Jim and Carol Shaffner moved to Pictou County 20 years ago to be close to their daughter and to relax by the water, but Jim turned their retirement plans upside down by deciding to study for the ministry.
“I’d always been involved in the United Church so I got involved when we moved to Merigomish. I went on a one-day Advent gathering at the Tatamagouche Centre and suddenly I knew ministry was something I had to do.”
The Shaffners celebrated their 50th anniversary last week and without being asked Carol offered, “It is a wonderful milestone but it has involved a lot of walking away and a lot of biting your tongue.”
They met as students at Mount Alison University in the 1960s.
“I noticed this girl who fell asleep during geology class and when she woke up I knew she was someone I’d like to get to know.
Admittedly, Carol’s taste still runs more toward English literature.
Jim was raised in Bridgewater, the grandson of a Methodist/United Church minister in Newfoundland. Carol grew up in Springhill as the mines were shutting down. He went to university to study engineering and she arrived after business school and nursing school.
“I was sent to business school and I hated it so I went to nursing school because that was one of the few other places a woman could go. I didn’t like nursing either, but it had cost my family hard-earned money to get me there so I stayed.”
After they married and Jim continued in school, the nursing degree came in handy.
“It put bread on the table in our early years. It kept us and our daughter until Jim finished school.”
Jim wanted to teach but the requirements kept changing. By the time he had a master’s degree and a PhD, there was still no prospect of a teaching job so he gave up the idea.
“Our daughter was getting to the age where she’d be starting school and we needed to settle somewhere so I took a job in Fredericton.”
Over the next two decades he held various positions in the NB department of environment while Carol went back to school to finish her arts degree. She later got her bachelor of social work at age 50 and began working in child protection.
When Jim got the opportunity to retire early he started looking for a piece of waterfront property. At the time Carol was in St. Vincent and the Grenadines with the development agency Crossroads International.
“A piece of land by the water in Nova Scotia had always been our dream. Our daughter was in Antigonish and we wanted to be close but we didn’t want to be in her backyard so Merigomish was perfect,” said Carol.
Jim’s engineering background did not automatically open doors at the Atlantic School of Theology where students most often have spent some time studying the humanities but he was allowed to enroll. Part way through his studies he was beset by doubts and questions.
“I learned that all I thought I knew, I didn’t know at all. Then I began to question my faith. I opted out of the ordination stream but I still went back for another year.”
The following summer he helped out at a church in River John and soon knew he wanted to be ordained.
“That meant another year but I wanted to do it. Part of my studies involved an internship and we agreed we’d go anywhere but Toronto,” said Jim.
They were excited to be placed in Yellowknife but seven days into the internship Jim suffered a serious fall, striking his head and injuring his spine. He was airlifted first to Edmonton and later to St. Martha’s, still barely able to move from his neck down.
“I was frustrated I couldn’t do anything for myself and I guess I was suffering from a very serious case what could be called Poor Me Syndrome.”
Carol agrees he was not an easy patient. She moved into his room with him to ease his stress and spare his nurses, hopeful he would recover.
“I found it pretty difficult but one day I was visited by three angels who helped me turn things around,” Jim said.
The first was a no-nonsense social worker and the second was Carol, who added love and support to the social worker’s message. The third was his daughter, Jennifer.
“They came one after another and I didn’t sleep that night but by morning I was ready to see where recovery would take me.”
While Jim still has issues with his legs and hands, he regained much of his strength and mobility. Before long he asked for another internship and was placed in Dartmouth.
“After that I was ordained and served three and a half years in Port Elgin, NB. We never gave up our house in Merigomish so we were able to return here.”
In recent years, he has done extended stints at Trinity United and Sharon St. John churches and has already committed to filling in at various churches during the summer.
Carol, who is not a churchgoer, is a constant sounding board when he is preparing sermons or services.
“She is a very giving, spiritual person and a huge help to me in everything I do.”
Carol jokes that her message is usually the same, “You’ve got too much God in there. Get down to where the people are.”
The Shaffners’ view across the water to Big Cove may have something to do with one of the couple’s retirement hobbies. Jim, with Carol’s help, is building his second 12 foot sailboat. It has been in the basement for the winter but they’ll be moving it outside soon to continue work.
“I’ve always liked the idea of building something. I think it goes back to my father and my days as a boy scout.”