Christmas Joy

A little extra help to keep the home fires burning

December 2, 2021 by Emily Enders Odom

Seems like in one way or another, Jack and Kate Eisel have always been busy putting out fires — unless they were building them.

The couple met practically fireside in 2009 at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center, where Kate was the conference manager, and Jack, then a recently retired pastor, was volunteering in the maintenance department.

“Since our courtship developed through long talks in front of the fire during snowy winter nights,” recalled Kate, “sitting by a fire is very special to us.”

As for Jack, following a long, second career spent almost entirely in interim ministry, he was no stranger to fighting the frequent fires inherent in transitional situations. Installed only once as an associate pastor, the former physicist, chemical engineer and researcher for the Naval Weapons Center served 15 interim pastorates over 25 years in 12 different presbyteries throughout the western U.S. There God used his gifts to help congregations navigate challenging and often difficult times.

“I found that interim ministry was in many ways an extension of the laboratory experience,” said Jack. “That experience of walking into a new situation or a new problem or project where you assess the issues and the lay of the land, and then figure out how to move forward, is very helpful.”

These days both Jack and Kate candidly admit that moving forward in their own post-retirement lives has similarly required some careful planning.

“When we first retired, life was extremely restrictive,” Kate said. “I often had to ask myself, ‘Can I really go get that carton of milk right now?’”

Because Kate had lost her job unexpectedly when she was not yet of retirement age, the couple initially found themselves relying heavily on Jack’s modest assets, including a small house he owned in Sacramento.

“Fortunately, we had a home to go to, a roof over our heads, for which we were really grateful,” Kate said. “And although it was wonderful that we didn’t have a mortgage, Jack’s Social Security and pension were very modest, so we still wondered how we were going to pay the bills and put food on the table.”

As a minister himself, not to mention the son of a Presbyterian minister, Jack had always known that help was available through the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions, a resource he occasionally commended to his colleagues. He just didn’t know that one day he might need that help.

“Of course I knew it was there, but it had never occurred to me I might need it,” Jack said. “But the big dental bills, the surgery bills, the major car repairs — you just don’t expect all that. The Assistance Program has been an incredible blessing.”

The Income Supplement that the Eisels receive is made possible, in part, by the PC(USA)’s annual Christmas Joy Offering, a cherished Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s, which distributes gifts equally to the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions and to Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color. The Assistance Program provides need-based grants to help active and retired plan members and their families.

“The PC(USA) long ago recognized the need to support those who served faithfully, ordained or otherwise, beyond their active service and into retirement,” said Lucas McCool, Assistance Program operations manager. “Stability in retirement can be a weight lifted and one that allows for retirees like Jack and Kate to live with emotional and financial flexibility.”

Kate said that she and Jack have been overwhelmed by the support of the church.

“We were surprised by the help to begin with,” she said with tears in her eyes. “And then when it continued beyond when we had expected, it seems like every time that there was an incident, there was this extra help that showed up through God, through the church. It has always felt like a friend who is coming alongside you saying, ‘God will provide, and we’re going to be part of that provision.’”

Volunteer work has included homebuilding with Habitat for Humanity. (Contributed photo)

Both Kate and Jack value the increased ability they now have — thanks to the support they receive through the Assistance Program — “to just do the little things in life,” including extensive volunteer service in both church and community.

Jack has served on the board of Family Promise of Sacramento, volunteers at two local food closets, works with Habitat for Humanity and is a member of North Central California Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry. Kate, who has also volunteered in the food closet, has served as a deacon at Carmichael Presbyterian Church and now co-leads a women’s group in spiritual transformation. She also travels to the Bay Area every other week to help care for her 99-year-old mother.

Neither minds how unexpectedly busy they find themselves during retirement.

“We also want to be able to give back,” said Kate. “We want a chance to come alongside and be a part of that generosity. After all, we are the church — the church is God’s children coming together, helping each other and shining God’s light. We’ve had a light shined on us, and we’re trying to do that for others because we were given an opportunity that we otherwise wouldn’t have had.”

The pandemic has meant less quality time spent with the couple’s blended family. (Contributed photo)

While both agree that the pandemic has been a challenging time — especially in that it’s kept them from visiting with their blended family of 8 children, 21 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren — they say that it has brought into focus everything in life for which they are truly grateful, like the fire that still burns between them.

“When we had our 10th anniversary getaway in Fort Bragg [Calif.], the location of one of Jack’s interim pastorates, earlier this year, we managed to get a room with a wood-burning fireplace,” Kate said with a smile. “Sitting together by a fire always brings us back to our center — and to gratitude.”

And they give thanks to God for the Christmas Joy Offering, of which Jack has always been a big supporter.

“Knowing the impact of the programs that the Christmas Joy Offering supports, it has always been important for me to promote the offering in the many churches I’ve served,” said Jack. “I’ve gotten to highlight the wonderful things the offering provides, and to encourage people to participate in this extraordinary generosity. And now, years later, I have firsthand knowledge of what a life-changing difference it can make.”

Give to the Christmas Joy Offering to help the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions support our leaders: past, present and future.

This was published for Presbyterian News Service on November 29, 2021.

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For those supported through the Christmas Joy Offering, this help is truly a gift from above. May our gifts, and the leaders who receive them, point us always to the truth of the one whose birth we celebrate, Jesus Christ — the truly perfect gift.