Saying thanks for 18 years

The Rev. William Pender will preach his last sermon at Oakland Presbyterian Church on Sunday. He is moving to Knoxville, Tenn.
The Rev. William Pender will preach his last sermon at Oakland Presbyterian Church on Sunday. He is moving to Knoxville, Tenn.

The Rev. Dr. William Pender hit Rock Hill one week after Hurricane Hugo blew through town 18 years ago.

He jokes sometimes of being "part of the debris" that was left behind. But he has been the face of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church since 1989.

On Sunday morning, it will all come to an end.

Pender will deliver his last sermon at the church he has called home all those years to serve as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tenn., where the city's population is around 174,000.

"I choke up every day when I think, 'Why am I leaving?'" Pender said. "On the other hand, I know that I have to. I want the next person who comes here to come in Christ's church. Not William Pender's church."

Pender's replacement has yet to be named. A committee has to be created in order to begin the search.

Pender and his wife, Sheri, and their youngest daughter will leave Rock Hill on Monday and take a couple of weeks off before traveling to Tennessee. He will start the new job on Nov. 5 and is expected to deliver his first sermon Nov. 11.

Before he departs, church members plan to host a special celebration for Pender and his family after the morning worship service, around noon.

Several members will participate in the tribute, including 86-year-old Marshall Doswell, who was part of the search committee that hired him. While Pender was there to do a job, he made many friends, including Doswell.

"You just hate to see a relationship terminate, and sometimes it's healthy and exciting to go on to a new town," Doswell said. "We certainly are grateful to William and Sheri for their many services to the community. So many things have happened over the 18 years. He can look back on the record of accomplishments and be proud of it."

Pender, a native of Marietta, Ga., moved to the area with his wife and their two small children, Joshua and Amy. Since then, they've added daughter Julia to the family.

Pender said he is the church's longest-serving pastor. The late Rev. Alexander Martin, the church's founding pastor, served the second-longest time.

Instrumental in major church events

In 18 years, Pender has performed more than 200 baptisms and more than 200 funerals. He also has been instrumental in several historical events, ranging from his church participating for the first time in the "full communion" between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Reform Church of America, the United Church of America and the Presbyterian Church USA in 1998; renovation of the church sanctuary in 2002; and the recent addition of an alternative, or nontraditional worship service, to its Sunday morning program.

Pender also found the time to volunteer with several civic groups and organizations such as Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides meals, shelter, support services and life skills to homeless parents and children with the help of area churches, social service agencies and volunteers.

It's the special friendships and bonds he's developed over the years with many, including members Brenda and Richard Nicholson and their two children, now adults, that will be cherished. The Nicholsons became members of the church in 1987, two years before Pender became pastor.

Some of Brenda Nicholson's fondest memories are the times her family would spend with the Penders in Montreat, N.C., pushing the kids on the swings in a nearby park.

"It's a family lost. Not like they are lost forever, but they just won't be around the corner any more," said Nicholson, who added the two families would go out to dinner and to the movies together. "They were the couple that we did that kind of stuff with."

Although Pender will be leaving Rock Hill for a new job, he still has family here -- his older brother, Robert, and Robert's wife, Kathy.

When he makes his farewell on Sunday, there will be two main words Pender plans to utter:

"Thank you."