Easter Sunday, March 27, will be a day of mixed emotions at the Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley as the congregation both celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and says goodbye to its pastors of nearly 29 years, Mark and Cheryl Goodman-Morris.
The Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory, which has operated out of the church since 1993, will also be losing its founder and artistic and executive director, Ms. Goodman-Morris.
Their daughter, Noelle Goodman-Morris Gibbs, will become director of the theater program she grew up as part of.
Moving to Ashland
The Goodman-Morrises are moving to Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The move is not an abrupt one, but a carefully planned transition the couple announced to their congregation four years ago.
Mr. Goodman-Morris says that although the two are nearing an age at which many people retire -- he will be 65 in April and she is 66 -- the church has no set retirement age. "Nobody was pushing us to leave," he says. "We wanted to leave when things were really good. Things are very good."
"We love being pastors," he says. But he's ready to move on. "I want to go live like an artist for awhile."
The two chose Ashland, they say, for reasons including a vibrant theater community and Southern Oregon State College, which has free classes for older residents.
They won't be complete strangers, having owned a home in Ashland for 15 years, and visited there annually for even longer. The house is rented, but they have a studio apartment on the property they'll stay in until the end of the year, when their tenants will vacate the main house.
Easing the transition
To make the transition less abrupt, the couple will hike the Camino de Santiago, from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, for a month this summer. Ten others will join them on the nearly 500-mile historic pilgrimage route for varying lengths of time.
"Rather than move to Ashland and immediately just jump in ... we decided it would be good to have a break, Ms. Goodman-Morris says. "We decided to do something that would be intentionally spiritual," she says. "When we go to Ashland, we'll be in a different mind frame."
An only child with church as family
Mr. Goodman-Morris was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Orange County in Southern California at 11. He was an only child, but, he says, "the church was my extended family."
"I had a very good church experience and was very active in the youth group," he says. "I never had any regrets about being an only child."
He decided he wanted to be a pastor, and started at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo.
After his first year, he was invited to run the program for college students at a large Presbyterian church in Houston. Early on he was asked to phone a new church member who had said she'd like to do volunteer work with youth and drama programs.
He says, she says...
The next part of the story depends on which Goodman-Morris tells it. Mr. Goodman-Morris says he was so smitten, even over the phone, that he asked Cheryl out to lunch before hanging up. Later, he says, he went to look at the photos of the new members that had been posted "to see who I had asked out on a date."
"The actual, real story is," Ms. Goodman-Morris says, that during that phone conversation, he asked her how old she was and then "he put me on hold and he went and looked at those pictures" and only then asked her out.
Both, however, agree on what happened next. "We fell in love immediately," Ms. Goodman-Morris says. There were "sparks," he says. They were engaged six weeks later, and married six months after that, Mr. Goodman-Morris says. That was 41 years ago.
Women just didn't do that
Ms. Goodman-Morris, who had grown up in Houston and attended the Methodist Church, had decided after graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in English and speech, that she, too, wanted to go to a seminary. The problem, she says, was that in that era, women just didn't do that. "They didn't really know what to do with me," she says. One pastor she asked for advice suggested she might go to a seminary to meet a man and marry him and then "vicariously you could share his church," Ms. Goodman-Morris remembers.
Instead, she and her new husband went together to the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ms. Goodman-Morris was one of only seven women there, and couples who both planned to be pastors were even rarer.
Combining art and worship
It was in the seminary that the two first combined worship and the arts. They had a preaching assignment from a favorite professor, who encouraged students to tell the gospel "any way that you can," Ms. Goodman-Morris says.
Their Bible passage was about Jesus healing a man who can't hear or speak. "We started playing with the whole idea of what would we do if we had to do a sermon without speaking," she says. They mimed their sermon, included a bit about the campus' adjustable pulpit, which inevitably collapsed on speakers, and ended with "Send in the Clowns." "It wasn't making fun of God," Ms. Goodman-Morris says. But it was different. "A couple of people walked out on us," she says.
They invited the remaining congregants, many of them in tears, out onto the chancel steps, and passed around wine and a sandwich. "The professor came up and said, 'If I eat this and I drink this, will I become you?'" Ms. Goodman-Morris remembers.
Now, Mr. Goodman-Morris says, "we do this type of stuff a lot."
"Most people in our congregation say you never know what's going to happen on a Sunday morning," he says.
"You unbind him"
Recently, the subject of the sermon was Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from his tomb three days after death. As Mr. Goodman-Morris preached, Ms. Goodman-Morris wrapped a young man, who had been on tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a shroud and built a death mask out of quick-drying plaster on his face. The former soldier's mother assisted.
They brought him out as Mr. Goodman-Morris finished his sermon. "I looked at the congregation and said ... you unbind him," as Jesus said to onlookers after he raised Lazarus, he says. After some hesitation, some congregants stood up and did just that. It was "very powerful," Mr. Goodman-Morris says.
Still a friend, just not a pastor
That story of life, death, and resurrection is one Mr. Goodman says also applies to their leaving Valley Presbyterian and starting a new life.
"We're going to miss the community and the friendships. I'm not going to miss running an institution," he says. They've baptized church members, married them and helped them bury family members. That sense of community "we will miss," he says.
"We're not going to be giving up friendships, we're giving up being their pastor," he says. "Something new will come out of it."
Ms. Goodman-Morris says that when they came to the church nearly 29 years ago,"we were so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the place."
"Now it's just like part of who we are," she says. "The community has become the beauty--I think the heart and the spirit that this community has, it's just a sweet one."
"What God's calling us to play with next"
What will come next? They're counting on God to lead them to their resurrection. They say they see the move as a one- or two-year sabbatical, during which they will probably get involved with some of Ashland's small local theaters, and perhaps volunteer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Some of the local churches have a story-telling movement, which they say interests them.
But mostly, Mr. Goodman-Morris says, they'll "figure out what God's calling us to play with next."
What church members say about departing pastors
● Rita Williams, who started going to the church with her husband soon after moving to Portola Valley in 1989: "We were attracted to the church because of co-equal husband and wife pastors raising a daughter just a few years older than our then 3-year-old son. Their life struggles and joys seemed to coincide many times with ours. They are real people guided by a spiritual direction that is open and honest."
● Brett Battles, who with his wife Kelly came to the church in 2000 when he was 38 and she was 33: "My life has changed since knowing Mark and Cheryl, and the broader church community. They have made me a different/better person through the way they live their lives as well as their friendship. They have served as amazing role models for our two children who are now 14 and 10. They've taken me from 'passive observer' to 'active participant' in helping to make our community and the world around us a better place."
● Becky Preimesberger, who was on the committee that chose the couple as new pastors 29 years ago: "It is ... rare for a congregation to get a couple who are both ordained ministers. They brought lots of energy and compassion for their congregation and their community. (She praised their "creative touches for the Sunday worship services" including dance and mime and their "sense of welcome for all who came." Nearly 300 people came to the Goodman-Morrises recent farewell party, including a few from their previous church in Santa Ana, she says.)
● Mary Jo Alderson, one of a team of three leading the planning of the church's future: "I think that they are first and foremost artists. They express their love of God through their creativity in worship and in the theater program. Cheryl brought dance to the worship experience and now it is woven into the fabric of who we are. Mark and Cheryl are a wonderful match artistically with her actress/director/pastor persona and his natural charm and playfulness. Combine all that with their wonderful hearts; our gratitude to them for all that they given will live in our heart forever."