According to Dr. Kevin Blackwell, Director of The Ministry Training Institute of Samford University, the average pastoral tenure in America is approximately six years.
How then, has First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach been so “Lucky”? Its senior pastor, who has been with the church for 40 years now, might humbly remark, “Luck has nothing to do with it!” God’s sense of humor, rather, is what Rev. Walter B. “Lucky” Arnold has often attributed to how he came to his position. This may be true, but, as he readies to retire at the end of October, one cannot overlook his partner in ministry who also happens to be his companion for life.
Along with church plants in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie, FPC claims church plants and partners in Brazil, Croatia, Cuba, Germany, Greece, Mexico, and Peru.
Lucky came to FPC initially by following his wife, Penny, who was working as a youth intern there one summer. He formed a great relationship with then Senior Pastor Jim Stout, and the church soon pursued Lucky to come aboard as an associate pastor. It wasn’t long before Rev. Stout was called to California, and due to some major changes in the larger Presbytery, First Pres. landed his successor in Lucky.
As she looks back over her husband’s time at FPC, Penny recalls, “It was never boring, and the changes brought new challenges that he could be energized about.”
Those challenges included a burgeoning missions ministry which has grown exponentially since Lucky has become the senior pastor. Along with church plants in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie, FPC claims church plants and partners in Brazil, Croatia, Cuba, Germany, Greece, Mexico, and Peru.
Lucky also led the congregation through a denominational transition from PC(USA) to ECO in 2012, a move that strengthened the church’s resolve to be a Biblically-based congregation that preached the gospel and staunchly supported its church-planting initiatives.
Lucky has overseen several capital campaigns that resulted in a larger sanctuary, more buildings for ministry and education, and upgrades and improvements across the seven-acre campus on Prosperity Farms Road.
When asked how his wife of 43 years has supported him, Lucky quickly said, “Ministry is partnership…there is no way I could’ve done what I did if she did not do what she did.”
In addition, he has led several Biblical study trips to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Turkey, and Italy which have been a special part of Lucky’s tenure that he and Penny have been able to enjoy and learn from together.
A true rabbi of men and women alike, Lucky has always been intentional about leading small groups. In fact, he has one particular small group of men who have been encouraging and holding each other accountable for more than 30 years! Likewise, Penny has been leading the Women in the Word bible study on Thursday mornings for just as long. Longevity and being committed to studying God’s word have obviously been shared strengths for this couple. “He loves God, and He loves God’s people, and the calling has become natural to him,” Penny explained. “He sees the body of Christ as a team approach. Everyone is necessary for the success in what God is doing.”
Lucky also possesses the rare ability to not only provide his listeners with detailed historical context of the Gospel, but to relate it to current and the specific circumstances of the individual taking up the space within each pew.
However, in all that he has accomplished, his greatest triumph may be the personal connection he has established, fostered, and maintained with the members of the congregation. He will see members in the pew where they sit. He will make eye contact with them and smile sincerely. He will often recall an individual story about someone and their family from the pulpit. His memory is amazing as he seems to effortlessly know the names and circumstances of everyone in his flock.
Lucky also possesses the rare ability to not only provide his listeners with detailed historical context of the Gospel, but to relate it to current and the specific circumstances of the individual taking up the space within each pew. According to Penny, he has the “ability to craft a sermon with depth and humor and a relational style of delivery.” He has a uniquely warm voice and the tendency to reverently almost whisper the message at times. One can’t help but share in his passion for scripture as he excitedly illustrates the connections between the Old and New Testaments. How much sense it all suddenly makes as he finishes his story and brings it to the present where his audience becomes an important, unique, and intentional part of God’s great story. Congregants have continued to be able to hear his sermons throughout the pandemic (thanks to livestreaming), but when one is able to be there in person, it is a richer experience indeed.
When asked how his wife of 43 years has supported him, Lucky quickly said, “Ministry is partnership…there is no way I could’ve done what I did if she did not do what she did! We were always in it together…Ministry wasn’t just my life, it was our life.” Penny has poured into her work as a licensed therapist as well as volunteering her time in service at First Care Crisis Pregnancy Center throughout the years. She feels strongly, however, that her calling was always to be a mother to their two sons, Garrett and Colin, and values her role in her family.
Recognizing that it definitely wasn’t always easy being the “pastor’s kids,” Penny credits Lucky’s wisdom to see things from many angles and his down-to-earth personality as two things that helped keep things real for their family. As a couple, their abilities to attract genuine friends and encourage them to use their own gifts in ministry have come back to bless them. They now see how many members of this community have positively influenced their now adult children and growing family. “I will carry the things I have learned from the church members with me as we move forward,” said Penny. “Sharing life for 40 years with a family of faith has led to a depth in my appreciation for what walking the Christian life is about.”
Other than spiritedly mentioning his alma mater (FSU) during football season, one of the most affectionately referenced topics from the pulpit would be Lucky’s annual fishing trip (he thoroughly enjoys being both a fisherman and a fisher of men). Penny said he always asked permission to go, but she always said “yes” because he would come back refreshed and often with dinner! Penny has even braved some of these excursions with her husband. She enjoys the sunrises and sunsets of their camping spot in the Everglades, but wouldn’t mind a more glamorous camping experience sometime in the near future,“glamping” in the mountains, perhaps.
In a recent sermon, Lucky marveled at the biblical significance of the number 40 and chuckled, “If it was long enough for Moses, it ought to be long enough for me!”
Five years ago, Lucky clearly understood God’s direction for him to plan this retirement. Since then, he has been praying for FPC’s next pastor to be revealed. That prayer was answered in the form of Rev. Jared Ayers, whom Lucky has already stated will be his own future pastor. Jared arrived this past July, was officially installed on September 20, and will continue after Lucky’s final Sunday at the end of October.
In a recent sermon, Lucky marveled at the biblical significance of the number 40 and chuckled, “If it was long enough for Moses, it ought to be long enough for me!” While it is bound to be a giant change for this community, it is also a wonderful transition to celebrate, and many of the church’s other pastors will remain in place, including longtime friend Rev. Dr. Ron Hilliard, now FPC’s executive pastor.
Some passages of wisdom that have always been near to Lucky’s heart, but particularly now as he and Penny are anticipating retirement, are both Proverbs 5:18 and Ecclesiastes 9:7-10: “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love.”
“I have been blessed to marry the girl I begged God for and I cannot imagine life without her,” gushed Lucky. “What other woman on the planet would actually get in a canoe and camp with me on a beach in the Gulf of Mexico?!”
May God continue to bless and keep you and all of yours, Lucky and Penny.