EATON — After 29 years shepherding the flock at First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Wayne Morrison delivered his farewell sermon on Sunday, May 29, before leaving for the Columbus area with his wife, Betsy, to be near family.
It was an emotional morning in the church as the beloved Morrisons said their goodbyes to a 400-strong congregation which considered them family, and an entire community beyond that, in which Morrison toiled for years as an activist and fund raiser for charities and families in need.
Morrison served 26 years as chair and founding member of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, 26 more chairing for the Community Action Partnership, 26 additional chairing the local United Way, and served as chair and treasurer of the Preble Ministerial Association, along with countless other involvements.
Morrison’s tenure, which began July 1, 1987, is the longest in the nearly 200-year history of Eaton Presbyterian, and spearheaded massive following and budgetary growth, particularly due to Morrison’s courtship of younger worshipers.
“When I came here,” Rev. Morrison said, “the products in terms of churches went in three directions. There was a very main-line, classic form of worship, or the then-new contemporary with bands and music and words up on the screen, or a very fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone approach. We brought something new. We are liturgical and we follow a bolt and a program, but my personality is very laid back and informal, and suddenly these Presbyterians found themselves clapping and laughing and crying and sharing emotion, and that’s what a lot of the younger families were looking for — not just a vertical worship, but a horizontal interaction. They wanted to feel ownership in the transaction.”
The influx of new blood led to intensive youth involvement, including the “Wayne’s Bag” children’s sermon and numerous colorful, interactive projects and programs to communicate biblical teachings to children in interactive ways. Costumes, balloon puppets, song and dance — any and all were fair game to Morrison if they furthered understanding of Scripture. Youth ministry programs and teen mission trips followed, each drawing more families to the congregation; this summer, 27 students from the church will go to the largely Latino community of Clarksville, Georgia and assist families in need.
Morrison said of the phenomenon, “The Presbyterian Church has been losing members consistently for the last two decades. Most of the churches are sorely lacking in youth and upkeep. Here, we’ve got young people everywhere. I’ve never been to a church that says they don’t want young people — but how many are willing to make some changes to get them and keep them? Are they okay with a little chaos on Sunday morning, kids getting up to go to the bathroom, fidgeting around? Because those days of the kids sitting perfectly still with a Life Saver and a slap on the hand are gone. We’ve got kids everywhere, and it keeps us laid back, and it keeps us active and evolving. Now someone else with new energy will be able to come in and take that to a whole new level.”
“The leadership here is very strong and the church will be fine,” he said, “but one of the hardest things about leaving is not being able to watch these generations we have here now grow up, and see who they become. That’s been a marvelous part of the ministry.”
Morrison, a Columbus native, met Betsy while attending Muskingum University in New Concord, and after college, they built a comfortable life in Memphis, where he worked as a commodities trader. But making a good living and raising a happy family, he felt something missing.
“I wasn’t satisfied, in my spirit. So, for the first time in my life, I went to church. I was baptized in 1980, got very active in the church, and within a few years, I became convinced I was being called to the ministry.”
He recalled New Year’s Day 1984 —“I remember it was January 1 because Ohio State was losing to USC again at the Rose Bowl,” he cracked — when he turned to his wife and said that he felt he was being called. Her response was simple: “I know.”
The family “packed up the tent like Abraham and Sarah” and moved to Decatur, Georgia, where he attended Columbia Theological Seminary. Upon graduation, both Ohio natives decided they’d like to seek out a church near home. They came to Eaton and stayed with First Presbyterian for a length of time that is rare in pastorhood.
“As the ministry got longer and longer,” Morrison said, “one of my prayers was: ‘Lord, please don’t let me overstay my welcome.’ And the last year or so, I started to feel like they needed someone new. Our budget has not grown the last three years. Our membership has increased, but not at the same rate it used to. We’ve become complacent because we’re too happy, of all things.
“We’re getting along so well,” he said, “and it would be very easy for me to say, ‘I’m gonna stick around here two more, and I’ll hug you and you’ll hug me and we’ll all be happy,’ but it would cost the church progress. They need someone with new energy, new ideas, who’ll challenge them. I don’t have the energy or the capability to challenge them anymore because I’m too happy with where I am. And that’s hard to admit to yourself and the people you love, but you want them to keep growing, even if it means they grow without you.”
And the growth will indeed take place without him. Moving away and not returning was a key factor in the decision.
“It has to be a clean break,” he said to the congregation Sunday. “I cannot come back and do a funeral or a wedding. That’s not fair to whoever comes after me. And if I come to do one, then we’ve opened the floodgates. I’ve been here 29 years; I’m baptizing kids whose parents I baptized, marrying kids whose parents I married. I didn’t just perform weddings and funerals for members of this church, either…I buried a whole county. Five hundred-fifty seven funerals, 261 weddings, 309 baptisms, 157 communicants. There’s a lady in this church — I did her wedding, baptized her two children. Her husband died of a heart attack at 39; I did his fineral. I confirmed her children. I did her second marriage. I buried both of her parents. I married her son, and her daughter, and then I baptized her son’s child. You multiply that by all the families here — that kind of involvement is hard to leave. But, that’s the downside of a 29-year pastorhood: eventually, you have to leave it behind.”
The break was a hard one for Betsy as well, a longtime alto in the choir and a constant community presence in her own right, working for 26 years as a case manager for the Preble County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Before retiring in 2014, she spearheaded the planning, fundraising, and construction of the $300,000 A.S.K. accessible playground on East Lexington Rd.
“These people have been a daily part of our lives,” Betsy said. “It’s hard to sort of tuck that away. There are so many people I’ll miss, but we’ll keep in touch on Facebook.”
Neither will be slowing down in their new life in the suburb of Gahanna. Betsy “will be looking for a new book group right away” and enjoying time with her daughter and grandchildren, and Wayne will be golfing with his brother-in-law and spending more time with his mother, who visited Eaton for his farewell open house at the church on May 28. Wayne has also accepted a part-time pastorship at Worthington Presbyterian Church, set to begin July 1.
“I just can’t imagine his face not being here,” said longtime parishioner Teresa Schmidt. “And we’re not just losing him — we’re losing Betsy, who’s such a lovely person. They’ve both been here so long that it doesn’t seem real to be saying goodbye, even though I was here before he came. He married my son. He baptized both my grandchildren. I just thought he’d be here forever. It’s going to be a real adjustment for all of us while we look for a replacement.”
Rev. Morrison’s final sermon drew a packed house that even saw former choir members return to sing for him one last time. Tears were shed and noses blown throughout the service as emotions crested and ebbed time and again leading up to the dismissal of the congregation.
“There are better preachers I’ve known,” Morrison said, grasping the pulpit with both hands and leaning toward his flock. “There are better teachers I’ve known. Certainly better administrators I’ve known. But I have loved you, and I have cared for you. I’ve celebrated with you. I’ve cried with you. I’ve tried to be there with you at hospitals, in funeral homes, in living rooms, in care facilities. I will thank God for every memory I have of you.”
Choking up, he said, “I’m very, very proud to have been your pastor for 29 years. I love you people.”
Reach Duante Beddingfield at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @duanteb_RH.