2020 is proving to be a year of unanticipated challenges. The Presbytery of Lake Erie is in the process of seeking a new general presbyter following the retirement of Rev. Dr. David Oyler in July. Add to that a global Coronavirus pandemic which has resulted in numerous cascading impacts on pastoring, and ‘being the church’ in 2020.
Helping to meet these challenges at the Presbytery of Lake Erie is the Reverend Keith Sundberg, retired pastor. In 2019, Keith served as the Associate Pastor at Wayside Presbyterian Church in Erie. He was selected as the Educator of the Year from the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE). In an article posted on the Synod of the Trinity website, Keith was recognized for his efforts to revive the national APCE and secure substantial funding to do so. This national award also underscored and acknowledged Keith’s lifelong commitment to educating others, including pastors, educators, elders, children and youth about the Presbyterian faith.
2019 is also the year Keith ‘officially’ retired. He has served four churches during his years of ministry: one in Bethlehem PA and three in Erie. He also had an eleven-and-a-half-year stint at the Burton Funeral Home as a licensed funeral director. He was very involved in the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators both in the Eastern Region and at the national level. He remained active in the presbytery serving on a number of committees. He is a graduate of Grove City College, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.
He and his wife Barbara are pleased to have their three married children and nine grandchildren living within a few miles of their Fairview home.
The following is a conversation with Keith in a Q & A format about his ministry in pastoring, educating and now guiding the Presbytery of Lake Erie to the next phase in it’s growth. Marsha MacKinnon – Webmaster for the Presbytery of Lake Erie
You retired in 2019. What have you been doing in your retirement?
“I had sort of vague desires and nothing definitive. Within a few weeks a friend, Bobbi Jo Fye put a good word in for me at Gannon University and I was invited to teach an introductory course to the Bible. I have really enjoyed that experience. I was nominated to be vice moderator of the presbytery. Those responsibilities expanded when David Oyler retired. All the youth events and The Big Event that I oversaw were canceled because of Covid. Three of our children and two of their spouses are teachers, so Barb and I are needed to watch grandchildren several days a week. I have been asked to help write an on-line teacher training program with friends from APCE. Retirement has seemed to fill up.”
You may have been retired but you were given an assignment to organize and promote “The Big Event.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic that event had to be put on hold. When everything shutdown, including our churches, the impact of the pandemic would prove to be epic. What do you recall thinking at the time?
“Like so many others I was second guessing myself as to what to do. There was a reticent part of me and the committee members to postpone it. All the arrangements had been made and we wondered if we really needed to be so cautious. At the time we simply imagined we could hold it in the fall. Then a few speakers withdrew and our direction became clear. Now I wonder if what we planned is relevant any more. The world has changed and so have the needs of the church.”
Can you point to anything during your many years of ministry and pastoring that prepared you for our current circumstances amid a global pandemic?
“Spiritual Formation required that the leaders and I think creatively on the spot. When the plans didn’t work, we would have to punt. But this is beyond any challenges I remember. I am no longer in the trenches of youth and children’s ministry and those pastors and leaders are the ones who will discover how ministry will go on. The one thing I did which I think was fortuitous is that in the last few years I emphasized the education of parents to provide spiritual nurture in their homes. That has become more relevant that I ever imagined.”
Explain your new role at the Presbytery of Lake Erie?
“The Coordinating Committee decided that rather than have an interim presbyter, we would encourage our committee chairs and members to do the work of the presbytery by relying on their own knowledge of what was needed. The past moderator, current moderator and vice moderator in conjunction with our Stated Clerk, would be a team of coordination. Since I lived in Erie it made sense for me to provide communication with the staff and the outside world. A careful thought-out job description was written by David Oyler covering what he thought would be essential to make things work smoothly. The goal was for me not to be needed more than 14 hours a week and to empower the committees to bear the lion’s share of the work. The plan has worked. I have been needed for a few immediate concerns which has made me glad we designed it this way.”
While the search committee continues its work to select a new general presbyter for the PLE, what have become your priorities during this pandemic?
“My main concern has been care of people. I listen in on the pastor groups and have reached out to others as I have time and opportunity. I am well aware that I am not David Oyler but have tried to wonder what he would be doing. He is a wonderful person to emulate. I was told visiting every church would be beyond what I could do but I have been invited to preach in several. I am guessing those requests will increase as pastors retire and others need a break.”
What are you doing in your spare time?
“My daughter told a friend I was failing at retirement. I don’t really have a day off to do nothing. There is always something to do. If I am honest, I like to be busy. The pace is different now than serving a church and I do have time to garden and work out at the gym. I am grateful for days to play with grandchildren and times to talk with my children and their spouses.”
We are all feeling kind of weary due to the pandemic, so what are you enjoying as a diversion right now?
“Barb and I are on the look out for TV shows to distract us from the stress of the pandemic. Our favorite program is Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley. We hunt down movies and enjoyed cheering on the Cleveland Indians for a while. Barb walks three times a day and I head over to the gym several times a week.”
For far too many there is an overwhelming sense of uncertainty, tension and even turmoil in this country right now. The pandemic, the election, and race related deaths and violence have combined to create all of the above. What do we need to focus on?
“My class preparations have been a wonderful source of strength and hope to me. I am reading the bible for the first time with insight into the problems it addresses. I have told the youth this time is NOT unprecedented. There are examples of all our problems in her pages. Bigotry, illness, tragedy, terrible weather, resentment of others. Our ancestors all went through these things. Now it is our turn. And when we can’t do it on our own we discover the closeness of the God who loves us.”
We know this pandemic will not be over any time soon. We also know it will be some time before a vaccine for COVID-19 is available for the general population, what do you believe we all need to keep in mind?
“The Hebrews lost their world in the Babylonian exile until God inspired a new king to send them home. It is difficult to be patient in the midst of the “waiting time” but we have a gift of hope in our God who is working on our behalf. God knows our deepest hopes and longings and will not leave us in despair. We too will be able to return to our beloved Jerusalem.”