Palmberg Reflects on Past Ten Years in Final Interview

Post a Comment » Written on August 15th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Don Meyer

CHICAGO, IL (August 15, 2008) – President Glenn R. Palmberg and I recently sat down in his office to conduct the last official Covenant News Service interview before he leaves office September 1, retiring after 10 years as leader of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Replacing Palmberg as president is Gary Walter, who has served as executive minister of the Department of Church Growth & Evangelism and was elected president during the 123rd Annual Meeting in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Palmberg seemed relaxed and perfectly at ease in discussing the major life transition facing both him and his wife, Sharon, as they prepare for relocation to the Seattle area. This interview was not about serious challenges facing the Covenant or the church at large. It was not about strategies and planning for the future. It was reflective – looking over the past years, sharing light-hearted and more difficult memories, and touching on those accomplishments that he finds most meaningful and in which he takes the greatest amount of personal pleasure as he leaves office.

Q: What thoughts go through your mind as you prepare for this last interview as president of the Covenant?

Glenn and DonIt’s real hard not to focus on next steps and what I have to do between now and the day I move. It’s hard to focus on work, you know. But, I have things that I still need to do.

I have a trip coming to Indianapolis with the Lilly Endowment. It involves training in areas of philanthropy – fund-raising, mostly. I expect to do some work in that area in retirement, so it’s timely. Some of the Lilly people have become friends over these years, and they specifically wanted me to come and do this before I left.

I’ve been reading the Book of Letters I received (a retirement gift containing hundreds of letters from colleagues and friends), so I think a lot about what has happened in the last 10 years.

I’m glad that the things that were most important to me – that I felt called to do – are values shared by Gary and others who will continue here. It’s not a change that means now there’s a whole new direction and things we’ve been doing will be abandoned. That’s very gratifying.

It’s been really enjoyable. Gary and I have been meeting weekly for an hour or two, talking about all sorts of things that he has questions about or I think he should know. That’s been gratifying, to pass on recommendations, concerns, or telling him things that maybe one would not pick up on for a while – my perspective on what’s important, what he needs to give attention to, people and relationships that will be essential to him.

Q: What accomplishments bring a smile?

The new Department of Compassion, Mercy and Justice. It’s in great hands – we’ve got the right person in charge. And it’s fully supported in the church and the Council of Administrators. I wish we had done it sooner – it was a dream from the very start – and it took almost the whole time to get it in place. It’s no small thing to start a new department, and financially it’s no small thing. It came about in a time when we were able to do it.

Diversity: “I didn’t start that by any means, but we did make a lot of progress.”

On biblical gender equality, I feel like we’ve raised the visibility of the issue. We have maybe solidified the church’s commitment to recognizing the giftedness of all God’s people, regardless of gender. But, I think that is one where we have a long way to go. I’m pleased with the progress, but I’m not satisfied. This is an issue where real people have been called by God – it is not just a theoretical issue. It’s an issue that involves people’s lives, so it is one that I have a lot of passion about. But, I don’t have a sense that now we’ve fulfilled that. I feel that a lot more acceptance and progress needs to be made to live out what the church has said it believes.
I feel good about the diversity issue. I didn’t start that by any means, but we did make a lot of progress. It’s also an issue where we have a long way to go. We’ve got a lot to work through. I think there are segments of our church that feel somewhat neglected or left out. I think that in the years just ahead of us, that’s going to continue to be addressed.

Addressing the seminary and its declined enrollment was important to me. We’ve made probably the most progress there.

Another area of excitement for me is World Mission – the new directions that it is going. It’s exciting – it’s who we are. I’m really excited for the next steps for the Paul Carlson Partnership, becoming more of a worldwide movement, focusing on some other areas while we continue our work in Congo. That whole Paul Carlson work is one of the most important, challenging and gratifying things to me.

One of the things I feel good about in the last 10 years is I think we have as a church called some very good leaders. And I think I have for the most part trusted them and allowed people to work, and I think that has resulted in progress in every area.

Website: “That has grown and is growing – it’s changed the church.”

And the staff at Covenant offices – you know, that’s one of the “unknowns” in the Covenant . . . the group of young people working in these offices. They’re phenomenal. Such wonderful people, and passionate about ministry. They’re here because of that. Many of them could go elsewhere and make more money. They’re here because they are committed.

