Celebration of pastor’s 30th year turning into a farewell

Susan Harrison Wolffis
Muskegon Chronicle
June 18, 2006

To know the man, sometimes you have to catch a glimpse of him as a boy. You have to hear the story of the day his sister, Jane, was born with extensive brain damage. Doctors doubted she’d live longer than 24 hours.
That night, the Rev. Glenn Wagner’s father came home from the hospital and gathered his children around the kitchen table in prayer.

“It was unlike any prayer we’d ever prayed be-fore,” Wagner re-members. “Usually it was ‘let’s get this over with and eat’ … but when you’re praying for the life of your sister … ”

Even today, the memory moves him to tears.

The next morning, Jane’s doctors told the Wagner family they “didn’t know what happened,” but overnight, the baby took a dramatic and convincing turn for the better.

The Wagners praised God for the good news.

A young Glenn Wagner, just 9 at the time, felt the healing power of prayer in a way that was just as life-changing.

The same night that his sister lived against most odds, he took his first step into a life in ministry.
On June 25, Wagner will celebrate his 30th year as an ordained Methodist minister at a special worship service and gathering at Community United Methodist Church in North Muskegon, which he has pastored for the past 14 years.

The service will be a bittersweet occasion.

Wagner, 52, has been reassigned to Holt United Methodist Church near Lansing, effective July 1. The celebration of his ordination and the announcement of a scholarship given in his name was planned before he learned that he was moving to a new church. The congregation — which has doubled in size under Wagner’s leadership — decided to keep the date on the calendar and turn it into a farewell.

The Wagners’ last days in North Muskegon have been an emotional roller coaster. Leaving one church to go to another is just the start of things. In the past two weeks, Glenn and Nancy Wagner celebrated their daughter, Bethany, graduating from North Muskegon High School.

On Thursday, they packed the last of their belongings into a moving van on its way to Holt. In the evening, the Wagners attended the Girl Scouts of Michigan Pine and Dunes Teen Girl Scout Awards Night during which Bethany received her Gold Award — the highest rank a Girl Scout can attain — and applauded her as she was named the 2006 recipient of the Gold Award Scholarship.

Then as they headed into a transition weekend both emotional and geographic, moving from one place to another, they received word that Glenn Wagner’s mother died in Elmhurst, Ill.

Sometimes to understand the pastor, you have to remember the boy sitting at the table, praying with his family in life-and-death situations.

“You go where God calls you,” he says.

Although he has served at several other churches during his career, Wagner calls his time at Community United Methodist “a remarkable love affair.”

“This was in many respects a match made in heaven,” he says.

The assignment in North Muskegon brought his wife, Nancy, closer to her family in Fremont. It was “a wonderful place” to raise their children, Michael and Bethany, both of whom graduated from North Muskegon High School. And it was a place he could wholeheartedly “live out” the church’s name.

“Community,” he says. “It’s in our name.”

As pastor, he says, he constantly asks himself “What is it that will make people want to offer themselves to God?”

So he invited the community into the church on days other than Sunday. Community United Methodist Church is home to Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, Al-Anon, prayer groups, senior citizen exercise classes and other programs, a preschool, after-school programs for children and music programs. The church also opens its doors to endless community fundraisers, spaghetti dinners and meals before athletic events at North Muskegon High School.

“I like to say it’s the board of trustees’ job to make the church look like it’s never been used,” Wagner says, “and it’s my job to wear it out.

“Seriously,” he adds, “this is a wonderful model for a church whose name is community.”

But Wagner hasn’t limited his ministry to within the walls of the church. He has ventured far into the community, taking on assignments as demanding as chairing the 2006-07 West Shore Committee for Jewish-Christian Dialogue. Just as he was beginning his term of office, he had to resign from the committee when he learned he was being moved to Holt. He was in a similar situation with Hospice of Muskegon-Oceana as president-elect of the board.

“Glenn has made an impact in this community. He has a wonderful head on his shoulders, a great heart, and he’s willing to learn,” says the Rabbi Alan Alpert, who leads Temple B’Nai Israel in Muskegon. Alpert serves with Wagner on the Jewish-Christian Dialogue committee and calls him “friend.”

“He’s been a major blessing to this community, and not just to the Methodists,” he said.

Wagner has taken on less-public volunteer work as well — as an assistant Boy Scout troop leader and vice chairman of the North Muskegon Charter Commission. The preacher is also author of that city’s charter’s preamble.

He’s been active in Muskegon Rotary and coached the only nonschool youth rocket team in the Rockets for Schools competition.

When he looks at the whole of the many sums of his community service — working for those in prisons, those who are mentally ill, those who are dying — Wagner says it brings the words of Matthew 25 to life about serving the “least of these.”

Once again, the inspiration to give back starts with his sister, Jane, a child who needed more care than one family could give her. For the first seven years of Jane’s life, the people from the Wagner family’s church and neighborhood in Elmhurst, Ill., came into their home three times a day seven days a week to help with Jane’s required therapy.

“At a very young age, I saw the people of God at work,” Wagner says. “I had a sense of the power of community, the value of love and sacrifice, the caring for the least of us that God calls us to do.”
By the time he was in high school, Wagner knew he wanted to be a minister. It was a decision that has given him a history rich in experiences to take into the pulpit and prayer.

The year before he graduated from Hope College, Wagner attended the American University of Beirut and the Near East School of Theology. While there, he was the starting forward for the 1973 Lebanese National Championship basketball team for the university.

After graduation, he taught Bible and English in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. While he was working on his masters of divinity degree at Yale Divinity School, Wagner interned as a chaplain in a drug and alcohol unit and hospital in Connecticut and later at Pine Rest Hospital in Grand Rapids.

He thought about going into hospital chaplaincy full time, but in 1979, he was assigned as associate pastor at a Methodist church in Freeport, Ill. His next stop was as pastor of an 800-member congregation in Harvard, Ill., in 1986.

By then, he was working on his doctorate of ministry from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

But there were things going on at home equally as important.

Every morning, he and his wife, Nancy, prayed at the breakfast table “that God would gift us with a child.” Their prayer was answered in 1986 after 10 years of marriage when they adopted their son, Michael, from Korea.

Two years later, Bethany — their biological daughter — “surprised us,” he says.
Because both Wagner children are in college, Glenn and Nancy Wagner will make the move to Holt alone as empty-nesters.

“If ever there was a moment when transition makes sense, this is it,” he says.

The United Methodist Church has in place an “itinerant” pastoral system. When ministers are ordained, they take a vow to a-gree to move at the bishop’s will.

“Thirty years ago, I took that vow: Here I am. Send me,” Wagner says. On June 25, the people of Community United Methodist Church will celebrate the anniversary of the day Wagner was ordained; then they will bid his family and him Godspeed. On July 1, the church’s new pastor — the Rev. Bob Lynch, reassigned from the Kalamazoo area — will be in place.

“This is a rare place,” Wagner says about Community United Methodist Church. “It is a living, breathing community that lives out God’s word.”

Wagner, who preached his last sermon June 11 in North Muskegon, won’t be in the pulpit the day of his celebration. He will be in a pew with the people he loves — “the people of God,” as he calls them.
He will be sitting near his sister, Jane, 43, who lives in a sheltered residence in the Chicago area for adults with disabilities.

The baby he prayed would survive when he was no more than a child himself, the sister he says “knows more about love than the rest of us,” the living inspiration for learning to listen to God’s call will share a church pew with him on the day he celebrates and says goodbye.

“I came as a stranger,” Wagner says, “but it feels like I’m leaving home. … but you go where God calls you. I’ve always believed that.”