A grateful congregation at Crozet Baptist Church gave thanks to David and Susan Collyer last month for their 40 years of service. Long-time members as well as relative newcomers spoke about what the couple has meant to them, to the church, and to the community.
Crozet Baptist was the first ministerial assignment for David, who said he had never intended to leave Georgia, his home. As he prepared to graduate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, he applied for entry-level jobs. “I was sending out resumes, because that’s how it works for us Baptists,” he said. “Every one of the resumes went to churches in South Georgia.”
It was just by chance that a search committee from Crozet Baptist Church was interviewing candidates for the position of youth minister intern. On a whim, David signed up for an interview and “we just really hit it off,” he said. Shortly afterwards, he headed to Crozet to take the job. David’s wife, Susan, was on board with the journey, he said. “She had an adventurous spirit, and had just spent two years teaching in Hong Kong.”
Leonard Sandridge, who spoke at the anniversary celebration, remembered those early
months when, he said, David’s youth, energy and love of a good laugh made it hard to distinguish him from the young people he was leading. He added that he felt a little disgruntled when he asked his adult sons for the best memories of their childhood, and David’s youth group was at the top of the list.
As decades went by, Sandridge said he watched David’s evolution from a popular youth leader to the wise senior member of Crozet’s ministerial community as well as the beloved leader of his church. David’s versatility—at one time or another he was personally involved in every committee—gave him a unique familiarity with the church’s operation as well as its people. Whatever else he learned in seminary, “he must have skipped the class on delegation,” Sandridge said. Susan was equally versatile, he said, serving as a choir member, landscaper, committee chair, custodian and florist. “That was the best thing, that she was part of the package,” Sandridge said. Judy Barber, who was on the original search committee, said the Collyers, though very young, had always had a vision of what a church should be in the best of times.
The lighthearted teasing during the anniversary tribute was balanced by the acknowledgement that parts of a minister’s job—especially the job of a long-time minister with deep knowledge of his congregation—has moments of enormous responsibility and sorrow. “You might find him at 5 a.m. at the hospital,” Sandridge said. Several people mentioned leaning on David and Susan after losing a child. “I think that’s the most difficult,” David said. “And we’ve even lost several infants over the years. We just do the best we can to be encouraging.”
Of course, he remembers the happy times as well: “There have been thousands of little things,” he said: “Holidays, countless weddings, joyous occasions of all kinds.” He particularly recalled the famous Crozet Baptist singing Christmas tree, where choir members mounted a tree-shaped structure and sang in the dark, with only their collars of light to illuminate the sanctuary and outline the shape of a giant tree. Another very happy memory is the church’s centennial in 2003.
He takes a lot of pride in some of his long-range accomplishments, although he attributes the success to those who came before him as well as the nature of the congregation, which has always been welcoming, tolerant and warm. He’s proud that his church has played major part in the ecumenical movement of churches in Crozet, where different religions are able to work together on worthwhile projects. He’s enjoyed his role as mentor to young ministers who have gone on to become pastors of their own churches. He named Colleen Swingle Titus, who is now the pastor of Park Street Christian Church in Charlottesville; Tracy Pugh, who now leads the Sycamore Baptist Church in Franklin; and Sam Kellam, who is the pastor of Mountain Plain Baptist Church in Crozet.
Kellam told a story about David’s influence on him. “I was actually a committed atheist,” he said. “I met David when my kids were at vacation Bible school. He was so warm, and so approachable that I started to change my attitude towards religion.” Kellam said it wasn’t long after he became a Christian that he felt a call to the ministry. “David’s been very generous with his time, helping me through my personal religious journey, and then helping me as a new minister.” He honored Susan as well: “They’re a remarkable duo.”
Several of the speakers at the celebration mentioned the couple’s humility. They’re not inclined to be judgmental or act as if they never make a mistake. As if to prove this point, David told a story, confirmed by Kellam. “I played a lot of ping-pong at the church with Sam, and it was often at a time that the youth music group practiced in another room,” he said. One night, they could hear the piano playing, and David thought it would be fun for the little band to have their minister burst into the room, while loudly singing a silly song he made up on the spot. “Instead, it was a piano recital and I completely crashed it in the most embarrassing way possible.”
Long-time friend and Crozet historian Phil James sent another story about the two families trying to have a picnic at Reddish Knob in threatening weather. David remembered it, too: “We started the fire, and we were going to grill hamburgers.” When it started to rain, three of the friends sheltered under a tarpaulin while, a few feet away, David wrapped himself up in a garbage bag, figuring the storm would blow over. The rain turned to hail, and the little group had to grab their soggy hamburgers and return to Crozet, but not before James snapped a comic shot of the minister huddling in green plastic. James finished on a more serious note: “God knew what He was doing when he sent David to us, and our town is the better for it.”
David said that hearing the kind words of his congregation was very affecting for both him and Susan: “We didn’t sleep at all Sunday night,” he said. Earlier, at the church, he addressed the group as the party ended: “We’ve grown up in this church. Thank you for your grace in allowing us to make mistakes. It’s been our life. It IS our life.”