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Newtown Christian Church Pastor Heading Toward Retirement



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UPDATE (April 23, 2020; 4:08 pm): This story has been updated to correctly identify where the Tanners were living prior to their move to Connecticut. The spelling of the names of one grandchild and one son-in-law have also been corrected.

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The Reverend Jack Tanner, pastor of Newtown Christian Church, is easing toward retirement.

Rev Tanner announced to the members of NCC last June that they would have him for one more year. In recent months that plan has continued nearly unchanged.

“They may be modified a little,” Rev Tanner said this week. The current pandemic, he added, “has certainly squelched a search at this point,” but he still plans to fully retire in June as pastor of the independent church located at 210 Sugar Street. Currently his main responsibility is to continue preaching.

“I’m going to continue to help with anything that’s needed, of course,” he said in January.

Like countless houses of worship around the world, NCC has begun offering streaming services in response to the global pandemic that has led to terms like “social distancing” and “Facebook Live” becoming regular parts of the lexicon for all ages.

“They’ve been going well,” Rev Tanner said this week of the church’s latest offering. “We have 80 to 90 people online each week, which has been really nice. I feel like I’m preaching to a full house,” he added, laughing.

For those who do not have or use Facebook, links to the sermons are e-mailed to those who request them.

“That way they can watch them at their leisure,” the pastor explained.

On Palm Sunday, Rev Tanner offered something different: a service that could be listened to over the radio. Members were invited to park in the church parking lot and tune in to the service via an FM radio station. The pastor also set plates outside with Communion wafers, so those who “attended” church that morning were able to partake in the rite. The “drive-in” offering was repeated on Easter Sunday.

Founded in 1965, the Sugar Street church is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. After forming and the first meeting in Bridgeport, and then hosting a second group that met in Wallingford — with the church then known as The Go Ye Chapel Mission — the church began meeting in Newtown in October 1965. At that time, the church’s gatherings took place at Edmond Town Hall, and the group was renamed The Newtown Church of Christ.

The church purchased two acres of land in 1968, and received approval from the town that April for the construction of a building for public worship. By 1969 the new building at the corner of Sugar Street and Rock Ridge Road was opened. In 1972 the church called James Conner to serve as its minister. Within a year Rick Fordyce was called to serve as NCC’s minister. Rev Fordyce left the ministry in 1978.

The church met for worship under the leadership of its Elders for 18 months. Jack Tanner served for a brief period, during the summer of 1979, providing relief for the elders. He was invited at the end of that season to take on the position full-time.

He did not immediately accept the invitation.

Prayer & Contemplation

In the 1960s Jack Tanner and his wife, Penny, were living in Indiana, where Tanner was born and raised. He began attending Lincoln Christian College (now Lincoln Christian University) in 1967, focusing on music and education. At that time, he said, he had not yet decided to focus on preaching.

Following graduation in 1972, Tanner started a youth ministry at his home church, Maple City Christian Church.

“It was more of a ‘Thank You’ to them,” he said, “because they had supported me and helped me through my college time.”

Tanner did not think he would be fully involved in the ministry, he said, “but I wanted to be involved in some way.” So he began serving at Maple City Church in 1972, was eventually hired full-time, and remained there until 1978. When the church began to have financial difficulties, Tanner went back to his alma mater.

“I stepped back from the church, went back to the college I had attended, and became a cafeteria manager,” he said.

That job was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, he said, but it had a great caveat: the position allowed him to work with a group of students at the college, who he was responsible for and took to church on weekends. The work with that youth group “was really what kept me at the college in the cafeteria.

“I enjoy cooking, but that job wasn’t really on the radar” long term, he said.

In 1979, a cousin of Tanner had the elders of Newtown Christian Church reach out to him.

“She wondered if I’d be able to help them, and could I come and preach for them for the summer,” he said. A corresponding break with the school job — which gave him the summer off — allowed the Tanners to travel to Newtown, where they spent the next two months.

At the end of that period, Tanner was invited to stay and lead NCC, he said. He still was not convinced that a life in ministry was for him, though.

“I went back home to pray,” he said. “I had a lot of excuses, but obviously no valid ones, because God brought me back here.”

Rev Tanner says the story of his calling to serve in Newtown “is a unique one.” The day the Tanners were planning to return to Indiana, their vehicle — “a fairly new car, only about a year old,” he said — would not initially start.

“My cousin said ‘See, you’re not supposed to go back home. You’re supposed so stay here and work with us,’” he recalled. He laughed the comment off, was able to get the vehicle started, and headed to the church, where a farewell fellowship event had been planned to see the Tanners off.

“We went out to the parking lot after the fellowship, and again the car wouldn’t start,” he said. His cousin, Rev Tanner said, again tried to point out the connection. Tanner tried to laugh it off, but promised his cousin he would pray about the offer.

The Tanners returned to Illinois, where they were then living, and Jack returned to working at the college, including with his student group. Then he realized he was missing a sportcoat.

“My wife thought maybe it had been left in Newtown,” he said. Humoring Penny Tanner, Jack contacted Newtown Christian Church.

Meanwhile, the Tanners were keeping their promise, praying over and discussing their options.

“We had decided that if they would be willing to wait, I would like to go back, in 1980, but I didn’t want to make them wait on us if they could find somebody,” he said.

When he called the church, he was told that his coat was, in fact, in Newtown. Not only that, but a surprising message was waiting.

