Two weeks ago, my dad, Cal Malena, announced his retirement. He's been a pastor for the last 36 years.
Almost 1900 people have watched one of his last sermons on YouTube, in which he talks about his two gay kids (I'm one of them!) and how his theological views on LGBTQ+ relationships have shifted. It's no secret that his congregation's mixed response to that sermon was a factor in his decision to retire three years early.
Did my dad cook his own goose? Was he martyred for his beliefs? Neither of those interpretations is entirely accurate. Situations like these are always more complex than they seem. What's important is that my dad made a free choice to end his pastoral ministry, and both he and my mom are at peace with it.
It's strange to think of my dad without thinking of him as a pastor. He has been “Pastor Cal” since before I was born, and his career and calling have had a profound impact on my own.
My dad was the dad who stood at the front of the church. That was something I took great pride in as a kid. I got all puffed up inside every time I saw other people show him respect, making it easier to forgive him for occasionally using stories about me in sermon illustrations. Having a pastor-dad brought other perks... he was often the one to stick around and lock the church after services, which meant I could stay and run around the building for a lot longer than most of my friends. My siblings and I still know every good hiding place in Emmanuel Baptist Church.
My dad worked hard. When we were little, he would sometimes go to the office at the crack of dawn, then drive back home to eat breakfast with us before returning to work, often attending meetings late into the evening. Like many pastors, he hit a point of major burnout and had to cut back his workload to lower his stress. But through it all, he set aside time for us. Dinners were sacred - no phone answering allowed. He would bake bread from scratch every week for our school-lunch sandwiches, and he'd block off one night a week for our Sabbath meal and Family Night activities.
Before becoming a pastor, he was an engineer, and his methodical, systems-oriented mind served him well in ministry, too, especially as our church grew and the staff with it. He loved to puzzle over how to help teams work together more efficiently. He's famous for having organized a multi-tiered, 25-person production line to quickly assemble several thousand bag lunches for most of Saskatoon's Christians during our joint service on the first Sunday of the year 2000.
Twice a year or so, our church would put on big dramatic presentations, and my dad would be right in there, drill in hand, assembling sets. He would often challenge himself to rig up a little motorized device for pulling back curtains or for some other superfluous special effect. I think working with his hands from time to time gave him a sense of satisfaction; those results were so much more tangible than those arising from his pastoral work.
I remember when I got older, during car trips or meals, he'd talk to me about the challenges of working with a board, managing a staff, or uniting denominations under a mission agency. As yawn-inducing as that sounds, I always listened eagerly, trying to think of intelligent questions, feeling that I was being let in on some secrets, honored that he considered me mature enough for that level of conversation.
He was a solid preacher. Relevance and practicality were his highest goals in that department; he was the master of the three alliterated points, easy to tuck in your pocket for later. He was eloquent, but down-to-earth, avoiding anything that might distract from his central message. It brought him joy to incorporate examples from science into his sermon, and from pop culture. My siblings and I recall his “YouTube phase,” when we had to be mindful that any video we introduced to him during the week could end up being displayed up on the twin screens during the Sunday service, whether or not it directly applied to his point.
He also sometimes thought he was funnier than he actually was, but most dads are prone to this.
My dad was rarely moved to tears in front of the congregation, but the two times my siblings and I remember this happening were during one sermon when he was overcome with awe at the expanse of the universe, and another when he was expounding on the plight of people who never receive the loving touch of other human beings. And, of course, in his most recent sermon.
Some pastors are really only preachers, which is fine, but my dad was a pastor-pastor, you know, the pastoral kind, the kind that would go golfing or drink a beer with you, the kind that people want around during their most sacred and horrible moments, the kind who can be present in the midst of soneone's pain without rushing to try to say the right thing and apply unwanted bandaids. By the time my brother and I came out to him, unbeknownst to us, he had already listened long and hard to the painful stories of other closeted LGBT congregants in the holy quiet of his office. The softness of his heart and his eagerness to empathize, traits which have no doubt been criticized as having clouded his judgment on this particular topic, are what make him a true pastor, and what have helped hold our family together, especially over the last ten years.
My dad will never really stop being a pastor. Whether or not he is paid by a church, he will continue pastoring, seeking to understand and honor people and reassure them that they are loved by God and by him. He'll be a pastor to the grave, probably into the next life too. And though this may have at times read too much like a eulogy, rest assured that he is still very much alive and at large, anticipating where God will lead him next. There are many more people who will yet benefit from the life and work of Pastor Cal, and I am among them.