When Pastor Paul Kling arrived at the Watertown Evangelical Free Church 29 years ago, he had no idea he’d still be around as he neared his 60th birthday.
But now, after spending nearly half his life as the church’s pastor, he’s finally ready to move on. Kling informed his church nearly six months ago that Dec. 31 would be his last day at the church, and Kling admitted that as the day draws nearer, and as everything becomes “the last time” he does something, it’s getting harder and harder to say farewell.
“Mostly, it’s the people we love and who we’ve shared life with for so many years,” Kling said of what he would miss most after stepping down. “I’ve been privileged to be brought into people’s lives at the most important moments — births, marriages, deaths, and spiritual growth and commitment to Christ. That’s been a huge privilege. It’s hard to leave all that.”
Kling’s final service will be Sunday, Dec. 29. The church will also have a New Year’s Eve program and farewell gathering.
It’s rare for a pastor to spend anywhere close to three decades at one church. Kling admits that when he and his wife arrived at WEFC, he didn’t anticipate being there almost 30 years. He says there were times when he considered moving on, but it just never seemed right.
“There were times along the way that I was either approached by other churches, or considered some other possibilities, but it seemed like it was never the right time,” he said. “We were either taking on a new ministry project, or we were in a building program, or we were having another child in our own family. It just seemed like it was never the right time. We tried to be really open to God’s leading and to hold it all lightly. We never anticipated being here so long, but it just seemed like God was confirming over and over that this is where he wanted us, and it’s been a huge blessing.”
Kling said he and his wife have been praying and discussing for the past several years when the right time would be to make a transition. He said that finally became clear at the start of this year.
“We’ve always tried to hold lightly and be ready to move when God indicated it was time,” Kling said. “It took 29 years to indicate that.”
Kling said serving so many years at one church was a blessing that many pastors don’t get to enjoy. He said among the best parts of serving 29 years at WEFC was watching younger children grow into adults, and watching their faith journey develop.
“Being here so long, I’ve been able to see young people grow up and watch their faith development,” he said. “Many of them have gone on to serve the Lord, if not in a full-time ministry, they’re active lay people in their churches. To be able to see that whole life development and spiritual development, to see the fruit of the ministry here, has been a wonderful thing.”
Among those Kling watched grow up during his time at WEFC were his own four children. When Kling and his wife arrived at the church 29 years ago, he and his wife had no children, but he said the church has been wonderful in embracing his family.
“This congregation allowed our kids to be themselves and didn’t put any huge expectations on them,” Kling said. “I can say that each of my children have very positive memories and warm feelings toward this congregation, which sometimes is unusual for pastors’ kids.”
Kling said there were a number of factors that kept him at the church for so long, chief among them the church’s willingness to embrace and accept change.
“Almost from the beginning, this congregation has been very open to taking on new challenges and ministry and reaching out in new ways,” he said. “That really surprised me. I thought coming to a small town, and a church that was probably set in its ways, that they would be resistant to much change. But they really have entrusted me to lead them in the right way and been very patient and willing to step out in new ways, and take those faith risks that have brought about growth in our church.”
Kling said he is being given a three-month paid sabbatical from the church to finish his tenure there, and he hopes to use that time to “take a deep breath.” He said he’ll also be taking an online course to get certified in TESOL, or Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
“I’d like to do some of that, either as a volunteer, or in a paid position,” he said. “I’ve always had an interest in teaching English to immigrants.”
Kling said he doesn’t yet know for sure where his next ministry will take him, but he hopes to move into a ministry outside of a typical church setting. He said he has been approached about one position that would start in late spring or early summer, but isn’t official yet.
“It’s nice to have some prospect on the horizon,” he said. “I think I’ve brought this church as far as I can with my particular special gifts and leadership style. For their sake, it’s time to pass the baton and let somebody else take it to the next level.”