Six Degrees of Jill

August 25, 2019

How many of you have heard the phrase, “Six Degrees of Separation?”  It’s kind of a parlor game - a theory – and a dubious one at that – that says every person in the world is six or fewer points of connection from one another.  For example, last week I described how I am connected in a roundabout manner to Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who allowed his farm to be used for the Woodstock Music Festival:  my daughter Blythe is friends with his granddaughter, so we go from me to Blythe – one degree – to Blythe’s friend Mindy – two degrees – to Mindy’s grandfather Max:  three degrees.  Here’s another, a bit more convoluted, but still connected.  It’s with Mari Lynd, our church Parish Administrator.  Now obviously Mari and I are connected because we work together – that’s only one degree.  But last spring we discovered that Mari’s boyfriend Doug – one degree – has a stepfather named Joe Blair – two degrees, who has a cousin who is also named Joe Blair – three degrees – whose sister is Sherrie Blair – four degrees; before I met Debbie, I was engaged to Sherrie Blair.  I know, strange, isn’t it?  So in a way, it’s not so much about “degrees of separation” as it is “degrees of connection.”

So let me tell you about Jill.  In the fall of 2010 I got a phone call from my friend and colleague Dennis Calhoun; Dennis is Senior Minister at Old North Church in Marblehead, MA.  Old North was interested in hiring a young pastor named Jill Olds to be their Associate Minister and they needed a neutral pulpit to hear her preach.  Now for those who don’t know, a neutral pulpit is basically a place where a search committee can hear someone preach, a place that is not the preacher’s home church, lest her congregation learn their minister is thinking of leaving, nor is it the search committee’s church because they haven’t yet decided whether to hire that person.  When our United Church’s search committee wanted to hear me preach a trial sermon, we did it at the UCC Church in Portland, a neutral pulpit that was neither mine nor yours.  So I said to Dennis, Sure, we’ll be glad to have Jill preach at Second Congregational Church in Beverly so the Marblehead Search committee could hear her.

So the week before she came to preach, I spoke with Jill over the phone to get her sermon information and just basically introduce myself, and I learned she did her graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary, as I did.  Now not many UCC pastors go to Princeton, so that was a neat connection to make.  One degree.

We talked a little bit more about her background, and I learned Jill grew up in western Connecticut, in the town of Ridgefield, just south of Danbury and not that far from my former church in Bridgewater.  “Ridgefield,” I thought to myself.  “Did you happen to attend East Ridge Middle School when you were growing up?”  Jill said that she had, so I asked her what years she was there.  And lo and behold, for at least part of her time at East Ridge, her school librarian was named Mrs. Froggatt – Debbie was the librarian while Jill was a student.  That brought a smile to my face.  Two degrees.

So the week went on and it slowly dawned on me that way back near the beginning of my time in Bridgewater, in 1985, a search committee for a church in a nearby community called me asking if they could use our church as a neutral pulpit for a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School whom they were interviewing as their Associate Minister.  I said “Sure, we’d be glad to do that.”  So the following Sunday I met a pastor, the same age as myself, named Dennis Calhoun, who many years later was the Senior Minister at the church Jill where was interviewing.  In other words, Dennis preached his neutral pulpit at my church in Bridgewater in 1985 for an Associate Minister position, and 25 years later Jill preached her neutral pulpit at my church in Beverly for an Associate Minister position at Dennis’ church in Marblehead.  This was starting to get weird; that’s three degrees.

Well, after four or five years of successful ministry in Marblehead, Jill took a call to be Associate Minister at the UCC church in Tolland, Connecticut.  Jill’s Senior Minister at Tolland, who had only recently taken that position, is a young man named Jeff Gallagher.  Jeff Gallagher grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts, attended and was eventually ordained at a UCC church in Beverly; and as a neighboring church pastor, I attended Jeff’s ordination and was one of the clergy who laid hands upon him in the rite of ordination.  So Jill was the Associate Minster for a Senior Minister I helped ordain.  And just for good measure, Jeff’s immediate predecessor at Tolland was the Rev. Bob Wright, who was my immediate predecessor at Second Church in Beverly.  That’s four degrees, perhaps even four and a half!

So last fall I was having coffee with Jill, just to catch up with her ministry and see how things were going – because of certain life circumstances, she had to leave the Tolland church and begin searching for a new call – and as we were parting, she told me she was flying out to Cincinnati to see some old friends for the weekend – they were attending a wedding of a college classmate.  Well, Debbie’s family is in Cincinnati, so I asked where she was going.  She said it wasn’t really Cincinnati, but a small town about an hour away I had probably never heard of; she was going to Oxford, Ohio.  “Oxford?”  I asked, “You mean where Miami University is.  Did you go to Miami?”  Jill said yes.  I replied, “So did Debbie.”  Jill smiled, and remembering all the other connections we already had, said, “Of course she did.”  That’s five.

So what’s the sixth?  Next Sunday Jill Olds will be in our United Church pulpit, not candidating, but leading worship and communion as I take a few deep breaths after Adam and Blythe’s wedding.  I know you will welcome her and treat her well – she’s a wonderfully gifted minister, one of a small cohort of young clergy identified by the United Church of Christ as rising leaders, and I’m grateful that her time with all of you will be that sixth degree – not of separation – but of connection.

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