When the Rev. Thomas Leinbach was growing up in Greenwich, Conn. in the 1950s, his father told him one day that he had “the perfect personality to be a pastor.”
Decades later, on Christmas Eve 2017, Leinbach retired after serving for over 11 years as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Harwich in Harwich Center.
“If you told me in my early 20s where I’d be today, I wouldn’t believe it,” Leinbach said during a telephone interview last week. Yet “looking back, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Leinbach’s road to the ministry was not a straight one. As he contemplated his father’s remark, “I thought it was kind of an odd statement,” Leinbach says. “I never thought that I’d be interested in the ministry.”
Yet the remark didn’t come from left field. Leinbach’s father, who worked in the advertising business on Madison Avenue, was in some ways the outlier in the family. The men in Leinbach’s father’s family were ministers reaching back five generations. His mother’s father was also a pastor, as were several uncles.
“It was sort of the family business,” Leinbach says.
After graduating from Boston University, as he tried to figure out what he wanted to do in life, Leinbach went on to work with developmentally-challenged adults in Chicago. But when he was in his mid-to-late 20s, he had a religious experience, “a sudden awareness that God was real.” He began reading “voraciously” on religion. He entered Yale Divinity School because of his interest in the subject. Yet “the last thing I was thinking of was becoming a pastor,” he says. He wanted to go into pastoral counseling and that required working in a parish for two to three years. “That was it,” the turning point.
And so after Leinbach earned two master's degrees – in divinity and in sacred theology – he was on the road to becoming a pastor. “I never really chose it, it chose me,” he says. “One thing led to the next.”
Leinbach eventually served in churches in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Connecticut for 28 years. And his father was thrilled. When Leinbach was serving at a church in Pennsylvania, his parents attended the service, and Leinbach served his father communion. “It was a great joy to receive it from his son,” Leinbach recalls his father saying.
Leinbach and his wife Linda arrived at the 170-member church in Harwich in September 2006, taking over from the Rev. Charles “Terry” Newberry, who retired. “My wife and I felt an immediate connection to the people there,” Leinbach says. “It was a wondrous experience, fruitful and joy-filled.”
The Leinbachs have two grown children, Kristin and Jonathan, and two granddaughters, Autumn and Abigail. Leinbach credits his wife with playing a significant role in his ministry in Harwich. Like Leinbach, Linda grew up in the church — her sister married a United Church of Christ pastor. “People just loved her — and she loved them,” he says.
The Leinbachs live in Harwich and plan to stay in town for at least a year while they decide what comes next. They plan to relax a bit and travel, especially to visit their daughter and her family in upstate New York, a seven-hour drive.
And what does Leinbach anticipate will come next? Unlike many retired clergy, Leinbach does not intend to officiate at weddings, funerals and baptisms. He does not want to serve as an interim pastor. “To everything there is a season — it’s time for me and the church to move on,” he says. “I did some very good things and it’s time to build on it.
“I tend to think I will move in a different direction,” he adds. He likes to study and write, and wants to see “what God has in store for me.” He will perhaps write a blog.
As for what he will miss, “first of all the people. They have become like a family to us.” He will also miss preaching and teaching and leading worship services. And he will miss leading his Bible study group. “People discover the Bible is something different from what they thought it was,” he says.
What advice would Leinbach offer to a young pastor just starting out? His advice is to address people’s need for community and their search for the meaning of life.
“People are searching and yearning, but they don’t know what for,” he says. “The churches can tap into that.” The church can offer something culture is not offering — the Gospel.
“It’s stunning to realize the Gospel really spoke to my core,” he says. And why are the Gospels relevant today? “The human heart has not changed significantly over 2,000 years,” Leinbach says. Due to scientific advances “we assume that our soul has advanced in a commensurate way, and I reject that.”
The United Church of Christ asks that its retiring pastors step away from the church in which they have just served. The Leinbachs will therefore be looking to join a new faith community.
“The key to life is finding out what God is calling you to do. It’s not always obvious,” Leinbach says. “I’m blessed to have work that involved caring for people and experiencing Christ’s love.”