By Kate Hayden, firstname.lastname@example.org
After 19 years serving First Baptist Church in Charles City, Rev. Ruth Yeaton is leading her final Christmas services before retirement.
Yeaton will lead her last worship service on Dec. 31, and she’ll be present at First Baptist’s community open house from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 7.
Since her time as a youth minister, Yeaton has served several different roles in multiple church bodies, but life at First Baptist has shaped the majority of her career.
“I like the line of, ‘I’m growing an oak tree, not a radish,'” Yeaton said. “You can grow radishes pretty fast, but if you want to have something that is much slower growing, you need a chunk of time.”
Yeaton and her husband, Todd, moved to Charles City in 1998 after 13 years serving in Indianola, where Yeaton was a minister of Christian education for youth. For two years, the pair worked together in Charles City before Todd received a call from a Cresco church. He’s now serving the Hillcrest Baptist and Brethren Church in Fredericksburg.
“Todd and I moved up here together, and he was the senior pastor and I was the associate pastor when we first came,” Yeaton said. “He transitioned to Cresco, Iowa, and I stayed here and became the senior pastor.”
Yeaton has been the senior pastor since 2001, leading mostly alone except for two memorable years working with associate pastor David Glavin at First Baptist.
During Yeaton’s time, the church celebrated its 150th and 160th anniversaries. First Baptist dedicated it’s current location along the river in 1971 after the original building was destroyed by the 1968 tornado.
“The church was founded in 1855 and we claim to be the oldest church in the community,” Yeaton said. “Those were both really special celebrations — a time to remember and be glad that you’re still here.”
Yeaton spent her grade school years on a Kansas City seminary campus as her father went through the school and ordination process in the American Baptist church.
“It’s just always been a big, big, part of our lives. I really never had a period of time when I wasn’t involved in the church,” Yeaton said.
She said she wasn’t immediately drawn to seminary herself until three years after college, when she was teaching high school English with a speech communications background.
After her husband decided to attend seminary, Yeaton learned she could receive the same education for free — and moved onto a seminary campus for the second time in her life.
“It was in the mid-70s, when they were really encouraging women to consider seminary and theological education. They offered a program by which we could go to school on one tuition,” Yeaton said.
“There was a real strong sense of, not only was this something that I could do, but that there was a calling to be in ministry,” she added. “I really don’t think I would have wanted to do it just to prove a point. It’s difficult enough that you really need to feel this is something that God is allowing or enabling you to do.”
During seminary, the two served a United Methodist church in Dixon, Illinois, as youth pastors for three years. At their 45th wedding anniversary in August 2016, the Yeatons were surprised to receive some of those same members of their youth group at their reception.
“Some life-long friendships and relationships have come even from those early days,” she said.
After years in Charles City, Yeaton said it’s special to see congregational members grow, both physically and in their spiritual lives.
“You get in on the new babies and the weddings and graduations — my goodness, I’ve almost been here for a generation,” Yeaton said. “And then on the other side, you’re the one who gets the call from the hospital, ‘we need you to come,’ or you’re with a family after a traumatic death or a lingering death. There’s that side of it too, and I think both are so hugely important.
“That’s why it’s been such a privilege to be here for so long.”
The emotional tolls can be heavy — but the daily tasks are a different kind of challenge.
“I still think that it is one of the few professions left where you have to be a little bit good at a lot of things. You are a generalist in a specialist world, and you are no longer necessarily even near the most educated person in your congregation,” she said.
“You really do need to figure out your gifts … and then find people to come alongside, allowing, empowering, encouraging them to do things that are either more difficult for you or maybe even impossible for you.”
Yeaton does look forward to her retirement — not only to visit grandchildren more often and focus on her photography, a hobby she’s enjoyed lately, but as a chance to finally attend church with her husband again.
“Four Sundays a year you have for vacation, and this year it wasn’t even the same Sundays,” she said, laughing.
“One of the other things that’s delightful about both being pastors is that we speak the same language, and we understand. … It’s been really nice to have someone else to debrief and have somebody who understands the pressures and responsibilities.”
“On the other hand, sometimes it’ll be nice to have something else to talk about!”
Yeaton is also a writer, and uses writing and her photography as “another way to connect with people,” she said.
To Yeaton, it will be a blessing and bittersweet to end her career at Christmas.
“One of the things that is such a privilege is Christmas eve,” Yeaton said. “You get to be in the front, and you’re looking out and seeing all of these lit candles — some of them little ones, singing ‘Silent Night’ — and you’re thinking, ‘This is about as good as it gets.'”
“You belong to these people, and they belong to you. … It hasn’t just been a job, but it is a way of life.”