Another area of growth has been in getting the message out that to be a biblical church is to put evangelism and compassion, mercy and justice together. I don’t mean that was new when I came into office; but it is something I’ve emphasized the whole time, and I hear it all the time now. If somebody wants to describe the Covenant church, that’s a likely description.

Look at the popularity of the Covenant website – that is a communication tool. I run into it everywhere I travel. People will come – and I may not have seen the story yet – and they’ll say, “That was really an interesting story this week.” That has grown and is growing – it’s changed the church. You take that away and just look how disconnected we would be.

I could go through almost every area of ministry – each department – and say I feel really good about that.

Q: Looking back, are there any goals that remain unfinished, that frustrate you?

I wish we had more stability financially. Churches are hurting, denominations are hurting right now, and I wish we had more stability. We do have more stability than most denominations, especially smaller denominations. Larger ones are pretty heavily endowed, but the smaller ones aren’t. That’s an area I feel I did not substantially address.

Part of the reason I decided to retire was that I don’t know what’s next for the church. To me that was a sign that it’s because my call was over. I’ve had this real sense of knowing when to get out of the way. God’s got a lot more to do, and when the vision is gone, it’s time for somebody else who has the vision.

So, I don’t look back and wish we had done a lot more things.

“I can’t go to an airport luggage carousel without thinking of Jim.”

Q: What are some of the funniest moments you recall?

One thing that comes immediately to mind was traveling to Asia with Jim Gustafson.

I can’t go to an airport luggage carousel without thinking of Jim. He would be almost crawling in – you know, there’s those plastic pieces hanging where the luggage comes out into the baggage claim area? Jim would have those plastic pieces parted and his head in there watching for our luggage. We would get it and then run to get ahead of everybody to get to the line. And then, if the line was too long, he’d be over there talking to someone – and the next thing you know, we’re going through the “military only” line. He’s convinced them that they should let us go through there.

Just to be with him and his incredible energy … and his gift of relating to people and speaking their language. One day we were checking into a hotel and some people were making comments about us. He understood what they were saying – and they didn’t know that. On another occasion, we were walking through an airport and there were some people making comments. I can’t remember what it was, but it was something like, “Look at those long-nose (or some feature) Americans.” And Jim turned and said something in their language to them, and they just laughed hysterically.

Another highlight that comes immediately to mind was being in Congo with Jim Sundholm and Jerome Nelson. They were teasing me about my always getting special treatment – I got a warm shower, they got cold showers; I got special food sometimes and always got my own room. We just played that up all trip long. We still have little things we did in Africa that we still do when we see each other. Those are really fun memories.

And then staying with Curt and Marti Peterson and Sharon and I in Colombia at this really fun place. Or being with Jay Phelan and Dawn and Sharon and I in Prague.

Q: Are there recollections that bring a tinge of sadness?

That takes no time at all: walking through the ghetto in Bangkok and seeing people being used and people’s absolute lack of hope. And then the Congo – there’s a lot in Congo that’s emotional. I recall a day in one hospital when I had become separated

“It was so hot – you could just hardly be in there.”

from the group and they were showing me things. Bob Thornbloom and I were with a doctor and we went into a ward where there was a little baby lying on a plastic mat with no sheet or anything, being given something intravenously.

It was so hot – you could just hardly be in there. There were no lights – just open windows and an open doorway. And there were people back there in the dark, lying in beds. Bob is pushing me from behind saying, “Keep moving, get out of here.” The stench was really bad. When we got out, the doctor said, “We don’t have any soap or disinfectant” … that’s why it smelled so bad. He was apologizing that they have nothing to take care of that. Bob said, “You can’t be in here anymore – you’re not adjusted to the germs and you’ll get sick.” He just pushed me on through the building. What bothers me so about that is it seems like something that should be so easy to address. It seems like it, but then it’s so complicated when you try to do something – there’s all kinds of obstacles to seriously address those issues.

Q: Management style – what advice would you give the new president?

I have been saying to Gary, don’t try to manage it all – it’s not possible. Trust the people who have the various areas of responsibility. Don’t interfere just because you think you might do it differently. If you can live with it, go with it and trust people. Don’t second guess them, even though in your mind you might. To do that to people who are in a position to decide is to micromanage them. Things will begin to slip by you because you’re focusing too much on one area. That’s one of the lessons I’ve passed on to Gary.

