Pastor Teske's 25th Anniversary Celebrations!
DROPPING ANCHOR IN WESTPORT
Reverend Paul N.E. Teske Celebrates 25 Years at St. Paul Westport
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WESTPORT, CT (September 3, 2014) – He just wasn’t expecting it. When Paul Teske received an invitation to talk with St. Paul Lutheran Church in Westport about becoming its senior pastor, he was happily installed as the Protestant chaplain at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT.
Paul’s path to New London had already taken him all over the world. Born in Waco, TX in 1946, he grew up in a traditional Lutheran family and graduated from Baylor University in 1968. He worked as an elementary school teacher during the Vietnam War while waiting for his draft number to be called (he says it was his most difficult job) before deciding to enter the ministry at Concordia Seminary in Springfield, IL. From there he studied in Germany and enjoyed a vicarage in the Panama Canal Zone, before starting a successful mission church in Youngstown, Ohio. He was invited to take missionary assignments in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Venezuela, and turned them all down.
But when a fourth invitation came, to become a chaplain in the US Navy, he accepted, assigned to the US Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, moving on to serve at sea aboard the USS Reeves, a missile cruiser ported in Japan, selected as the 11 Western States recruiter for the Chief of Chaplains, Washington, D.C. based in San Francisco and ultimately to work as Senior Chaplain with cadets and staff at the USCG Academy.
Teske enjoyed the Navy because it gave him a chance to minister to people with a wide variety of backgrounds, problems and religious beliefs. And his career was doing well: he was promoted to the rank of full Commander in just 11 years, and out of 110 chaplains was one of two chosen to become “regular Navy.” When the call came from St. Paul, he was preparing to become the chaplain of an elite, newly formed Marine division being trained in desert warfare for the Mideast. Teske always assumed he would retire from the Navy after 30 years. Things were settled. Plus, he and his wife Rivers had three children in the 3rd, 4th and 7th grades. The oldest Tara, had been in seven schools in the previous seven years. That last thing the Teske’s were looking for was another family move.
Yet when the invitation came in May 1989, Paul decided to meet with the congregation at St. Paul, just to tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Lutheran congregations normally fill a vacant pastorate by forming a committee to interview candidates and then issue a “call” to the selected person. In the case of St. Paul, 27 people joined the committee to address a vacancy that was being filled on a temporary basis by periodic visits from Rev Jack Breznen, the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stamford.
Breznan had been a classmate of Teske’s at the seminary, and unbeknownst to Paul, put his name up for the call committee’s consideration.
When Teske returned from his first meeting with the call committee, Rivers asked what they had said when he turned them down. He replied that he hadn’t turned them down, but had agreed to another meeting.
Part of his openness stemmed from lessons he had learned while serving his country. When Teske began in New London, they held a Protestant service in the Coast Guard chapel every Sunday that attracted at most 50 worshipers, mostly Coast Guard retirees. But a Friday night meeting of Young Life, featuring contemporary religious music often welcomed more than 200, mostly young couples and cadets. It seemed obvious to Teske that the church’s future would be limited if it depended entirely on the structure of traditional worship services.
In his view, this danger was compounded by what Teske calls the “village” nature of worship in most New England communities. According to Teske, most small towns in New England have a Congregational Church on the green, nearby, an Episcopal church, usually a bit more liturgical, and over to the side, a newer Roman Catholic Church for the immigrants that came in the late 19th century. The other major Protestant denominations, such as Methodist, Presbyterian or Lutheran, do not have the demographic base in New England to survive by just appealing to people who have grown up in those traditions, he says.
So his point on the second meeting with the call committee at St. Paul was that he would only consider accepting the call if the congregation agreed to become more inclusive demographically and geographically, and include worship services that, without abandoning Lutheran theology, would be more contemporary in music and style. After returning to New London, Teske expected to be turned down. Instead, he was shocked to hear that the call committee had agreed that he was their man. Unanimously.
Now he was in something of a fix. As a “regular” Navy man, he was committed to the service for at least another year. And all the long-term plans that he and Rivers had made were suddenly up for grabs again. But they prayed about it, and reflected on the fact that this was the fourth “call” to a parish that Paul had received recently. Perhaps God was trying to tell them something.
Arriving at St. Paul on September 9, 1989, Teske threw himself not only into the congregation but the community as well, joining many area and local boards including Bridgeport Rescue Mission, the United Way and coaching Little League baseball with Jack Reilly, owner of the Greens Farms Spirit Shop. As a former Eagle Scout, he continued to be a staunch defender of the foundational values of the scouting family in Westport and beyond.
Within the congregation, Pastor Teske’s approach was welcomed by many and rejected by many as well, with long time members leaving the congregation over the years, to be replaced by new members, often from more diverse religious backgrounds, but attracted to the church’s new stated mission, “To Know Christ and to Make Christ Known.” Worship featured a traditional, liturgical Lutheran service at 8:30 a.m., and is followed today by a service of contemporary religious music at 10:30. a.m.
A major turning point for Pastor Teske came after 15 years in 2004, when at age 57 years he was stricken with a stroke while addressing 200 Christian businessmen at a breakfast in New Canaan. Despite the paralysis of his entire left side, he continued to speak until he collapsed and was rushed to Norwalk Hospital. After tests the doctors did not know whether or not he would ever walk again, or even if he would survive the night.
Pastor Teske says that during his convalescence he was given a sign by God that he would be completely healed in 21 days. On the 21st day, he attended an evening healing service in Baltimore where all symptoms of Pastor Teske’s stroke ceased immediately and he could walk normally without his walking devices. (A video of the occasion is available on the church’s web site.) Teske took his dramatic and complete recovery as a sign that St. Paul Westport was itself to become a “house of healing” and since then the congregation has hosted a healing service every Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m., drawing people from around the country and the world.
Pastor Teske wrote about this experience in his book, Healing for Today, and has been invited to share his testimony to audiences of all different faiths worldwide. In addition to the weekly healing service, St. Paul is active in supporting missions in Zambia, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, India, Kenya, China, and Iraq, among many others. With a operational and teaching staff of more than 20, people the church has also proudly supported and educated several thousand of Westport’s children for 38 years at the St. Paul’s Christian School, a premier nationally-accredited preschool and kindergarten.
Rivers Teske also created her own charitable mission for women and children, called Hidden Choices, which provides maternity housing and care, counseling support and baby cribs to inner city teen mothers through a national web site. More recently, Hidden Choices has expanded into human trafficking awareness programs, sustainable farming and clean water initiatives in India and Africa and the education and care of more than 3,500 orphans and slum children. She travels extensively to speak on these critical issues effecting the most vulnerable in society and believes that each one of us can impact the world by making a difference in the life of a child.
Today the Teske family in Westport has expanded beyond children Tara, Paul II and Jordan to include Tara’s husband, Jacob, their son Tyler and daughter, Olivia.
As he prepares to celebrate his 25th anniversary as the senior pastor of St. Paul Westport, Rev. Teske would like to thank everyone in the congregation and the community who has contributed to making his family’s quarter century in Westport productive and fulfilling. And thank God for reminding us all, through the example of the Teske family, that what we have planned for our lives isn’t always what He has in mind for us.
25th Anniversary Celebrations
Sunday September 14th
SPW Church & SPC School Picnic
Sunday October 5th