“El Gigante” Among Pastors, Rev. Chuck Graff Reflects on a Career Well-Spent

By May 11, 2019

On July 1, the ministry and legacy of our beloved Rev. Chuck Graff will transition into a retirement that looks to be already filled with things he wants and loves to do for his life’s next chapter.

Chuck’s call to ministry came when he was just 18. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and grandfather who were both in the ministry, he began preaching at different churches whenever they needed someone to fill in, and he also got invited out to preach at several other churches of different sizes during his last two years of college. “I was really feeling called to ministry by then,” he notes, “but I thought it was more towards mission work, maybe becoming a missionary.”

Chuck graduated from the University of Nebraska, Kearney, with a degree in business education, and with his father’s offer of taking over the insurance agency he had created over years in his back pocket, Chuck contacted the Board of Global Ministries to see where he might be able to go and serve in missions. They had an opening in Laredo, Texas, at one of its mission schools near the border, Holding Institute, named after Nanny Holding, a missionary who established the school in the late 1800s. So off he went to “The Streets of Laredo” to serve there for a total of five years.

This school was for children who were not receiving any education on the border, mostly Hispanic kids, who needed a teacher for business classes and ESL classes. They also needed a basketball coach. And a PE teacher. And a dorm counselor for 25 boys. And a school bus driver for the games and other events.

In true Chuck fashion, he did it all — drove the bus, taught the kids, coached the team, drove them back, stayed in the dorm to make sure they were safe and well cared for. “It was great experience,” he says. One can only imagine what a great experience it was — and how it changed the lives — of those kids.

As an interesting side note, during the summers while teaching at the mission school in Laredo, Chuck played professional basketball in Mexico City. He was known to his teammates and opponents as “El Gigante de Houston,” or “The Giant From Houston.” He was famous, in fact, appearing with that nickname on signs, posters, and advertisements throughout Mexico City. “Even though I wasn’t from Houston, I guess I was quite a bit taller than most of them,” Chuck laughs. “Someone called me that, and I guess it just stuck.”

At some point during this time, Chuck also felt a growing interest in Bible study and theology, he decided to hang up his size 14 basketball shoes and go to seminary. He then moved to Denver, Colorado to go to the Iliff School of Theology, where his Uncle, Dr. Harold Carr, had previously served as President from 1953 to 1961.

Chuck says he remembers visiting his Uncle Harold at Iliff when he was about 10 years old, walking around the campus with him and looking at the large red brick buildings. “I never imagined that I’d become a pastor or that one day I’d be going to school there,” he recalls. “You just never know where God might lead you!”

“I went there because I wanted to study social work and theology together because of all the poverty I experienced in Laredo,” Chuck explains. “I wanted to know more about systems and social services and how the church could connect more with the local community and community services.”

After four years of seminary, Chuck finished his Master of Divinity degree at Iliff. By then he had begun serving local churches, and the church he served during his senior year at Iliff became his first appointment.

Palisade, Nebraska, is located in the western part of the state, and Chuck drove 250 miles each way every weekend to serve there. “Friday night I’d drive out to Palisade and turn the heat on in the parsonage and visit people on Saturday, and then preach on Sunday morning, followed by leading the youth group Sunday evening, and then drive back to Denver late Sunday night. I did that for a year. They were just building a new parsonage, so I moved into a really nice place upon graduation.”

Chuck served that church for several years, followed by a number of other churches in Western Nebraska, and later, churches in Lincoln and Omaha. St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Lincoln, was very close to the University of Nebraska and Cornhusker Stadium. The highlight of his time there? Meeting a beautiful young organist named Peggy who was teaching music in a local elementary school and a substitute organist at St. Paul. They were later married in that same church and will celebrate their 32nd anniversary this year.

Another of Chuck’s favorite memories of that period in his career was serving at St. James UMC in the Omaha, Nebraska area during the first Gulf War. The church was located right outside the front gates of Offutt Air Force Base, and that proximity gave Chuck a new opportunity to minister to military families sending loved ones off to war while supporting a number of active and retired military personnel and their families during this conflict.

Chuck Walks Down His FUMCFW Memory Lane

Of his First Church Fort Worth memories, Chuck has almost too many to recount. Among his favorite moments are:

  • Helping to lead the youth ministry during a time of transition, taking the youth on mission trips, helping them and their families deal with the transition at hand.

One of Chuck’s favorite Youth Ministry moments happened on a mission trip in Costa Rica with the Youth. The group was gathered in a public place and someone made a grab for one of the chaperones’ bags. Chuck chased down the would-be robber, recaptured and secured the backpack, and went through the arrest of them.

Chuck laughs. “The kids called me ‘The Chuckinator’ after that!” When it came time for Chuck to move on from his fantastic 16-month gig as Youth Pastor, the kids and parents honored him with a “Chuck Roast.”

  • Pastoral care, particularly hospital visits where he was able to help families who were preparing to lose loved ones or who had relatives who were seriously ill. Chuck is infamous for his willingness to go wherever and whenever he was called to be with someone seriously ill or dying and their families.