“The lady we spoke with said ‘You know, we don’t talk about it every Sunday, but a lot of us have been saying that if Jack and Penny would be willing to come out next summer, we’d be willing to wait for them,’” he said.

“God was definitely speaking,” he said, laughing. After receiving an official application, the church reportedly voted on Tanner, and accepted him. The Tanners moved to Newtown in the spring of 1980, and Rev Tanner became the church’s minister.

Rev Tanner delivered his first sermon for Newtown Christian Church on June 1, 1980 — which was also his birthday.

A few thousand sermons, church events, celebrations both happy and sad, and Vacation Bible School programs later, Reverend Tanner plans to lead his final service on June 7, 2020. That will cap his career in Newtown at 40 years.

At least two members of Newtown Interfaith Council, of which Rev Tanner has been an active member, will miss their colleague.

Matt Crebbin, who has served since 2007 as senior pastor of Newtown Congregational Church, said he crossed paths several times during his early days of ministry in Newtown.

“He was always friendly and gracious,” Rev Crebbin said.

It was after the events of 12/14, Rev Crebbin continued, “that I got to know the deeper spirit of a man who has served so faithfully in his ministry to his church and our wider community.

“Jack’s deep compassion and gentle spirit has been such a blessing to me throughout the years. In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, Jack has been a calm and unflappable leader,” Rev Crebbin added.

Rev Tanner, according to Rev Crebbin, is “never so serious about life, that he is unable to enjoy a good laugh.

“It has been an honor to have a colleague who cares enough about his ministry that it enables him to not take himself too seriously. Jack will be greatly missed,” he said.

Likewise, Dr Reverend Jennifer Montgomery, priest-in-charge at Trinity Episcopal Church, said it “has been a pleasure” to serve on the council with Rev Tanner.

“One of the characteristics of Jack that stands out the most for me is the pastoral sound of Jack’s voice when he prays,” she said this week. ”Hearing Jack pray, it is evident that his faith in God is strong and that he prays from his heart.” In December, Rev Montgomery and Rev Tanner were paired together to pray for individuals who visited their prayer station during the 12/14 service of remembrance.

“I was deeply moved by his prayers,” she shared. “Jack is a faithful Christian man and an inspiration to me.”

Changes Ahead

The work of a pastor has changed since Rev Tanner accepted his call at Newtown Christian Church.

“In the beginning, my primary focus was working on those things that needed to be done for public worship and making sure that all those pieces were ready,” Rev Tanner said earlier this year. “I now still do that but it doesn’t take the bulk of my time.”

The pastor’s lead job continues to be to preach and care for the members of the church.

These days, however, it also includes a lot of paperwork and other tasks. That is the part of the job Rev Tanner will not miss.

“As the years went by, things seemed to become more of a routine,” he said. “There are certain things that I did on certain days. My time seemed to be more scheduled, and perhaps that’s why I came to dislike the ‘office’ work so much. I really wanted to spend more time with people outside of the office.

“I love the ministry, but the office work I can do without,” he said.

With some of his responsibilities already lifted, Rev Tanner has already begun spending more of his time focusing on his favorite hobbies.

“I love woodworking, so I hope to become more involved in that,” he said earlier this year. “It’s a relaxing thing for me.”

Penny and Jack Tanner will also do some day trips, and some long distance trips, he said.

The Tanners have two daughters, one son, and ten grandchildren, and are looking to spending more time with all of them.

Tammy (Tanner) and Kris Lawson, who live in Colorado, are the parents of Kaya, Avery, and Tanner. “We’d like to see them a little more often,” he said. “We have cousins and other relatives we’d like to see, too.”

James and Kara (Kunst) Tanner live in Newtown, and are the parents of Jakob, Emillie, and Ella. Janet (Tanner) and Kevin Kuzma also live in town, and are the parents of Lily, Kendall, and twins Brynn and Braxton.

With the current stay-at-home protocols in place, the search for a replacement pastor has been put on hold for Newtown Christian Church, said Rev Tanner. That does not mean its members will be left without service leaders after June 7.

“We have everything covered here,” he said April 15. “That’s not an issue.” Rev Tanner has spoken with others in the ministry, people at a few churches in the state, he said.

“They can help me out if needed. Right now we’re making sure the worship services are covered,” he said. “I’ve talked with people at sister churches that also have semi-retired pastors, and they’ve said they are absolutely willing to help.”

Rev Tanner will not be attending services at Newtown Christian Church for the first few months of a new pastor’s appointment, he said.

“I don’t want to hang around and be a shadow to the next person who comes in,” he said. “We may travel for three to four months, to let the next person really make this their ministry.”

Once that period passes, however, Rev Tanner does not think he is finished serving God.

“I could see myself taking care of the children’s ministry on Sunday mornings,” he said. “We shall see.”

Newtown Christian Church Pastor Jack Tanner sits at his desk inside the church in January. The longtime pastor of the independent Christian church on Sugar Street plans to retire as of June 7, after he leads that Sunday worship service. —Bee Photo, Hicks
Newtown Christian Church, located at 210 Sugar Street, as it appeared in January. Its pastor is planning to retire in June, four decades after accepting an invitation to lead the church. —Bee Photo, Hicks
Jack Tanner leads a Good Friday service from within Newtown Christian Church, which has adapted to pandemic protocols that allow its members to continue receiving messages from their faith leader. —Newtown Christian Church Facebook Live screen capture
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