Dennis & Sue Swearngin Say Farewell To Olivet After 32 Years
By Anita Neal Harrison
Sue Swearngin still remembers the day her husband, Dennis, decided he wanted to be a minister. He had a job interview at an insurance company and took a little longer than she expected to get home.
“I stopped by to talk to Buck,” Dennis explained as he came in. Buck Jones was their pastor at First Christian Church in Raytown, Mo.
“Oh, you did?” Sue sensed it was more than a casual chat.
“You know I’ve been thinking about going into the ministry,” Dennis continued, “and I really think this is what I want to do.’
Sue didn’t hesitate.
“Dennis, if this is what you want to do, then do it,” she said.
Sue shares this memory more than three decades later, as Dennis heads into the last few weeks of his ministry at Olivet Christian Church. After 32 and a half years as senior pastor of the church, Dennis will retire at the end of this month.
Olivet members have many reasons to expect to miss Dennis’s leadership, which has taken Olivet through its transition from a rural church with about 80 active members to a suburban church with more than 350 active members, but many agree there’s one reason Dennis’s retiring is especially hard.
“He’s a friend, a friend you can always count on,” says Jo Behymer, a longtime member who was on the church board when Dennis became pastor in 1980.
“Dennis and Sue are more than a minister and a minister’s wife: They are dear friends and members of an extended family, who are really, really precious,” says Jim Spain, a member of Olivet for 24 years.
“They are like family,” says Chester Edwards, who, like Behymer, was at Olivet before Dennis and Sue’s arrival. “And I think an awful lot of people have that same perspective because he makes everybody feel special, and Sue likewise.”
Olivet member Betty Glenn was the first person from Olivet to speak with Dennis, as she called Dennis to set up his initial visit. Glenn still remembers that first meeting and her first impressions of Dennis.
“He was quiet but asked intelligent questions,” she says. “You know, there are preachers and there are pastors and then there are ministers — who are compassionate and who see the needs of the church. And we felt like he was a minister. You could feel his concern.”
As natural as ministry came to Dennis, it wasn’t something he grew up wanting to do. When he and Sue had married before his senior year of college in June 1968, both of them were on a “break” from lifelong church attendance. Dennis wasn’t sure just what he wanted to do with his life but hoped to find a laidback office job that left him lots of time for golf and fishing.
While he was in college, Dennis received deferment from the Vietnam War draft. After his graduation, he served in the Navy for four years and ended up on the edges of conflict, where, he says, he “saw enough of war and the use of manpower and technology and money and resources to have a sense that that was just a colossal waste.”
“And with that solemn pronouncement,” he recalls, now 65 and sitting comfortably in his church office, “it became an existential question: ‘OK, wise guy, so what’s not a waste?’ That was the beginning of me taking my life and my gifts seriously.”
Although Sue had not knowingly married a future pastor, she was at peace with Dennis’s decision in 1975 to go to Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, to study pastoral ministry.
“I was a little scared,” she says, “but I knew Dennis had been struggling with what he wanted to do, so it was a sense of relief, really, and I could tell he was really excited about it. It felt right for Dennis, and I was willing to be on the adventure, too.”
A few years later in 1980, it felt right to Olivet Christian Church members to call Dennis to the church. Dennis had been serving as pastor of a small church in Texas and had put his name before Olivet in hopes of getting back to Missouri so his and Sue’s son, Bryan, could grow up knowing his grandparents, both sets of which lived in Kansas City. (Dennis and Sue’s second son, Matthew, was born in 1982.)
Dennis, Sue and Bryan arrived in Columbia the day before Thanksgiving 1980. Several Olivet members met them at the parsonage to help them unload and then took them to the church for a Thanksgiving dinner.
“The people were so very welcoming, kind, generous, warm,” Sue says. “It felt like family from Day One.”
At that time, the church was still small enough to function like one large family, albeit a family that was getting a little big for everyone to feel close. As the church grew to more than 100 regular attendees, it became necessary to offer more programs and smaller groups, which in turn meant a new role for Dennis, who had to connect with all of the smaller cells. It also meant he had to be mindful of those church members who were a little heartsore at seeing their old church transform into something new. That became especially hard when Olivet required a new building in the mid-1990s. Dennis was just the right leader for that time, says Glenn.
“He was our guide through the building process, but he wasn’t forcing things on us,” she says.
The church was able to purchase land adjoining the original property, and careful decisions — such as architectural tributes to the old church and even bringing over its pews — helped ease the transition.
“Through those choices we showed, ‘We aren’t leaving the past; we are bringing it with us,’ ” Dennis says.
