Opting for a graceful exit


After 2 1/2 years with Grace United Methodist Church in Aberdeen, the Rev. Dick Thompson is retiring today, bidding farewell at an afternoon reception at the church's Gilbert Hall honoring him and his wife, Jean Thompson.

Thompson, 63, who joined the church in June 2002, said he is retiring to spend more time with his family.

"My wife retired in July," Thompson said. "We have a son who lives in Georgia with four grandkids, and we just want to spend more time with them. ... I'm not leaving because of anything at Grace Church. I think I'm leaving under a very amicable situation with the church. That's what my feeling is."

An interim pastor will be appointed to Grace Church until a permanent pastor is chosen to begin July 1.

"The church has benefited by his leadership," said Mark Derby, superintendent of the Washington West district for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church and Thompson's supervisor from June 2002 to August 2004.

Though it is unusual for a pastor to retire in the middle of a June-to-June term, it does happen, Derby said. But he also acknowledged that Thompson's unique style may have raised a few hackles in the church, which has about 200 members and dates back to a log structure built in Aberdeen in 1769.

"If you try to introduce different forms of worship that are not familiar, sometimes that creates a little turbulence in the system," Derby said. "Dick's an innovator, so there's been a little turbulence in the congregation."

He described the changes as being of tone, more than of specifics. "This church had much more of a liturgical emphasis," he said, "and I think Dick brought a little more of a folksy. ... personal approach to ministry."

Derby also said that Thompson has been energetic about bringing new members to the church.

"Grace Church is a strong church, but it's also a church that's in transition," Derby said. "It's been a much larger church than it currently is, and the population of the church is aging."

Thompson noted that church attendance has increased under his leadership.

"The church was in a state of decline. I'm happy to say it has turned around," he said.

For example, he said, the youth group went from about 15 children to about 40, he said, and he has added services on Wednesdays, Saturdays and the second Tuesday of each month. He also said the church is getting more involved in programs such as Meals on Wheels and Martha's Meal, which serve food to the needy.

"I feel good that the church is more focused on the spiritual side as opposed to just taking care of itself," he said. "We've been doing more outreach in terms of trying to help out in the community. ... We were doing that before, but we're doing more of that now."

Rose Lyman, the church's parish nurse since 1999, said Thompson "is excellent in getting out to the hospitals and keeping track of the well-being of the parishioners, and he's going to be missed for that."

Thompson would bring different types of music to the morning services, she said, including "rock bands in church, believe it or not."

Thompson acknowledged that his style has been controversial at times, partly because the previous pastor, Paul Grant, had been with the church for 14 years. "I followed a person who had been here a long time, which is difficult. I think I smoothed that over and made the transition for someone else to follow along."

Joy Payne, an active member of the church, said Thompson has been doing exactly what he was charged to do -- attracting new members and bringing energy to the church. She said her own teenage children are excited about church, thanks to Thompson's innovative tactics, such as allowing congregants to wear pajamas to a pancake dinner.

"It's a blessing to have your children want to come to church," she said. "There are so many things that are going on in the church since he came that have been really positive things."

Thompson has been a pastor in various Methodist churches for nearly 40 years. He was an Army chaplain for 20 years and has been pastor at several local churches, including Emory United Methodist Church in Upperco and Savage United Methodist Church in Savage.

He said he has no plans to accept another full-time pastor assignment. "As far as being a pastor with a church, I'm done," he said. "I've enjoyed my time here with Grace, and in many ways I'm sorry to leave, but it's also time to do that."

He added: "It was a great church to leave with. This is a very gracious church."

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