Wineka column: Tending flock and farm
SALISBURY — The Rev. Carroll Robinson covers ground faster in his golf cart.
A dog trails along as Robinson steers past outbuildings, a barn filled with hay, his many pieces of farm and landscaping equipment and a giant workshop.
Bethel Lutheran Church’s men’s group meets at the shop every month.
Before he takes you to see his other animals — miniature mules and donkeys, goats and draft horses (Chris and Belle, for Christmas bell) — Robinson stops at maybe his favorite piece of machinery.
He hops out of the golf cart and scales the steps toward the cab of his muscular John Deere 6400, complete with air-conditioning and radio.
Robinson still mows hay on roughly 70 acres here and there. He also tends to a few cows scattered about. He has, however, cut way back on his landscaping — a business he was in for 40 years.
Though he lost part of his right leg in 2005, Robinson occasionally golfs, but it’s more difficult now to play tennis and ride horses.
Robinson also has been a breeder of golden doodles — the combination of golden retrievers and standard poodles.
And by the way, he is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church.
There’s something unconventional about the 75-year-old Robinson, a widower, who was married three times. Even his title at Bethel Lutheran is a surprise. He has been “interim” pastor for nine years.
“That is interesting, isn’t it?” says Bethel member Lorene Coates, a former state representative. “He just fits in so well with our congregation. We feel like he’s family.”
She laughs before she acknowledges, “We’re not even looking for a pastor.”
Back in May, Bethel Lutheran celebrated two milestones for Robinson: his 50th year in the ministry and his 75th birthday.
“If I had to do life over again, I would do this,” Robinson says.
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Robinson is one of the longest serving ministers in Rowan County, and he thinks he may have officiated at more weddings and funerals than any other Lutheran pastor.
Robinson has a theory why many people, looking to marry a second time, seek him out, even if they aren’t members of his church. They feel more comfortable, knowing he has worked through divorce himself.
“It puts a stigma on you,” he says of being a divorced minister, “but if you’re a caring person, people forgive that.”
Folks also see him out farming, or taking care of all the animals — and that’s a connection, too.
His past calls in Rowan County have included Salem Lutheran and Lebanon Lutheran churches. He was single when he went to Lebanon Lutheran. He ended up marrying his third wife, Anne, who was 24 years his junior.
Anne was raising her sister’s son, Daniel, and Carroll wound up adopting Daniel as his own son.
Carroll and Anne Robinson built their Sherrills Ford Road house on a 12-acre farm in 1993. Carroll says they had “13 beautiful years together” before Anne died of breast cancer in 2006.
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Robinson cherishes Bethel where there are “no particular conflicts within the family.”
“It’s a loving congregation,” he says.
After “retiring” in May 2003, Robinson filled in as a supply pastor for Bethel in August of the same year. By October, Coates called on behalf of the church and asked whether he would agree to serve as interim pastor.
Meanwhile, Bethel formed a pulpit committee, but its pursuit of a new minister wasn’t serious.
“I just kept on keeping on,” Robinson says.
Since Robinson has been at Bethel, Coates says, the music program has improved, and the congregation has grown. The men’s group routinely has upwards of 20 guys — ranging in age from 25 to 85 — meeting at Robinson’s farm.
“We enjoy each other and have a good time,” Robinson says.
From a preaching standpoint, Robinson says, “I’m average, not exciting by any means. If I had a trump card, it’s that I relate to a different strata of people and put them at ease.”
In preparing a sermon, Robinson does most of his work at home, because the church office naturally has a lot of interruptions. But with his cell phone, he’s available and flexible.
“If you’re rigid,” he adds, “You’re going to be broken.”
He says he follows an “oral writing” kind of approach he was taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbia, S.C., and preaches a manuscript rather than reading one.
“I’m not an original, I’m a compiler,” he adds. “If I can get one simple point home, I’ve done my day’s work.”
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While it’s unusual to have a pastor who is so busy with other things — the farming, animals and landscaping business in the past — Robinson says he always has operated on the theory that as a pastor, there’s never a day off.
“I did what I had to do all the time,” he says.
In the process, he acknowledges, he often is changing clothes two and three times a day.
Pastors have a lot of bosses when it comes to their congregations, no matter where they are, Robinson says. Sometimes the toughest job can be meeting their expectations, he adds.
Robinson was serving as pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in January 1979, when a fire completely destroyed the church.
For almost two years, the congregation held Sunday services at Hurley Elementary School until Robinson conducted the first service in the new $1 million church on a Christmas Eve.
Robinson remembers the debate among Salem members and their building committee over the design, but he shrugs and says they were all good people who came up with a beautiful church.
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Robinson grew up in Gastonia. He attended Warren Wilson College for a year, then transferred to Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, finishing his undergraduate degree in 1958.
After seminary, he was ordained in June 1962.
His calls initially took him to Reidsville, Wilson and Dallas, and he was actually on “leave of call” in the early 1970s as he went into the landscaping business full bore.
On Sundays, he would fill in for congregations that were in between pastors.
Robinson says his interest in landscaping started with his first parish, where he had friends who took great pride in their lawn.
His landscaping business started by the time he was living in Dallas. He bought his first John Deere tractor in 1968, and still has it on the Rowan County farm.
Robinson often would redo customers’ entire lawns and made shrubbery design one of his specialities.
Robinson says Salem’s call committee knew about his landscaping business when he came to the church in 1975. The chairman of the church council eventually asked him to take care of his yard.
In the 1979 fire at Salem, Robinson lost all of his books and papers from seminary (except for two books), furniture and files.
He was pastor at Salem for almost 15 years; at Lebanon, for about 13.
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A foot/ankle injury while riding a Tennessee walking horse in April 2004, led to Robinson’s eventually losing the portion of his right leg below the knee in January 2005.
Leading up to the amputation, doctors had tried wound care and six operations. Robinson walks well today with a prosthesis.
Chuckling, Robinson says he made people nervous after his amputation when he was doing a baptism and had to walk down steps holding the baby.
“He’s always teasing about (being) our one-legged preacher,” Coates says.
Robinson has a son, Mike, who is pastor at Landmark Church in Rowan County. Daniel Robinson is a paramedic here, and Carroll Robinson also has daughters in Dallas, Jacksonville and Charlotte.
Perry VonCanon, treasurer for Bethel Lutheran, describes Robinson as a throwback of sorts to an old-time minister. Robinson goes out of his way, VonCanon says, to see and speak to people, making everyone feel special.
“It really has been a good fit for us,” says VonCanon, a sometimes golfing buddy of Robinson’s. “I could use a lot of fancy adjectives, but he really is a compassionate, caring minister.”
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As Robinson drives the golf cart into the pasture, the horses come to greet him like the old friend that he is.
Robinson says he always has been a rare breed. Unconventional maybe. He still likes to get up early and work late — he has to do that with all the things he takes care of.
From animals on the farm to his congregation at Bethel — they’re all part of his flock. And they all need help, taking circumstances as they come.
“God loves us through it,” Robinson says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisbury.post.