After 13 years of serving as pastor for Anniston First Presbyterian Church, David Rice is stepping down. It’s something that has been in his thoughts for a couple of years, but after discussing it with church leadership and then the congregation, Rice decided to make it official.
“Thirteen years is a pretty long time,” Rice says with a laugh. “When I first got here, I never would have thought it would have lasted so long. But I’m so glad that it did.”
Rice will technically be pastor until January but will be on sabbatical during that time and have no actual church responsibilities. Over the course of his sabbatical, which began in August, Rice has attended numerous conferences while seeking his next “calling.”
The FPC leadership is in process of selecting an interim pastor and has identified several “highly qualified” candidates interested in coming to Anniston, says Lee Merrill, clerk of the session for FPC.
“Whenever a pastor leaves, especially one who has been in place for many years, there is a certain amount of angst and confusion among the congregation,” Lee says. “But the folks at First Presbyterian are working together to heal the hurts from a difficult summer and move forward with confidence into the future.
“Our love for each other, for the community and for the Lord enables us to face the future in a positive way, eager to continue the rich history of First Presbyterian Church in Anniston.”
On June 1, FPC began what Rice calls a “year of transition,” during which he preached for two months before stepping away in August. However, he considered leaving about three years ago and started floating resumes around before changing his mind.
“It was a very low-grade thing,” he says. “But I had been here a decade and really started feeling that it would be healthy for me and good for the church to hear a new voice.”
That changed in 2011 when The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) passed a measure allowing openly gay men and women in same-sex relationships to be ordained as clergy. The move reflected a monumental shift in the 2.8 million-member church, which, along with other mainline Protestant denominations, had increasingly contentious debates and struggles over issues pertaining to gay and lesbian members and clergy.
“It was something that I was strongly in support of but was not universally agreed upon within the congregation,” Rice says of the change. “It was a time when I felt like leadership was needed.”
Like many churches within the denomination, FPC was being confronted by social issues that required soul-searching and caused a fair amount of “turmoil” among its members, says Keener Hudson, who’s been attending FPC since the early 1980s.
“It was disconcerting to many people,” he says. “David was on the cutting edge of that and as a result our church tried to be on the cutting edge as well. That upset some people.”
Acknowledging that the issue of gay clergy had caused a rift among his congregation, Rice knew it was a bad time to leave. So he stopped sending out resumes in order to “lower the anxiety level” of church and instead focus on healing.
It took a couple of years before Rice decided, “it was time … for everyone.”
A matter of self-defense
It has been a difficult couple years for Rice for reasons beyond what’s going on at FPC.
On an early morning in late May of 2012, David Rice was arrested and charged with first-degree domestic violence after police responded to a 3 a.m. call to his house, where they found a 53-year-old man unconscious with stab wounds to the arm and chest.
It’s the kind of gossip-spreading headline no pastor or community leader ever wants to be associated with. But the story behind the headlines was something that Rice hasn’t been fully able to address publicly.
The man the police found bleeding in Rice’s kitchen was his brother, Philip.
A widely respected composer and conductor, Philip’s life began unraveling following a series of personal and professional setbacks. In 2011, his wife was diagnosed with colon cancer, and it was Philip who stayed with her, night and day, until she died in July of that year. Unemployed, depressed and increasingly self-medicated, Philip began suffering from near-crippling panic attacks.
“This was all working through his system when he got to us,” Rice says.
Arriving late, Philip and David were in the kitchen when Philip began talking about his deceased wife, growing more and more emotional.
“He became aggressive — at first verbally, then physically,” Rice says. “He wrestled me to the ground. There was a knife in the kitchen. And in a panic, I grabbed it, not really thinking, just trying to stop what was a raging beast. When I looked into his eyes, I didn’t see my brother.
“It was a matter of self-defense.”
The Calhoun County grand jury agreed, dropping all charges against Rice.
“It’s turned out to be a real wake-up call,” Rice says. “It’s something no one should go through, but my brother has been able to turn his life around.”
After recovering from his wounds, Philip Rice has begun teaching music at a university in Taiwan, where he also serves as conductor for the choral group.
As for the congregation at FPC, it never wavered amid all the rumors following their pastor’s arrest.
“We never doubted David,” Hudson says. “The whole church and really the community were behind him. It was heartening to see, and I think it speaks highly of our congregation and how it felt about David.”
Now as Rice prepares to move in a new direction, he can look back with pride and what has been accomplished in his 13 years at FPC.
“All I hoped to leave in my wake, if you will, is a church that is healthy, financially sound and is consciously welcoming and hospitable to all kinds of folks,” he says. “And I think we’ve done that.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org