Paintings, photos and cross-stitch samplers on the walls of the Rev. Fred Brandenburg’s tidy study reveal the closeness of the relationships he has with his congregation. Nearly each one was made by a member of Columbia United Church of Christ.
“I appreciate their creativity,” he said. “If you encourage it, people’s talent comes out.”
A caricature of him made by a mischievous church member grins from the wall, causing Brandenburg’s eyes to crinkle with a smile as he recalls the story behind it.
Members of the congregation handed out bulletins with the caricature on the cover for a service after Easter called the Easter Laughter Time, during which the church “revels in the joy of faith” in a light-hearted service with funny stories and jokes.
Brandenburg was given a different bulletin, and he didn’t understand at first what the laughter was about. “They tricked me,” he said.
After 30 years as pastor at the church, Brandenburg will officially retire Aug. 15, the same date as his 40th wedding anniversary.
“So we’re here 30 years and out, and (my wife and I) kind of tease about that,” Brandenburg said. “But it won’t be 40 years and out of the wedding or the marriage at all.”
Laughter and cheerleading
Lifelong member Valerie Schoeneberg said she will miss the ongoing jokes and laughter the churchgoers share with their pastor. But she will mostly miss his presence at Wednesday night choir, she said.
“He’s always very jovial, and his wife’s there,” she said. “He’s kind of like family. I’ve known no other minister.”
Schoenberg plans to hold a community event on Aug. 8 to celebrate his retirement.
“My request was to have small groups for evenings instead of a large going-away party,” Brandenburg said.
But Schoeneberg wouldn’t have it.
“That’s why it’s our job to make a big deal about him,” she said. “He is very humble and not willing to take credit for many things.”
Brandenburg would disagree. “People in the church do so much work, and I get all the glory,” he said.
For example, in matters of maintenance, administration and outreach, the people in the church do much of the work, he said.
“Church members are the ones who actually carry on all that business,” he said. “I see myself as a cheerleader to encourage people to use their talents. Not only do I want to encourage that, but they’re necessary in the life of the church. That’s how any church runs. It’s a wonderful thing when people work together to the glory of God, to serve Christ and the world.”
He credits much of his success to his wife. “My wife is my connection with others,” he said. “She’s made me look good. My wife does the real work.”
He met his wife Shelley, then a student at Deaconess School of Nursing in St. Louis, at a mixer in 1963; they married a year later. After graduation, they moved to Jackson, near Cape Girardeau, for his first job.
After 71/2 years there, they moved to Columbia in 1974 to take his current position.
Brandenburg, who was born in St. Louis, said his call to ministry was a gradual realization.
“There are those who receive a call who in some way hear the voice of God calling them that they should (do) it,” he said. “That has always happened to me through people and situations and things. I have never heard voices speaking to me.”
His lifelong involvement with the United Church of Christ, which was formed in 1957 from a combination of the Evangelical Reformed and the Congregational churches, made the church feel like home to him, he said.
“I’ve always loved the church,” he said. “I can never remember anytime where I did not feel a church was a second home. It was just a wonderful supportive community.”
The support from Columbia UCC — the city’s only UCC church — has been a wonderful gift to him, he said.
“The greatest gift, I think, that a church can give their pastor is the freedom to be (yourself),” he said. “That I could be who I was and I didn’t have to fit into molds that were precast for me.”
Brandenburg said he thinks Columbia needs a UCC church.
“We are considered a liberal denomination, and there are many conservative churches (here),” he said. “And that’s fine, but we offer an alternative. We’re a very open and accepting congregation, and ... we don’t all have to believe the same thing or think the same thing, and there’s an acceptance of diversity and individuality.”
The youthfulness in Columbia, stemming from a changing college population, has provided him excitement through the years, he said. One of his favorite memories came in the winter of 1977. Several college students interested in rock climbing and hiking decided to walk across the Missouri River, which had frozen over that winter, he said. They tied themselves together with ropes and made the crossing, he said.
“They called me and said, ‘Fred, you’ve got to walk across. ... This is something you can tell your grandkids,’ ” he said. “So they literally roped me into it. ... And they were right, I’m telling my grandkids.”
The close relationship he’s felt with his church is matched by the feelings of his congregants.
“He made me feel special,” Schoeneberg said. “When I was in the fourth grade, during the sermon I drew a picture of him in the pulpit on the back of my bulletin. And he kept it on his wall in the office until we remodeled the church five years ago. Every time I walked into his office until I was 23, it was on the wall.”
Brandenburg encourages others to be involved in the church, Schoeneberg said.
“He’s also very good about convincing people that they have talents to share with everyone else,” she said. “(He and his wife) are hard to say no to, which we also kind of laugh about.”
Joe and Darlene Schroeder, who said they have been members for nearly 35 years, said Brandenburg’s leadership has been encouraging to church members.
“He has a way of bringing out the best in anyone,” Joe Schroeder said.
Darlene Schroeder, who said she served on the search committee to select Brandenburg more than 30 years ago, said she will miss knowing he’s on hand.
“(I’ll miss) the comforting presence ... (knowing) we can go to him if we have a concern, and I think that’s probably true for all of us here,” she said. “That’s what he sees as his first concern.”
Youth attracts youth
Brandenburg said he and his wife plan to go out of town for a while after his retirement to ease the pain of leaving his congregation.
“It’s probably going to be harder on me than on anybody else, because we felt that we’ve been a great match with the congregation over the years and we just absolutely love the people,” he said. “So I’m prepared to be depressed and despondent and all those things.”
Brandenburg, who is 64, said he hopes a younger pastor can keep the church growing. “It’s still by and large a younger congregation, and I was once young, but not anymore,” he said.
“Youth attracts youth,” he said. “I think if they get a vital young pastor like I like to think that I was one day 30 years ago, the church can have a whole new era, and can take them into the 21st century.”