GlennI find that your weaknesses get exposed in a job like this. I could do my own review and critique areas where I’ve discovered my own weaknesses and, to some extent, areas where I have done a good job.

I’ve learned how incredibly dependent I am on my administrative assistant. We’ve complemented each other. I’ve had three administrative assistants in 10 years and I’ve leaned heavily on them. Those have been fun working relationships. My lack of interest in details requires a person there to keep track of it – you learn not to worry about some things.

I told Gary, no matter how much you travel, it will never be enough. Be careful that you set some limit. If you let people tell you that you have to be here and there – if you do that, you’ll burn yourself out. You’ve got to evaluate.

Gary has said to me, I want to serve the whole church as you have served the whole church. I’ve told him . . . you have a much wider church than you might have had as a pastor or even in a department. You’ve got a wider church, and you’ve got to move toward and build trust with people who wonder if you’re going to accept them or their ministry, or whether you don’t like what they do or how they do it. You really need to move towards those people . . . to help those people feel like just because my preference is different from yours doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that you have a valid ministry. But, Gary’s very good at that – he’s very good at finding the good in people and acknowledging it, so I didn’t really need to tell him that. He knows it and is very good at it.

Another thing I’ve told Gary is to be sure you don’t ignore certain kinds of places or churches. Get to all kinds of churches – small churches, large churches, rural churches, urban churches, suburban churches, mega-churches. Be open to being in touch with all of them. I have offered to go especially to small town and rural churches – we have a lot of those, and a lot of them have anniversaries coming up. And I said anytime you can’t go, I’d be happy to go. I particularly enjoy going to settings that remind me of my own background – rural Nebraska. I thrive on that – I can relate really well.

Q: What will you do in retirement?

I’m going to continue to work with Gary particularly in the area of trying to keep funding some of the things that we’ve got going – seminary scholarships, Paul Carlson. I’m eager to do things Gary has invited me to do to keep those areas funded.

And, then, I’m going to work with Sojourners. I had a few opportunities, but the reason I chose Sojourners is because their agenda is broader than some of the other organizations. Some are focused on international, poverty, some more on domestic or some other fairly narrow piece. Sojourners has a broader agenda. For example, I will be working on getting church leaders to an event next spring in Washington D.C. – hopefully a meeting with the new administration to talk about the church’s agenda for the new president. Whether it will involve an actual meeting with the new president is yet to be determined – that is the hope. If not, then with people in the administration, to allow church leaders to share their thinking and what can be improved. It would be around the issues of poverty, compassion and justice.

The role of pastor: “That’s a hard and demanding road.”

Q: Any special word to pastors?

I have often said that the most challenging work for me has been my time as a parish pastor. I do think that is one of the hardest roles because of the scrutiny and accountability – you know, you’re living right there in the midst of your work. I have great admiration. Some of my friends now are retiring – and some of them spent their entire career serving in the local church. I have great respect for that. That’s a hard and demanding road.

Q: Do you think about the day you will walk out your office door for the last time as president?

Yes, I have. Fortunately, I know what I’m doing next and I’m quite excited about that. When I first announced my retirement, I went through a period of grief and occasionally second-guessing. I’ve had enough time – it’s been a year since I announced and people knew – to adjust. So, I don’t think it will be as traumatic walking out the last time as it felt when I first announced it.

The Annual Meeting was a good indicator for me. I was not overcome with emotion. That was because I had already grieved. I had already started “this is the last time I’ll do this and this is the last time I’ll do that.” I was able to enjoy the celebration and get up and talk. I’m quite an emotional person, really, but I was able to get up and speak and not get terribly choked up in the process. I think it’s been good to have that lengthy period of time. I’ve done a lot of “lasts” already.

What I think will be difficult is that I have a lot of things to go through and organize for the Covenant Archive, like my personal notes. The archivist talked with me about the importance of those things. I’ve got notes on meetings and things that are packed – I will take them with me so that I can go through them and make sense of them and put them in some kind of context. I think that will be difficult.

Q: Anything else?

I just want to express gratitude to the church and to the Covenant people. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I have people come to me and say, you’re in our prayers. I have really felt that support. Financially we’re being challenged, though not to the extent some denominations are, and it is because Covenant people are extremely generous, and not just locally. Churches and individuals are committed and share resources so that we can do the things we do as a denomination.

Editor’s note: The photos accompanying this story were taken by David Westerfield, art director for Covenant Communications.

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