself.”
I was impressed with the congregations at these services; many times there were only seven or eight people in attendance. They were mostly elderly ladies who had been attending the church since they were little girls. The size of the congregation never made any difference to Dad; he said whoever was there was there because they believed, so he always gave his best effort.
On one of these Sundays, after Dad had given his sermon, a deacon asked what they owed him. Dad replied, “Just give me what you think it was worth.” They gave him 72 cents. I was shocked and hurt to think they thought so little of Dad’s sermon. But he smiled and told me how much that 72 cents meant to him because he knew it was half the collection plate. It was in that moment that I began to realize how much Dad’s work meant to these people — and I began to understand the value of giving from the heart.
Looking back on those Sunday mornings I realize what a special time it was for me. I learned a lot about my Dad, a lot about myself and a lot about the meaning of community service. Those lessons still guide me today.
During this period in Dad’s life, he also wrote poems, many of which expressed his strong belief in the value of Vermont’s rural churches. This is one of my favorites:
By Glenn W. Skiff
Just an old country church am I,
All alone on a wind-swept hill.
For you and your friends pass me by,
And my calm deep voice is still.
No longer do I see you come,
From out the valley and the hill,
Bringing your children, one by one,
That they may know the Master’s will.
You have forgotten; I remember well.
Holding her you proudly stand,
And reverently her name you tell
As on her curls he lays his hand.
The pattern of her faith takes form;
In Sunday school she travels far.
In places of darkness, doubt, and storm,
Her questing heart finds one bright star.
Seated there in the family pew,
In her bright blue dress new pressed,
She dreams the dreams that all girls do,
When filled with childhood’s vague unrest.
The shy, sweet years slip through her hands,
Fast flown on time’s eternal wings;
A child no longer, she now stands
In the entrance while the choir sings.
The organ breathes one last soft prayer.
She, radiant as a springtime dawn,
Now waits before the altar there
To say, “I Mary, take thee John.”
My doors you’ve closed. Why close them now?
She still may need my guiding light.
And you, yes even you, somehow
Will need it when there comes the night.
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he will share his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]