Thomas Fitch Kepler: 60 Years as an Ordained Christian Minister
On July 13, 2018, Thomas Fitch Kepler celebrated the day he was ordained to Christian Ministry in the United Presbyterian Church, USA, 60 years ago. In fact, in 2018 those blessed enough to still be living, who graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and other theological schools, and began careers as Ministers in 1958, will all be celebrating 60 years as ordained clergy. Tom was installed as Pastor of the first Presbyterian Church of Englishtown, New Jersey, on the day he was ordained a Minister.
He and his colleagues, entered the Ministry at a time in history when the Civil Rights Movement was on the rise. And he, like his father who was a Minister with a parish in the south, espoused a faith which stood for justice for all, and the equality of all. And, he entered the profession the year after the United Presbyterian Church had voted to ordain women as Ministers for the first time.
Just a note. I write Ministry with a capital “M” when I am referring to the profession. Ministry in a wider sense is the work o all the faithful, the priesthood of all believers.
Tom’s father, Raymond Fitch Kepler and mother, Margaret Blain Kepler, had been missionaries in China as had their parents before them. When they were forced to return to the United States in 1949 when the communists took over China, Margaret was suffering severe depression. As the family, which included four sons, crossed the ocean which they had crossed many times before, they did not know what was ahead for them. Eventually, being a Minister by profession, Raymond transitioned from his work in China to being a Pastor in North Carolina and then Virginia.
Thomas Fitch Kepler, his son, became a Pastor 11 years later. Ministers in those days, lived in manses, church supported housing, (some still do and in the beginning we did) and their pay was poor. We used to joke that Dad Kepler, who served a church in a rural community, was partially paid in tomatoes left at his back door by generous parishioners. I learned from Mother and Dad Kepler what frugality is all about.
When Tom began his work in Englishtown, we were married and I was seven months pregnant with our first son, Thomas Budd Kepler, and had graduated with a ministerial degree from Princeton along with Tom. During his first years there, we had two more sons, James Blain Kepler, and John Harold Kepler, and I became part-time Pastor of a near-by church, Westminster Presbyterian in Manalapan, New Jersey. Somehow, we both earned ThM degrees from Princeton during those years.
Under Tom’s leadership, the First Presbyterian Church of Englishtown built a new educational wing and celebrated its Centennial. In spite of, or after these accomplishments, that included educational programming for children through adults, pastoral care, administration of a complex community, and involvement in the wider church and community, Civil Rights advocacy and acting in the local Theater Company, Tom began to question his call. My father and then his father died Tom had been in the parish for eight years. That added to his feeling unsettled and restless and questioning his call to the pastorate. .
Tom decided to try something besides Ministry and teaching seemed an obvious choice. My brother, Harold, was working as Treasurer at Vanguard School in Florida and helped us get teaching positions there. We moved to Florida where we both spent a year teaching children coping with dyslexia.
It wasn’t long before I knew I wanted to stay in Ministry full time, and Tom knew he wanted to continue teaching with the option of engaging in Ministry part time. He never stopped wanting to maintain his ordination. So, for the rest of his working life, he practiced tentmaking Ministry, employed full-time in secular work and part-time as a Minister. We often laughed about the fact that when parishioners in an attempt to discredit a Pastor’s ethical perspective would say, “You don’t live in the real world”, “Tom could say that he was, in fact, earning his living in the “real” world.
Tom’s legacy of having clergy as forbears goes back generations on his mother’s side, the Blain/Greer side, back to a time when clergy were the learned men in the community, respected, honored, and sometimes, feared. The equals of doctors. And Christianity was the de facto religion of the land.
Over time, the profession has been devalued in many sectors of culture. Society is now composed of many faiths and has become increasingly secular. While, people easily understand the need for other professionals, not all people see the need for clergy or understand the functions they play in society. With this shift, mainline denominations such as Methodists, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Baptists and others, began to decline in numbers. But not before they had had an impact on society on movements for a more just and humane world.
Now that 60 years have gone by we look back and marvel over how fast they have sped, how many changes we have seen and we ponder the paths we have taken in our careers.
I celebrate with Tom as he marks 60 years of ordination as a Minister. Together we are members of a profession (part or full time) which needs to redefine, reclaim and reassert its place in society. We have served in the institutional church and believe it needs to stand alongside of other institutions in society, speaking truth to power and repenting from its own sins, reformed and reforming. Spirituality is not just a private matter.
In our lifetime, clergy in churches with a liberal bent were on the front-lines of change in race relations, the anti-war movement, the Women’s Movement, and eventually, the LGBT Movement. Tom worked tirelessly for justice over the course of his Ministry, espousing in later years justice for Palestinians.
Now retired, Tom has not lost his passion for pursuing the common good for all as essential to faithfulness. He makes it clear that how we understand God matters and is here to say that the liberal mainline church is not dead in spite of shrinking numbers and the rise of right wing Christianity. It has work to do. He says that his theology is no longer orthodox. Dogma seems irrelevant to him. What Jesus did and stood for is what matters.
As a part-time, interim Pastor, Tom helped close with grace, four Presbyterian Churches. He also served four others that continue to thrive. How many sermons, communion services, weddings, and funerals over the years! How many meetings! How many good people he has worked with! How much change in theological perspective. How much change period! And yet, how much remains the same.
Now retired, he sings songs of praise and occasionally lament with his beautiful voice.