Plymouth Congregational Church senior pastor retiring after 24 years of ministry and advocacy

photo by: Jackson Barton

Peter Luckey, the retiring senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, is pictured in the church's sanctuary in his vestments on June 21, 2019. Luckey will give his final sermon on June 30.

In his 24 years ministering at Plymouth Congregational Church, senior pastor Peter Luckey has always viewed politics as part of his job.

While several states across the U.S. adopted constitutional amendments against gay marriage, Luckey and his congregation adopted an “Open and Affirming” policy toward LGBT people. When then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration closed a state welfare office in Lawrence in 2011, Luckey was there to protest. And in 2018, when local scientist and father Syed Jamal was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and threatened with deportation, Luckey and the congregation marched down Massachusetts Street with Jamal’s family to show support.

Luckey, 66, who will give his final Sunday service at the church on June 30, says he’s been criticized — sometimes by members of his own congregation — when he advocates for causes like these. But he also sees it as a pastor’s responsibility to call out injustice in government. He said it was like constantly walking a tightrope.

“During my ministry, a number of people left the church because they felt the church was ‘too political’ or they didn’t agree with ‘Open and Affirming,'” Luckey said. “The temptation is to never say anything prophetic at all so you don’t offend anybody, but that’s not what our job is … Jesus was political.”

Now, Luckey is preparing to hand the church, its congregation of about 1,000 people and its legacy of activism to his successor, Valerie Miller-Coleman, who will be the first female senior pastor in the church’s history.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Rev. Peter Luckey, senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, addresses a crowd gathered for an Interfaith Solidarity Service outside the church on Sept. 11, 2010. The service was organized in response to a Florida minister’s threat to burn the Quran and featured speakers representing Christian, Islam and Jewish faiths all speaking on the need to seek tolerance and healing through love for everyone.

He compared his final days at the church to an airline pilot preparing to land for the last time.

“I’m going to step out of the cockpit and let new pilots get on the plane, and they’re going to take it to the next place,” Luckey said. “I want people to know how grateful I am to have been given this opportunity to be the pastor at this church and to live in an amazing community like Lawrence, Kansas.”

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Luckey grew up in Middlebury, Conn., where his father was a pastor for a local United Church of Christ. From an early age, he saw churches as places that could transform and give hope to individuals.

“I saw the life of being a minister as a life that could really make a difference in people’s lives,” Luckey said. “There’s a need for hope and good news in the world.”

After earning a master’s degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1982 and serving at two community churches in the Chicago area, Luckey moved to Lawrence in 1995. He said he and his wife knew very little about the town or the state when they arrived.

“We didn’t even know what a Jayhawk was,” Luckey said. “It was all very new to us.”

His first year serving the congregation was sometimes overwhelming. He said the responsibility occasionally made him feel like a deer in the headlights at first, but he gradually settled into the role by building strong relationships with the people at Plymouth.

“In order to gain the trust of the congregation, it takes time,” Luckey said. “They need to feel that you are there on their side, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Luckey also pursued his education further in his first years at Plymouth, earning his doctorate, also from Chicago Theological Seminary, in 1998.

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One of Plymouth’s most visible works of activism is its “Open and Affirming” policy toward LGBT people, which states that “persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender share with all others the worth that comes from being unique individuals created by God.” The church adopted the policy in 2004, around the same time that 11 states, including Kansas, passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Luckey said he and the church staff did their homework prior to adopting the policy. They studied relevant passages in the Bible and held interviews with LGBT members. When they put it to a vote, 80% of the congregation was in favor of adopting the policy.

photo by: Richard Gwin

Lawrence residents Geraldo Sousa and David Bergeron celebrate their marriage Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vermont St. Theirs was the first same-sex wedding to be performed at the church, which had recently extended an offer to gay couples to host their now-legal weddings.

The vote was in keeping with the congregation’s history, Luckey said, noting that the church was founded by anti-slavery settlers in 1854. However, he said, at the time “Open and Affirming” was adopted, it was still a bold move.

“Not everybody was happy with it,” Luckey said. “But looking back now all of these years, that decision has completely strengthened the life of our church because so many people have come to our congregation, been attracted to our church because of that decision.”

Miller-Coleman said the church’s history of activism would continue under her leadership.

“It wouldn’t be Plymouth if we weren’t on the frontlines of the most recent and urgent justice issues in our community,” Miller-Coleman said. “That is what I believe I have been called to facilitate.”

Miller-Coleman first moved to Lawrence in 2007 with her husband, who was attending the KU School of Law. She helped found Lawrence Family Promise network, which helps families struggling with homelessness, and she became the nonprofit’s executive director in 2008.

In 2012, she returned to her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, to serve as a minister for a congregation several times larger than Plymouth. But she moved back to Lawrence this spring after the Plymouth congregation overwhelmingly voted for her to succeed Luckey in March.

Luckey said Miller-Coleman would bring a new perspective and youthful energy he never possessed.

“Even though it’s got a great history … some changes will continue to need to be made in order for the church to stay alive and vital,” Luckey said. “It can’t just stay frozen in time, and I think it takes someone with a vision like Valerie and a gift.”

Luckey said he has been so busy preparing to leave Plymouth that he has yet to decide where he will take his life next. Some of his ideas include writing and getting involved in politics or nonprofits. His only fixed plan is a trip to the northwestern U.S. with his wife.

“We’re just going to have some time away,” Luckey said. “Then I’m going to come back and I’ll figure out what I’m going to do next.”

In his time at Plymouth, Luckey has met President Barack Obama, visited churches and orphanages in India and served on the board of multiple local nonprofits. But he said his proudest accomplishment was the condition he would leave his congregation in.

“I’m leaving behind a vibrant, dynamic, unified congregation,” Luckey said. “This is a congregation that (while) not everybody agrees with everyone on everything, it’s essentially a united congregation of people from all different denominations, people of all different ages … I feel so proud that this church is strong and united, and I feel like I’m leaving it in the best shape possible.”

photo by: Nick Krug

Rev. Peter Luckey of Plymouth Congregational Church reaches out to shake hands with President Barack Obama on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 after a visit to the Community Children’s Center preschool at Plymouth.