By Sophie Kidd
Growing up as the son of a Presbyterian pastor, William Klein knew from a young age that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, even if he had to take a few detours along the way.
“I could always imagine myself doing it and the faith meant a lot to me,” Klein said. “Since I was a little kid, every book I read, at some level, I was underlining and thinking how I could use something for a teaching or during preaching. I need to figure out how to quit doing that.”
His sermons are often inspired by what he is reading. His parishioners at Lexington Presbyterian Church described his sermons as “brilliant” and “incredibly powerful.”
Klein is leaving it all behind when he retires at the end of May. In the Presbyterian Church, retired clergy members must wait two years before they can be invited back to their church. It allows new leaders to settle in.
During a recent sermon, Klein spoke about one of his favorite authors, Wendell Berry, a conservationist, essayist and poet. Klein said he believes Berry is also a theologian.
“Berry thinks we are in the process of losing the capacity to see the good in things,” he said. “In a book about him, someone said that he makes goodness compelling.”
Klein said when people are receptive to God, they can connect with others and spread his goodness.
At the end of the service, like always, Klein stands by the door and chats with everyone who walks by. He and his congregation have become a family in his 25 years of performing baptisms, confirmations, marriages and funerals at the church.
“Out of everything, the people, our relationships, are what I will miss most,” he said.
Before coming to Lexington, Klein and his wife Deborah worked as co-pastors at their first church in Danville.
“It was a small and struggling church that took a chance on a clergy couple in 1981, which was a pretty new thing in our denomination,” she said.
While serving the 60-member congregation, the two often performed communion together. Klein said sharing the sacrament with his wife and the community always felt like a family gathering.
Five and a half years and three children later, the Kleins moved to New Bern, N.C., where he served as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church.
“The church when we went there was roughly 700 members. In the eight years I was there, it grew to 1,300 members. You couldn’t keep people from coming, but I still knew a lot of them pretty well,” he said.
Ready for a change
In 1995, Klein decided he was ready for a change and moved to Lexington.
Mary Atthowe joined Lexington Presbyterian after meeting him at a funeral a year after he arrived. As a parishioner and clerk of session, Atthowe says Klein’s spiritual leadership has been his largest impact.
“I sit in church some Sundays and think, ‘How did he know I needed to hear about that today?’” she said.
Klein’s ability to connect with people has allowed him to lead his community through some of its darkest times, Atthowe said.
In 2000, the historic Lexington Presbyterian church caught on fire. The interior was almost destroyed, and the roof fell in, leaving the building in shambles.
“When the church burned down, the way people worked together was pretty remarkable. Everyone, the whole community really, came together as a family,” he said.
During the reconstruction, Klein told the congregation to return the next week in jeans and t-shirts to help build the new organ. The pieces were laid out in front of the church, and members helped move each part inside. By the end of the first week, they had rebuilt the organ’s façade.
“It was a very emotional and renewing time. He was instrumental in getting us through that experience,” Atthowe said.
After receiving a bachelor of arts in religion from Hampden-Sydney College, Klein spent a couple of years working odd jobs. He drove UPS trucks, worked in a hospital operating room, and served at a camp for emotionally disturbed youth.
“For a while, I considered going into social work,” he said.
One of the most formative experiences he had was working at the Iona Abbey in Scotland. In 1938, a Scottish clergy member brought together artisans and ministers from around the world to restore the medieval abbey and form the Iona Community. He worked as a maintenance man for the year he spent there.
“The whole community was built around the concept of reconciliation, and I learned the Benedictine notion of work and pray, work and pray,” Klein said.
Meeting at the seminary
Klein eventually decided to pursue ministry and attended what was then known as Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. That’s where he met his future wife. They began dating and were married by spring of that year.
Ever since then, they’ve been partners in operating churches. At Lexington Presbyterian, they have taught a number of marriage courses together.
“The church is a laboratory where we learn how to love, and when the church supports marriage, we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Deborah Klein said.
The Kleins said they are now ready for a new chapter of their lives.
“There will be things I really miss, but it’s time for me to do something different. I think it’s time the church gets someone new too,” William Klein said.
Until then, the Kleins will remain in Lexington and attend services at other churches.
“We need to not feel sorry for ourselves and moan about the transition,” Elder David Hawkins said in a recent session meeting. “We should use this time to open a window and let in fresh air and perhaps even change and improve what we have now.”
Klein said he hopes he’s helped the church to be less theologically conservative.
“I think that’s a temptation in our culture—to think faith is very narrow and exclusive,” he said, “rather than inclusive and graceful.”