The 18 years since the move have brought Olivet more growth in membership, programs, staff and facilities. There’s also been intangible growth, the kind not measured with “nickels and noses,” to borrow a church phrase. Jo Behymer addresses Dennis’s spiritual legacy.
“He’s an outstanding teacher,” she says. “I’ve learned from him about the Bible, about different ways to look at life, and I feel like, intellectually, I’ve expanded. But also I’ve been stretched in terms of, ‘How do I serve? What are my gifts, what do I have to offer, and how do I serve?’ And I think that’s true for many, that many would tell you the same thing.”
Sue, meanwhile, has impressed Olivet members with her desire to work alongside them.
“Sue brings tremendous spiritual gifts and has been very involved but not seeking out the limelight,” Chester Edwards says.
“She’s sort of a silent partner,” adds Vonda Edwards, Chester’s wife.
Along with being a wife, mother and involved church member, Sue also worked for 32 years as the administrative assistant for the Education Department at Stephens College. Dealing with all of the demands was hard, Sue says, but she also felt the church’s support in her need to put her family first.
“Olivet has always seemed to be very accepting of my role,” she says. “No one ever said to me, ‘You should be doing this or that.’ ”
She was always serving anyway, says Jim Spain.
“I think folks at Olivet would not describe her as a minister’s wife but as a member of the congregation ... here to serve in the same way as any other member of this family of faith is called to serve,” he says.
Unlike Dennis’s decision to go into the ministry, his decision to retire is not something he or Sue can pinpoint.
“It was a gradual discussion,” Sue says. “You know when it’s time.”
“I still love this church, love the people, believe in what we’re doing, believe in this church and its understanding of ministry and mission — so no disillusionment,” Dennis says. “Just a sense of — well, I’m tired. It’s time to step back. Both Sue and I are talking in terms of the first phase of retirement being a long sabbatical, to just step back and be for a while.”
Sue has a head start, having retired last December. She and Dennis have found a house to rent in Rocheport, just two blocks off the Katy Trail. Though neither rides a bike now, they expect to start. They also expect to travel a bit and spend time with family. What else they might do, well, time will tell.
“Right now, our plan is to not have a plan,” Sue says.
The more pressing question is, How will they say farewell to Olivet? The church has made the parting gradual, with a dinner and roast two months out and several invitations to members’ homes leading up to the final service. It’s helped, Dennis and Sue say, but it’s still not going to be easy.
And Olivet members say the same. As they reflect on what they appreciate most about Dennis’s ministry — and will therefore miss the most — one thing that comes up again and again is the exceptional job he does with weddings and funerals.
“He knows people,” Vonda Edwards explains. “He makes everything so special.”
“And,” adds Chester Edwards, “he does it all in that loving and caring ministry of Christ.”
The Barbecue Tradition
56 Years Of Chicken And Mutton
Before Dennis and Sue Swearngin leave Olivet Christian Church at the end of this month, they will get one more Olivet Christian Church Chicken & Mutton BBQ.
This will be the 56th year for the barbecue, the church’s preeminent event and one with a reputation extending far beyond Boone County.
“When I told my mother in Kansas City we would be moving to Olivet,” Sue Swearngin recalls, “she said: ‘Oh, that’s the church that has the barbecue. Somebody I work with never misses it.’ ”
This old-fashioned event takes place in a vast tent on the church lawn. All of the food preparation, except for dessert, takes place on site, and with 27 committees ranging from parking to pies involved in the preparation, there’s a spot for everyone to contribute.
“It’s the single most unifying event of the community,” says longtime Olivet member Jo Behymer. “We have had four generation of people in our family work that barbecue.”
The menu is always the same: Barbecue chicken or mutton, green beans, new potatoes, coleslaw, applesauce, bread, a drink and homemade pie. Of the more than 20 varieties of pies offered, pecan and gooseberry are the traditional favorites.
“People come early to get their pick of pie,” says Chester Edwards, who along with his wife, Vonda, is serving as the 2013 general chairs.
Planners expect to sell around 2,500 tickets, with actual attendance around 2,200. Many past members who have moved away come back to work the barbecue, and many Boone County residents who do not attend Olivet also help out. Others show their support through attending year after year.
“It’s a mainstay in Boone County for the third Saturday of June,” Edwards says. “There’s a huge following of people who go around to events like this and parish picnics as a part of their summer entertainment. ... I think it’s the fellowship, the camaraderie, the togetherness that people in today’s fast world don’t always get.”
Olivet Christian Church Chicken & Mutton BBQ
1991 S. Olivet Road
Saturday, June 15, 3:30 to 7 p.m.
Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door. Kids 10 and under are $4. Advanced tickets available from Olivet members or the church office. Cash or check accepted.
There will also be live music and a crafts table.
For more information, call the church office at 573-442-0336.