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First Institutional Chaplain Considers Life Of Service

More than 40 years separate the telephone interview I had with the Rev. Burton Newman and the one in person a few weeks ago as the Presbyterian minister convalesced from knee surgery at his Southwest Roanoke home. Now well into our senior years, both Newman and I are still doing work we love and we’re thankful for it.

The reason I called Newman in 1967 was to introduce to the Roanoke Valley the young pastor who had just been chosen the first full-time, paid chaplain to three public institutions serving inmates in the city jail and the juvenile facility at Coyner Springs and patients at the nursing home there.

Then 32 and  not long married, Newman was a transplant from the Philadelphia area who had come south to attend Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. While there, he had had an internship as a chaplain at the Woodrow Wilson Rehab Center and served the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in the Staunton area. He was finding that he liked the somewhat specialized role of listening to people confined because of unfortunate life circumstances — illness, age or incarceration.

Following his seminary graduation, Newman was called to the Low Moor Presbyterian Church where, he recalls, Providence brought him together with the parish secretary, Joan Downey. Married in 1963, they were to have many good years together. Being in a pastorate had convinced Newman of his continuing call to what was then a new ministerial choice, the role of a clinical pastoral counselor. These men and women were excited about what the science of psychology could offer the troubled in their churches. The wall of hostility between Freudian skepticism about faith and traditional Bible views was breaking down. Counseling by a trained professional was looked upon more favorably, he noted.

Realizing this, he and Joan moved to Columbia, S.C. where Burt Newman took further study to qualify himself as a pastoral counselor. Their only child, a son, Scott, was born there.

It was at this point that Newman caught my interest as the man the then-large and active Roanoke Ministers Conference  chose to carry on a ministry those busy running a congregation could not find time for. For the next four years the Newmans lived in Roanoke. My old clippings reveal that paying the chaplain was often difficult; appeals were constantly being made to church folk to support the new ministry. As a jail ministry only, it is still going on.

Burt Newman remembers now that he especially liked working with teens at the juvenile home; he knew teaching was his first love. He prepared in these years to take a doctorate in sacred theology, and in 1971 he and Joan left the city for a pastorate, First Presbyterian in Covington.

His enjoyment of the counseling role as a pastor may have stemmed from his own background. Born to a Christian father and a Jewish mother–her parents had left Romania in the late 19th Century to escape discrimination there –the boy lost his father when an infant. Times were tough in the 1930s and he and his widowed mother were befriended by a Presbyterian couple. When Burt was four his mother converted to Christianity, but retained involvement in a community support  group for American Jews. It may have given the future minister a broad view of faith.

After seven years at the Covington church, Newman was invited to direct a new pastoral education training program at the Episcopal Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. Graduate study  for clergy on the job was developed there leading to an academic degree known as Doctor of Ministry. For all denominations, it attracted several from the Roanoke area.

Those were 22 fulfilling years for the Newmans, but as the century turned, health challenges forced  a move from Northern Virginia. Burt Newman survived prostate cancer, but Joan’s diagnosis of the ovarian variety brought the family back to her home area where she died nine years ago on July 4.

Then on the staff of Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church as a pastoral associate assisting the Rev. Tupper Garden, Newman soon found love again in Susan Marney, a professional counselor for some years in Roanoke. She was active in Stephen Ministry, a national  program that trains church lay persons in listening skills and practical help for the ill, bereaved and other personal crises.

With the marriage came a larger family for the couple since Susan had two adult children, Peter and Erin, from a former marriage. Both are married and living in Charlotte and Baltimore respectively with their children. Scott Newman, the pastor’s son, is also married and a recent father. His family will soon be moving from Illinois to Rutgers University in New Jersey where a second counseling career is being considered.

Now 75 with life evolving in a home on Carter Road, where the yard blossoms with flowers and birds, Burt Newman decided 18 months ago to become interim minister at Campbell Memorial Presbyterian Church in Vinton. Soon a longer-term pastor will be called there.

He’s still qualified to assist  groups and clergy with issues that may be helped by a counselor versed in the problems of the institutional church, and with his knees working better says he hopes to stay in touch with the world a while longer.

Commenting on churches today, Newman sees lay leadership as more important than it once was when pastors were often placed on a pedestal. Denominational loyalty has largely disappeared with many children growing up with no family ties to a certain style of faith. He sees the Roanoke religious community as basically conservative. Growing congregations attracting young persons offer that approach to theology along with material comforts new buildings bring. Regardless of denomination, personal concern must always remain.

By Frances Stebbins
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