On the evening of Sunday, September 26, I received notification from our senior pastor that the Reverend Doug Hill had passed away.
This was an unexpected shock to me. My heart hurt. Doug was the real deal.
I don’t remember exactly how I came to know Doug and his wife, Janet. But, when Doug retired from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, he and Janet settled in Richmond, and they began attending Trinity United Methodist on Forest Avenue in Henrico County.
For 42 years, Doug was in church buildings around Virginia. He served with distinction as a pastor and later as a district superintendent. Doug knew his way around the districts in the conference. He had a wide range of geographical assignments in his work. I don’t sense he ever backed away from a challenging designation.
At Trinity, Doug and Janet fit right in, and they quickly acclimated themselves and became involved. Their leadership styles were different, but their hearts were always perfectly positioned to make an impact.
One winter evening after I had taken the job as property manager at Trinity, I was in a meeting at the church. Doug was in this meeting too, and a man came into the church who was asking for assistance for the night. Doug came down with me to talk with the man. We were not able to solve his challenge for the night, but I appreciated Doug being a part of that encounter.
Once as Doug and Janet were packed up for a trip, Doug fell. It was not a good fall, he broke one of his hips. He recovered, but I remember him sharing the doctor’s post surgery advice: “Don’t you fall again!” To my knowledge he never did. But, Doug was very skilled at helping people who for assorted reasons had fallen on the path of living.
A handful of times, I was asked to pinch hit in the pulpit for one of our pastors. Whenever I had finished writing the sermon, if Doug was available, I asked him to come to the church to listen to a practice session in the Sanctuary.
He never turned me down. And to Doug’s credit, he was gentle in his suggestions for improvement. He never chastised with theological jargon or theories. He kept me focused on the task at hand and helped me find a bit more of confidence. Somewhere, in my mess of desk I have a beautiful handwritten note from Doug. I will cherish that note forever.
If you knew Doug, you knew he was a storyteller. All of those interactions with people in all kinds of settings during his career had given him a full library of experiences. Over the years, Doug shared a few with me, and I always learned something from these stories.
No matter how difficult the setting in a church or a community, I learned more about him and how he worked with people. In those reflections, I was always amazed at his coolness, his calmness, and his capacity to lead and communicate with precision to the person who needed help or who had stepped over church boundaries.
Back in August of this summer, we asked Doug if he would participate in the Twelve Days of September. This was designed as a brief interview conversation with staff members and our congregation. We tried to captured every age demographic, and we wanted to know how the pandemic had impacted them and our church.
Because of the pandemic, we conducted the interviews on the grounds of the church. On the afternoon of Doug’s interview, we sat under the shade of dogwoods, crepe myrtles, and the east side of the Sanctuary. Richmond’s August heat and humidity were at their best that afternoon. We did the interview in one take, and Doug true to form despite the summer heat was as cool as a cucumber.
We talked for several minutes after the interview, and during that time frame, my mind was graced with another story. This one had to do with Doug learning how to run a church. Doug felt his seminary experience had prepared him well for delivering sermons, and conducting weddings, baptisms, and funerals. But, he wanted to learn more about the daily working of a church.
Doug made arrangements to meet with Dr. James Turner who at the time was the senior pastor at Trinity. A schedule was set up and for several weeks, Doug and Dr. Turner met. Doug learned about how to run meetings related to Finance, the Trustees, Staff Parish, and Church Council.
When their last tutoring session was completed, Dr. Turner looked at Doug, and he gave Doug a final tip.
He said— “remember, when you are working with church people, you must be able to chuckle.”
Of course, Doug was curious about this recommendation to chuckle. So, he asked Dr. Turner—“why is it important to chuckle?”
Dr. Turner looked Doug in the eye and said—“ because church people are crazy.”
In his 42 years of work with church people, I’m pretty sure Doug found numerous opportunities to chuckle about his work.
But, I also know during his years of service that Doug touched hearts.
He touched those hearts in every moment that the chaos of life can toss at a person. And in that chaos people found the real deal, a man who knew his calling, and a man who knew how to respond to people in need.
Thank you Doug Hill for touching my life.
My heart will never forget you and your stories.