Members of Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church arrived for their usual 11 a.m. worship services last Sunday, but this time, as they gathered beneath stained glass windows to sing, pray and ponder, they did so with a sense of loss.
It was the penultimate Sunday sermon of the Rev. Michael J. Imperiale. After leading the historic church for 18 years, he is retiring. An interim minister will take his place while the congregation searches for a permanent pastor, but churchgoers say “Pastor Mike” will be hard to replace.
“He’s been a wonderful minister for our church,” said Bert Dart, a member of First Presbyterian for more than 50 years. “He gives beautiful, thoughtful sermons, he has a beautiful singing voice, he’s been a real strength for us over the last 18 years and he will be missed.”
In keeping with Presbyterian tradition, the 67-year-old Imperiale will make a clean break with the community. That means he won’t remain a member of the congregation and will not attend future services. He can keep in touch with individual members but must do so with caution. To act in any other manner, he explained, would be unfair to his successor.
“It would be detrimental to the church for me to be present,” Imperiale said. “The new pastor needs to become the pastor, and it takes time for that to happen.”
Then, he smiled.
“The fun thing is,” Imperiale joked, “I get to do anything I want to on Sundays now. I don’t have to go to work.”
They’re ‘dead wrong’
Imperiale themed his second-to-last sermon, “What have you learned?” and used the opportunity to challenge his congregants to reflect on their faith.
The essence of Christianity and the only path to God, he counseled, is acceptance of Jesus’ love and salvation. He said that other major religions, such as Judaism and Islam, preach that people must follow commandments or treat others well to please God. Some of those things might indeed be good, he said, but anyone who believes such works will help them establish a relationship with God is “dead wrong.”
“In Jesus Christ, God has taken all the necessary action to reverse our condition of sin and death, ” he said. “ … All we have to do is trust him enough to let him do it.”
In preaching to the youngsters, Imperiale chose a different angle to illustrate the Almighty’s love.
Pastor Mike invited all of the children down to the pulpit and asked them to imagine what Earth would look like if it were any closer or farther from the sun. Some kids surmised that the world might be too hot or too cold for human life. And what would happen to the tide, the pastor asked, if the Earth didn’t have a moon? Nothing good. The placement of the sun and the Earth and the moon as they are is perfect for life here to thrive.
“The good news is God made you and God made me ... and he loves us,” he said. “Enjoy each other and this beautiful world in which we live.”
His congregants said that Imperiale’s commitment to and belief in Jesus have helped inspire their own ties with the divine.
“It’s been an incredible faith-building experience,” said Jane Rich, a deacon who sings alongside Imperiale in the church choir. She began attending First Presbyterian shortly before Imperiale became pastor. “He has always given the best sermons. … Because he has such strong faith, I have strong faith.”
But the departing pastor was not always so invested in religion.
Sermons in song
Imperiale was raised a Roman Catholic in New Jersey. In junior high, he decided the church wasn’t doing anything for him.
Despite his disinterest, Imperiale had loved choral music since childhood and decided to study at Westminster Choir College in Princeton. Most of the choral songs were religious, and many of his classmates and friends were Christian. It was there, he said, that he connected with Jesus — through hymns more than Holy Writ — and joined the path toward the believer he is today. Still, he never imagined himself as a pastor.
After college, Imperiale taught music at the Peddie School, a preparatory school in New Jersey. He also oversaw a dormitory of 50 ninth grade boys and began to participate in a small campus fellowship group.
“It was a great job. I loved it,” he recalled. “In that context, you really do get to know students very well.”
His relationship with Christ grew, and, even as he loved teaching, he began to feel drawn to ministry. After four years of teaching, he left to become a music and youth director at a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania.
Two years later, he left to pursue a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., followed by a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Imperiale was working as an associate pastor for a congregation in New York when he came across a magazine advertisement for an open pastor position in Utah. He had been in the ministry on the East Coast for 17 years and was looking for a change. He sent his resume, landed the job with the First Presbyterian Church and moved across the country with his wife and three children.
Welcome to Mormon land
At first, he said, the adjustment proved difficult. The influence of the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was overwhelming, even as its top leaders were open and welcoming.
“If you have serious business or political interests,” he said, “it’s almost impossible to get things going if you’re not LDS.”
It also took a while to get used to how people in Utah interact.
“I’m from the New York area and sarcasm and joking is very common,” Imperiale said. “Here, in Utah, it doesn’t seem to be. When you make a joke about something, people look at you and go ‘really’? I know in my preaching on Sundays, if I make a quip, it’s almost like you have to warn them ahead of time, ‘OK, guys, it's a joke; it's not serious.’”
But Salt Lake City soon won him over. The classical music scene, Imperiale said, is especially fine. He routinely attends Utah Opera and Symphony concerts. The historic church on the corner of South Temple and C Street also opens it doors to concerts from community music groups.
Imperiale leads a diverse faith community. On Sunday, prayers were read in Urdu, English, German, French and Lingala. The congregation includes the young, old and in between. Imperiale sings in the choir for Sunday’s 11 a.m. services and plays guitar in the rock band at 9 a.m.
He said the best part of being a pastor has been being with people through all the fun that life has to offer. He especially delights in conducting weddings, even when they sometimes get out of hand.
At one, a bride’s veil caught fire during the candle ceremony. At another, a groom fainted into the arms of his best man. He also enjoys getting to know his flock — playing golf with church members on Fridays and helping to lead the summer Bible camp.
No church is perfect
Because his position draws him so close to congregants, the worst part is when members or families decide to leave because they are unhappy with the church. That, he said, weighs on him. It can feel like a family breakup. When it happens, he often wishes members had sat down to talk to him first.
“I tell people if you do find the perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll ruin it,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect church. We are all human beings. We are a collection of people that need God in our lives and need each other.”
For their part, congregants said they were pleased with Imperiale’s tenure.
Don Rich, Jane Rich’s husband and a fellow deacon, is sad to see a “great pastor” and “great friend” leave.
Robert Cook, who joined the fold after moving with his family from Houston two years ago, said First Presbyterian Church is “like a family.” Everybody looks out for one another, and he credits the pastor as the glue that binds the church together.
First Presbyterian Church under Imperiale has played a central role in Placede Tshiaba’s life. She joined the church seven years ago after she moved from Logan. The first person who welcomed her and made her feel at home was Imperiale.
Tshiaba, who is now a deacon, met her husband through the church and the two attended pre-marriage counseling with Imperiale. The couple had a difficult time when their daughter was born, Tshiaba said, but through it all, the faith community and Imperiale were there for them.
After Sunday’s service, churchgoers left together for their annual church picnic. In a fitting goodbye for a music lover, Associate Pastor Christine Myers-Tegeder performed an original song she wrote for Imperiale to the tune of Bob Hope’s “Thanks for the Memory."
“Thanks for the memory, for sermons and for choir, for visits when we’re dire, for stupid jokes and lots of folks who call you Pastor Mike.”