george hancock stefanA friend of mine got a phone call from her mother one Sunday afternoon. While her mother is in her late eighties, she is still healthy enough to walk to the neighborhood church she has attended since childhood. She said on the phone, “Honey, I went to church this Sunday and I did not recognize anyone! All my peers have moved away.” Her daughter answered that she should be glad that new people have come, so she is not the only one in the sanctuary!

I stopped by our local bagel store one Sunday morning to pick up bagels for our fellowship time after the service. Somehow, everyone at the counter was new (which is rare). I had to explain my order and how I wanted the bagels cut, and then I waited. As I stood by the counter, close to twenty people came through the shop and I did not know any of them. I decided to read the Monmouth Journal while I waited and I saw an article about Posten’s Funeral Home. The business has new ownership and has become the Posten-McGinley home. The Postens were connected to our church for close to one hundred years, but I do not think there are any Postens in town today. When I came to this church, the business held the Posten name, but it was managed by Frank Weiland and Kenny Rauch. Later that day, I read a different newspaper and learned that Bon Jovi is moving away from the area too; someone else will live in his mansion.

Thirty years ago, I came to Atlantic Highlands with my wife and two daughters. One daughter was five years old, and the other was eight months old. God blessed us with two more daughters and now three of them are married, they have three children between them, and my youngest daughter is starting a doctoral program in Philadelphia. In many ways, our family and our neighborhood have stayed the same and, in some ways, we have changed a lot. The house across the fence from us has had four owners while we’ve been here and the house on the corner has had three. On the other hand, we have two families across the street from us who lived on this street when we moved in. Two of our neighbors gave us their house key, so we could watch their houses while they were away. We know many of the neighborhood kids by name, although we see some of them only when they come to sell Girl Scout cookies.

A recent seminarian asked me what it takes to stay in the same church for close to thirty years. He could not imagine being with the same people day in and day out. My reply was that I have really had three congregations while I have been at Central Baptist Church. People come and stay for a while (some longer than others), but many members of a congregation move or pass away and you start over again with new families. I remember a prayer that was offered by one of my mentors in Massachusetts. Our church had many transitions, and we were bidding farewell to several families during that worship service. The pastor prayed, “Lord, we have been faithful in helping families grow, mature, and become effective in your Kingdom. As they leave, we pray that some other churches somewhere have done what we are doing here and that their families will come to us.”

One of the assignments that I give to the students in my Church History class is to interview a retired minister or church musician. My students are reluctant to do the assignment, but many of them discover that it is one of their favorites. They meet leaders who were involved in the church and blessed many people, but now they feel forgotten and marginalized in their retirement. The students come back and tell their classmates that they have found a new friend who is full of wisdom and understanding and will pray for them every day of their lives. They understand the wisdom in that elementary school song: “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.”

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If you dare to talk to a young person today, you benefit from their excitement. If you take a chance and speak with an older person, you experience the wisdom of a lifetime. Things change and people leave our communities but when we strike up new relationships, we become a part of people’s lives, sometimes for a few years but many times, for as long as they live.

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George Hancock-Stefan

Pastor George Hancock-Stefan completed 30 years as the pastor of the great congregation at Central Baptist Church in Atlantic Highlands in 2020. Those 30 years have been a blessed time for him, his wife...