This once even included a trip to Bay City to support Joan Gaspard when her mother was seriously injured. “I got a call in the afternoon that Joanie’s mother had fallen and splintered her leg,” he recalls. “I just decided that because she was by herself and all alone in Bay City, she needed somebody to sit with her and her mother, so I just got in my car and drove down there.”

Chuck also mentions here with a laugh that he got a speeding ticket going through a small town “speed trap,” on the way, but Joan never paid him back for it!! This became a longstanding joke between the two of them that always gets a laugh and good-natured banter.

“I didn’t tell her I was coming,” he recounts. “When I got there I called and asked her how she was doing, and then I just walked in the door and surprised her.” Chuck sat with Joan and her mother, Bobbi, until her mother stabilized, and then he got back in the car and drove back to Fort Worth, arriving at three or four in the morning. “I had some other commitments to keep here, but I really wanted to make sure they were both Okay and to stay with Joan until her mother stabilized,” Chuck notes. “Going down to be with Joan, sitting with her, that kind of pastoral care thing has always meant a lot to me. My grandfather, Rev. William A. Albright, was my wonderful example of this kind of pastoral care.”

  • Working with and empowering laity in hospitality, mission work, and disaster relief. Of all the things Chuck is most well-known for here at FUMCFW, perhaps the biggest is his unique ability to recruit, train, and empower laity.

The key to this astounding success?

“You have to really love people,” he says. “Not just in words, but you have to show them you care about them as unique people — listen to them, get to know about their lives and what their gifts and graces are, their talents and passions for doing ministry.” He pauses. “And then you have to try to match those up with the ministry and the people that will bring them joy and fulfillment and bless others.”

Another key element of volunteer recruitment success, Chuck says, is never to ask people to do things you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. “You have to be willing to walk alongside them and resource them and encourage and support them — be there for them on an ongoing basis — and then do the work with them.”

The side benefit, he adds, is the joy of helping people connect with their passions — and oftentimes, to discover talents passions they didn’t even know they had. Or to find new ways to use their gifts and graces. “I love to mix concrete,” Chuck laughs. “I never imagined that, but if I want someone else to mix concrete I had to first be willing to do it myself — and that’s how I found out how much I enjoy it!”

Chuck also points to Dan and Beth Cooper, two of his longtime volunteers who will be heading up the Missions Ministry Council in Chuck’s absence. “Neither of them had any idea what it was like to go on an international mission trip — or what great things they could contribute,” he says.

Beth, who was previously an elementary school teacher, found her niche by helping organize Vacation Bible School sessions. “Her creativity really came out as she developed VBS themes every year for the 12 years and then led other volunteers in creating VBS for others,” Chuck notes.

Dan likewise found his own path to joy in mission work in the physical labor of building and seeing a new sanctuary go up, and then extending this experience to the Sunday School classrooms and medical clinic that followed. In the twelve years that the Coopers made the trip to Costa Rica, Chuck says he watched how matching their (and over 100 other volunteers’) talents and passions with the right opportunities filled them with joy. “They all found out they had a lot to offer!” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

  • Developing and Leading the first-ever FUMCFW Outdoor ministry. For the past 9 years, Chuck has created meaningful outdoor experiences for as many as 85 campers at a time. Several times a year, mostly in spring and fall, the camping ministry would load its trailers, campers, tents and vehicles and travel to a site Chuck chose and coordinated and planned. There they relaxed and found renewal, communed with nature and one another in small groups, and enjoyed a weekend of both planned and unplanned activities, always culminating in a Sunday Morning outdoor worship/communion service in what Chuck likes to call “God’s Other Great Sanctuary.”

“The Outdoor Ministry has been very meaningful to me and to all those who participate,” he reflects. “This deep connection with nature and creation has been a very meaningful ministry, and it has offered us too many special memories to count.

Bringing his trademark humor into just about every situation he encountered, Chuck was hard-pressed to choose just one favorite camping story, until, of course, he remembered the moment when his Hospitality and Outdoor Ministries collided.

“We were sharing our closing worship around the campfire and then putting away our group camping supplies and cooking utensils,” he recalls, “when we noticed some movement in the trees above us. We shined our flashlights up into the trees to find a group of bright-eyed raccoons staring at us.” He laughs. “I think they were waiting for us to turn off the lights and retire so that they could explore our campsite (especially our groceries).”

Chuck said they all had a good laugh and then secured all the coolers and equipment, thinking they had the problem solved. All was quiet until later that night when a couple of campers staying in a screened shelter heard their front door slowly squeaking its way open.

Ben Davila from La Trinidad UMC grabbed his flashlight and pointed the light toward the door to see one of those clever raccoons opening the door with his paws and then sticking his curious face in the door to see if there might be any snacks available. “Our hospitality seems open to all of God’s creatures!” Chuck laughs.

Chuck also led several men’s outdoor trips to the outback of Ontario, Canada, on fishing trips, along with youth fishing outings.

A Vast Collection of Mountaintop Moments

Of all the heartwarming memories Chuck has managed to wrangle in his 48 years of ministry, one of the mountain-top moments for him was when, after nearly 12 years of summer mission work in Costa Rica, the sanctuary that they had been working on so hard — from building the cinder block walls, block by block, to laying tile on floors — opened for worship.

