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At the end of June, Gregg Mast will retire from the presidency of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a position he has held since 2006. For over 40 years, Gregg has been a respected leader within the Reformed Church in America, and the Christian community more broadly. Prior to becoming President of New Brunswick, Gregg served as pastor of two congregations and held two different roles in the denominational headquarters.
When asked about accomplishments and especially significant work, Gregg sidestepped. “That is better answered by someone other than me.”
A festschrift honoring Gregg will appear shortly. Edited by Alan Janssen, a colleague at New Brunswick Seminary and a General Synod Professor of Theology of the Reformed Church, Gregg suggested this might be the place to look for what others consider his contributions. The volume is titled A Ministry of Reconciliation. Janssen describes it as including contributions from “churchwomen and men, along with some academics, that explore various intersections where Gregg has ministered, including liturgy, race, gender, sexuality and education.”
“Even the title somewhat surprised me,” said Gregg. “I have thought of my ministry more along the lines of renewal, but that shows the reason to have others evaluate your work and ministry.
“Of my 41 years in ministry, 22 were in congregational and pastoral settings. I would consider this my most gratifying work, probably especially my years at First Church, Albany. To love and care for people and be loved and cared for by them; good colleagues working closely together, this was the peak or highlight for me. We have accomplished a lot at New Brunswick, but it doesn’t bring the same sort of joy as pastoring and my years in Albany.
“Overall, I will miss collegiality, working together with people toward common goals. And I will miss opportunities to teach. Of course, teaching and preaching are both central to the minister’s role, and I do enjoy preaching. But I would chose teaching over preaching in a heartbeat.
“I won’t miss meetings. You have to have them. I enjoy conversations and meetings can be important, but I don’t think I will miss them.”
When asked to look back and consider what has changed in his years in ministry, Gregg replied, “As I talk with colleagues and classmates from my era, we agree that we were just on the tail end of post-World War II ‘growth era.’ People were still expected to go to church. In my first congregation, Second Irvington in New Jersey, there still seemed to be an aura that church was important. It was declining but still there—not just personally, but for the community and society in general.
“In my years in ministry, we’ve moved out of that era. Church is no longer important for many people—neither in personal lives nor for society. I think of the dramatic increase in “nones.” People work all week. Children are involved in all sorts of activities, especially sports. People just don’t see church as a ‘value added.’ They seem to find communities of support and affection elsewhere. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to me, but it is real.
“It is much harder for today’s seminary graduates in these cultural values. It isn’t impossible but is challenging and demands agility and creativity.”
Asked about his thoughts on his own church, the Reformed Church in America, Gregg responded,
“The past two years have been deeply saddening. The attempts by General Synod to move forward with amendments to our order concerning human sexuality created a ‘lose-lose’ setting. No one is going to be pleased. It was strategically bad and theologically bad.”
So what then? What next for the Reformed Church?
“We need to continue to have covenantal conversations, to keep talking together. In the past, we had a greater sense of a common heritage. We were more closely woven together. Our new diversity has brought many gifts, made us more multicultural, and we are grateful for that. But we have also moved away from a covenantal identity. Our common fabric is frayed. We have to find new reasons and loyalties to be together, or we won’t be together much longer.
“On the one hand, I have great affection for and gratitude for the Reformed Church in America. It was where I was born and formed. On the other hand, God doesn’t need the RCA. I don’t see much point in looking for the Reformed Church’s ‘secret ingredient,’ what gift we especially have, or what we add to the Kingdom. Just being faithful, staying in conversation, is the way forward. God will always find new ways. I believe God will be faithful. We don’t need to act out of fear. Some people are deeply eager to see our church torn apart. Others are highly anxious that it will be. I don’t think either one is helpful.”
How have you changed over the years?
“I came from a very sheltered and parochial setting in Jenison, Michigan. In my twenties, some important seeds were planted that have been nurtured and grown in the years since then. In college I spent a semester working in south Philadelphia, in an all-black Lutheran congregation. Later I spent time in South Africa during apartheid. Even in my first congregation, I encountered a lot of anger and racial divisions.
“Through all that and more, I’ve become less judgmental, more agile, more open. I think of multi-faith dialog, for example. I feel no pressure to ‘win’ or attempt to ‘convert’ others. I simply try to be a faithful and winsome witness. It is in God’s hands. Maybe you could say that ‘election has freed me.’ I don’t have to do any sort of sell-job. I’m less anxious about my identity, especially when I am in situations where I am the one who is different. I don’t need to strive to change people.
“Interestingly, I think it was ministering to alcoholics where I began to see this early on. Your love for them is not dependent on them not drinking. You just hang in there. You can’t change them. That’s not your job. Relax. You love them and care for them and are faithful and trust things will end up where they need to.”
“I’ll be active at New Brunswick through the end of June. Then Vicki and I will move to our home in upstate New York. I plan to read and write, work on the house, work in the yard. I trust that at some point God will tap me on the shoulder with something next. But not too soon. I don’t have any big vision at this point. There are other people who seem to have a plan for my future, but right now I don’t.