Sunrise Beach church gives time, money, and love to Austin Seminary*
For many years, a hitching post outside the Sunrise Beach Federated Church was a subtle reminder of the congregation’s ties to Austin Seminary. Church member Jim Pollard had it installed in case the pastor ever decided to bring his horse to church. In fact, sometime in 1989, according to the church history, The Reverend John Alsup did bring his horse Cowboy to try out the post.
The Sunrise Beach community had few permanent residents in 1964 when the church was organized. Most of the founding members were Methodist, Presbyterians, or Disciples of Christ, so for several years retired clergy from those denominations led Sunday morning worship. Around 1978 the invitation to lead the congregation was extended to Alsup, Austin Seminary’s D. Thomason, First Presbyterian Church, Shreveport, Professor of New Testament.
Now, two Sundays a month he makes the trek (usually in his pickup) from his ranch in Georgetown, Texas, about seventy miles east of Sunrise Beach, providing the services of a modern-day circuit rider – preaching, presiding at the Lord’s Table, and providing pastoral care.
Alsup’s involvement brought Sunrise Beach Federated Church into a rich relationship with Austin Seminary, as other faculty members and students began to leas on the alternating Sundays. Ove the years, more than sixty Austin Seminary students have provided pastoral leadership to Sunrise Beach, and since the early 1980s, many have participated in a formal relationship with the church through the Seminary’s Supervised Practice of Ministry program.
Dieter Heinzl (MDiv’97), associate pastor at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, remembers the time with gratitude. “I believe that there are many saints in the Sunrise Beach congregation who put up with many a ‘strained sermon’ (and that’s putting it nicely) by a student trying to figure out what it means to be a pastor. When I look back,” he says, “I can honestly say that I learned at Sunrise Beach in practice what (worship professor) Stan Hall taught me in the classroom. He once said: ‘You can preach many a lousy sermon and people will forgive you. But if you do not love them …’ Well, the folks at Sunrise Beach gave flesh to one of the most profound truths of the gospel. They loved me first, and so it was easy for me to love them back. I wish that every seminary student discerning her or his call would be blessed with serving such a community as I had in serving Sunrise Beach. Not a day goes by, honestly, that I do not give thanks for their witness to me and the love I received over those two years.”
“It has been so rewarding for us to have the opportunity to flourish and grow with each new student we get,” says member Beverly Torrence. “We are so proud of their progress from the time they first arrive ‘a little wet behind the ears’ until they graduate as ministers ready for their own church.”
For many years Sunrise Beach Federated Church has also nurtured fledgling pastors through gifts to Austin Seminary’s Annual Fund which provides need-based scholarship assistance to students. “We love supporting the seminary and for years did so through individual donations,” says member Mary Kaplin. “In 2004 we wrote our Mission Statement which included our commitment to Austin Seminary. Several years after that the board decided to set aside 10 percent of our offering each week for the scholarship fund as well as to continue collecting individual donations for this project. This year, our individual donations were equal to half of our total from the offerings. This shows me the importance our members put on this programs, both as a congregation and as individuals.”
*Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary Windows Magazine, Winter 2009 (published 3 times a year from the Seminary)