“After these the 12 years of me personally serving with that ministry, to see the people in there, worshiping, hearing their music and the singing inside this beautiful new structure we helped build together alongside our Costa Rica brothers and sisters was a wonderful moment filled with awe and gratitude,” Chuck says, “I’ll always remember watching the people coming to worship, walking down the road for miles, some coming on motorcycles, just to be there to be part of that church community. I’ll always be so thankful to and for all who supported this ministry!”

Chuck says that a second part of this dream come true was when the medical clinic opened, also built by our mission team working alongside many others. “When the medical clinic right next door to the Sanctuary opened, I saw that we were providing a kind of wholeness of ministry to people for the future, from their physical needs — because they were providing food service for people there too — and then the medical care was beginning. I think seeing all that come together is one deeply heartwarming moment I’ll never forget.”

Other accomplishments here at First Church of which Chuck is most proud include moving the hospitality ministry forward from where it had been. “We added the carts outside the entrances, thanks to Jeff Siewert who helped build them; we started putting more people at entrances and outside; developed a First Friends ministry; and provided hospitality when church hosted General Conference, as well as for a lot of large community events, as well as major funerals for police, firefighters and local dignitaries.”

Remembering with his broad smile the many events and celebrations his hospitality team put together — lots of them in the middle of Fifth Street — with the tireless organizing help and support of Sammye Dunn, not to mention the Welcome Center recruiting and organizing efforts of Joan Gaspard, Chuck still celebrates these moments of bringing the First Church community together and welcoming and encouraging visitors and new members. “I am so grateful to Sammye for organizing so many all-church events and some fantastic Fifth Street celebrations and deeply meaningful community outreach initiatives,” Chuck emphasizes, “She and the others she inspired took First Church hospitality to a whole new level.”

Chuck says he is also very proud of the interfaith events we’ve facilitated and/or hosted under his leadership, the events designed to create more collaboration and understanding between faith communities — Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities.

In the area of Mission work, his first ministry goal that permeated his entire career, Chuck says that moving the First Church Mission Ministries forward with our “Texas and Beyond Mission Teams” council is beyond anything he imagined as a young man wanting to make a difference in the mission field. “The overseas Kenya and Costa Rica, mission trips, Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House, local home support, and, most recently, the formation of our FUMCFW Disaster Response team are other things I feel really good about,” he says. “We now have trained over 60 disaster response team members related to First Church, with UMCOR disaster response training, to help provide aid in case of disaster, either here locally or beyond our area.”

So What’s Next For the Chuckinator?

“Well, first I’m going to retire,” he quips. “I’m officially retiring — or retooling — as they now say after 48 years in ministry, 42 years ordained. First, I’m going to be enjoying some travels, short term trips, seeing family, spending more time with my children and loving on/spoiling my grandchildren even more.

“In the fall, I’m going to be hiking in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park; I’m going to take another fishing trip to Canada; and I believe I’m going to change the colors in some of the rooms of our house for Peggy (she has a list),” he laughs.

Chuck says that because he loves to work out and keep healthy, he’s also planning to spend plenty of time in the gym. It’s a good thing, too, because he also has his eye on some new volunteer opportunities. “Then I’ll see what’s next after that,” he adds with a shrug. “I’ll just have to see where God leads me next. If doors open up for some other part-time ministry in the future, I’ll consider that, but I’m going to take a break for a while. God has always been faithful guiding my pathway, and I will still be open with excitement to God’s leading for what is next.”

Also in the works for Chuck in the immediate future is finishing the book he’s been working on about Outdoor Ministry. Part, how-to-develop this ministry, part tips and a sharing of knowledge gained over his years in this ministry, and part anecdote, it is certain that this will become a valuable tool for others and a tribute to Chuck’s legacy of ministry in “God’s Other Great Sanctuary.”

And, to his friends, colleagues, fellow staffers, and congregation at FUMCFW, Chuck expresses his deep gratitude to have been part of this congregation for the past 14 years. “I want to say how grateful I am, first to Dr. Tim Bruster, and then to the staff and congregation for the opportunity that I’ve had to serve you for the past 14 years — I’ve really loved serving here.”

From serving and empowering the laity, to the diverse ministries he’s served, and to the opportunities he has had to use his gifts and graces in all kinds of ways as a First Church pastor, Chuck says he feels his time here was well spent and fulfilling to that original call to ministry he felt in his late teens. “I leave here knowing that our church is strong and healthy, and I’m so glad to have been a part of that. It’s a good feeling to wind up my career here knowing that I’ve helped create healthy new ministries that have blessed and connected people to the church and to God. Special thanks to our laity for all of your wonderful support and ministries with me over these years.”

When Rev. Chuck Graff retires July 1, all of his leadership duties will be given to other staff and lay leaders of FUMCFW:

Adult Sunday School — Rev. Linda McDermott

Outdoor Ministry — Austin Patton

Emmaus Ministry — Dr. Len Delony & Jeff Donahue

Missions Ministry Council — Elizabeth & Dan Cooper

International Missions and Disaster Relief Group — Rev. Phyllis Barren

Habitat for Humanity — John Howard

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