Angela Swartz/Daily Journal
Pastor Peter Garrison stands with artwork he created for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame. The woman in the painting is Greta Nyberg.
After 28 years at Burlingame’s Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Pastor Peter Garrison is hanging up his robes to go into retirement.
This Sunday will be Garrison’s last day at the church. He will focus on his work as a portrait artist, along with traveling a bit. Now felt like the right time to leave the church, he said.
“It’s a little too early for me,” he said. “I still have the energy, but it’s a really good time for the church. They’re happy and healthy spiritually, emotionally and physically. A mistake pastors make is staying too long. Now, with all these babies coming up, it’s time for a pastor with a family to get involved with the schools and raise their kid in the church.”
When Garrison, 62, says the church is filled with babies, that’s not far from the truth. Twenty-five of its 70 members are children under the age of 8.
“Children quickly learn the liturgy,” he wrote in a paper called “Church Cohesiveness Through Happy Chaos.” “During worship one child, still in diapers, knows when to start crawling to the altar for the children’s sermon. … Several infants participate in the liturgy by babbling during the spoken parts of the liturgy, and cooing during the sung parts.”
The church has definitely changed over the years, he said. Metal worker attendees have been replaced by Ph.D.s and high-tech employees. It is unusual to be a pastor at only one church in one’s lifetime, as it is in his case, he noted.
“I thought when I accepted the call, I ought to treat people like I was going to live with them for 20 years,” he said. “Any changes that happened happened slowly and by consensus. People have treated me very nicely.”
Garrison, originally from Long Beach, Calif., didn’t actually grow up Lutheran. He was introduced to the religion by a friend who brought him to vacation bible school as a teen. His father grew up Mormon and his mother grew up Presbyterian, but didn’t enjoy those religions themselves.
“They couldn’t believe I’d go to seminary,” said Garrison, who decided to attend during a recession after moving to Oakland to fly Cessna aircrafts. “They were afraid I’d lose my sense of humor.”
When he took the pastor’s job 28 years ago, he came to Burlingame with his wife Joanne Garrison, who now works for the Burlingame Historical Society and wrote “Burlingame: Centennial 1908-2008” on Burlingame’s history. They had one son who is now 23. Garrison said he’ll miss having a flock to watch over and listen to, especially during the time of service when attendees offer each other signs of peace.
“I like to listen to the people talk,” he said. “When I was child, I would listen to my parents’ parties. I loved that sound. I’ll pick out different voices and pray for them.”
He also likes what he calls the “three-minute miracle margin.” For example, during a five-minute break between services, a mother asked the pastor to talk to her son with a learning disability who was afraid God was a ghost.
“I told him, ‘Jesus was a boy just like you,’” he said. “I gave him a statue of Jesus and said, ‘you can touch this statue. Remember, God loves you.’ That’s the stuff I really like. Those little moments.”
Garrison will also miss having such a versatile job.
“It’s the last great practitioner in America,” he said. “I get to do everything. You get to go to weddings, funerals, hear confessions and forgive people. It’s a fascinating job. Then, when there’s nothing happening you pray and aren’t [spending your time] counterfeiting dollar bills.”
The pastor will come back in social settings, but he and his family will shop for a new church since it’s the Lutheran tradition to leave the church you’re retiring from for another to honor the new pastor. The church is about a year out from getting a replacement for Garrison, as an interim usually comes in for a while before a decision is made.
“They’re (the church members) afraid,” he said. “It’s like a death in the family.”
In retirement, Garrison will paint portraits, work he’s already had experience doing for the church. He currently has commissions to do children’s portraits and will be spending time in his garage on them. His first trip in retirement will be to the Yosemite National Park with his dog Potter and wife. He’ll then head to Portland, Ore., to deliver the portraits.
Garrison is also a former police chaplain with the Burlingame Police Department and currently is chaplain of the Burlingame Lions Club. He headed the Clergy Emergency Response Team at San Francisco International Airport for nearly 10 years and was on-hand for the response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the crash of the MD-80 off the California coast. He helped protect President George W. Bush when he was at an event in the area. He stood between protesters and attendees of the event, members of his church were on both sides.
“It’s a good place for a pastor to be,” he said. “Right in the middle. It takes guts and I like that.”
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