While I had met Bishop Paull Spring a few times over the years, our real contact began late in 2005. I had made the mistake of not attending a meeting (the Kansas City Conference), and in my absence I was elected to the Steering Committee of the new Lutheran Coalition for Reform (as it was called then).
Before our first meeting, Paull called and asked whether I would be willing to take the minutes of the meeting. And so the journey began, often together.
Paull was, as a friend described in a positive way, a true character. He was a unique individual, and was not bashful about letting people know his thoughts and opinions. But he would also listen and respond rationally to opposing viewpoints.
As an ELCA bishop from a relatively small rural synod (Northwestern Pennsylvania), Paull was known as the theological conscience of the Conference of Bishops. He developed strong friendships and equally strong dislikes among the group. Paull was not one of those boring people who needed everybody to like him, and he did not suffer fools gladly.
Yet it was Paull Spring who met with Pr. Jaynan Clark of the WordAlone Network, as those two leaders who had very different views on many issues in the ELCA realized that the things they agreed about were more important than the ones that separated them. Probably nobody else would have had the credibility to lead the generally eastern and “liturgical” group into an alliance with the mostly-midwestern and “evangelical” (in the American sense) constituency of WordAlone. But thanks to Paull and Jaynan as the initiators, it happened.
I always enjoyed meetings Paull led, because by about the 50-minute point he would shuffle nervously, and soon he would call a recess so he could go outside and puff on his pipe. Of course, his smoking got him in trouble from time to time. Once at the Indianapolis Airport I was sure we would be arrested waiting for a shuttle as he insisted on lighting his pipe beneath a sign threatening prosecution for smoking. And he recounted the time he thought he had found a secret place to smoke during a Pittsburgh Pirates game, but when his family realized he had been gone a long time, they discovered security was in the process of removing him from the stadium.
Paull not only got himself into quite a few mishaps, he delighted in telling about them. As I have heard stories from mutual friends over the years, I realized that I heard most of them from Paull himself. He didn’t take himself all that seriously, but he certainly took his theology seriously.
Riding in a vehicle he was driving was a spiritual experience. I repented of most of my sins on such trips, starting when he let go of the steering wheel at 75 mph on an Ohio Interstate so he could light his pipe. He thought I was kind and generous to do most of the driving; I viewed it as self-preservation.
Paull had strong feelings about hotels and restaurants. He insisted on a hotel where he could smoke his pipe (no surprise there). A glass of wine in the evening with the manager only made the facility more attractive. And he never did like my choice in restaurants. After the biker bar that was recommended to us in Akron (which had great food), I just left it up to him to find our dining places.
Paull also never quite forgave me for a certain church service we attended. I will omit the city and congregation. The congregation was rainbow-friendly, and the liturgy was magnificent until Paull turned around at the sharing of the peace and saw two older men kissing on the lips. The look on his face was priceless. Like at the biker bar.
That said, at Churchwide Assemblies Lutheran CORE usually had a room next to the organization advocating acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships. To most people’s amazement, our groups had cordial relationships. When the folks from the next room invited Paull to their worship service, he accepted. But he was about as comfortable as he was at that biker bar in Akron.
When the time came to choose a bishop for the first year of the NALC, there really was no other option. Paull had the credibility, the respect, and the organizational skills to make it happen. And he had the theological acumen to get us started in the right directions.
Paull and I continued to connect through the years, sometimes at events and sometimes as Linda and I worshipped at the congregation he helped start in State College, Pennsylvania. Paull and I didn’t always agree on things (including politics), but we were always able to share with mutual respect. I wrote a few things along the way that disturbed people in the NALC, but if Paull wrote a response, he always made sure I received a copy directly from him. He was generous with his praise, helpful with his criticisms, and always a true gentleman and a faithful follower of Christ.
I visited him at the hospital in State College earlier this year, and he knew how sick he was. In typical Paull fashion, as I walked into the room, he blurted out, “I almost died, you know!” And the last time we were together, at a worship service in Emmanuel in State College, I asked how he was doing and he barked, “Not as good as I used to be.” That sort of blunt realism characterized so many of my experiences with him.
I will miss seeing him again this side of eternity, and I trust that our Lord has prepared a good supply of pipe tobacco, since near the end he was even unable to enjoy that guilty pleasure.
I thank God for the privilege of knowing and working with this unique and delightful (even when grumpy) saint. His example, his faithfulness, and his hard work will be a blessing to the North American Lutheran Church and beyond for generations to come. My prayers continue for his wife Barbara and for their daughters.
May Paull Spring rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon him!