Forty years from the heart

By: 
Jamie Hult, Staff writer

Jackie and Merv Kramer founded Brandon Valley Baptist Church in 1978. Kramer delivered in final sermon Sept. 24 to a packed congregation. Jamie Hult/BV Journal

Brandon Valley Baptist Church says farewell to Pastor Kramer
 
Had Merv Kramer accepted the offer to play pro baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959, Brandon would be a distinctly different community today – as would the lives of all the community members he has touched. 
In his last sermon Sept. 24, the Brandon Valley Baptist Church pastor challenged listeners to continue the legacy he started 40 years ago. 
Kramer and his identical twin, Tom, were only 17 when they were asked to attend Major League Baseball tryouts. The boys were known in their hometown of Napoleon, N.D., as the “twin battery.” Merv caught; Tom pitched. 
That year – their senior year of high school – each decided, separately, that his future lay in ministry.
After 52 years in his pastor role, Merv Kramer has never regretted his decision. He was after a different kind of glory. 
“God convinced me He didn’t want me to become a catcher for baseball; He wanted me to become a catcher for the souls of men,” Kramer said. 
He retired last week after decades of doing just that. In that final sermon, he outlined his pilgrimage.
He was a church planter in Colorado when he got the call – actually, two. 
God was telling him to return closer to his roots and expand his seminary education. The head office was telling him to start a church in Brandon. 
“God has a way of getting you on His agenda,” Kramer said.  
He moved to Brandon in 1978 with his wife, Jackie, and three children. The Kramers led small Bible and women’s studies groups at rented facilities on Main Ave. before the congregation purchased land at 400 N. Splitrock Blvd., where Brandon Valley Baptist Church would later be built. 
While the origination papers are dated September of 1980, the church building didn’t come until 1987. 
Kramer recalls praying, in the early days, at vacant spots around town for a church to be built there. Perhaps he was already picking up on God’s will for the community. Today, six of those spots are home to churches, including Brandon Valley Baptist.
The pews were packed Sept. 24 for Kramer’s final sermon – not only with regulars, but also community members and former church members. 
Carl Holt drove 10 hours from Arkansas to attend the farewell open house and service the next morning. 
“I figured if he’s preaching his last sermon, we ought to be there,” Holt said. 
Kramer aptly titled it “’Til We Meet Again.” 
For once, he didn’t stick to a script. He even sang a few bars from the old wartime favorite “We’ll Meet Again.”
After decades of being in pulpit, Kramer admits preaching still gives him occasional butterflies. 
“It’s scary,” he said. “It’s an awesome responsibility to preach the Word and know it’s accountable.”
Developing and delivering sermons is also the pastoral duty he’ll miss the most. Kramer keeps a healthy-sized stack of his Sunday messages – all handwritten, word for word – and returns to them on occasion.  
“It’s good reading later,” he said. “It does keep you sharp and on top of it. I once heard a pastor on the radio say, ‘If you re-read your sermons and don’t cry, you’re not doing your job.’ I’ve found that to be true.”
Kramer, who turned 76 on Sept. 17, said his decision to retire from Brandon Valley Baptist Church was hard.  
“It’s much like raising a child,” he said. “You raise them to be on their own someday. Then comes the time when you have to let them go.”
Jackie Kramer has been by her husband’s side 53 years. The two met when she was a nursing student at Augustana College, and he attended Sioux Falls College. They married in 1964. 
Being a pastor’s wife, she said, was wonderful.
“The relationships and friendships you make are so meaningful,” she said. 
Matt Murphy, office administrator at Brandon Valley Baptist, grew up in the church. He described Kramer as “warm, loving and kind.”
“He’s very dedicated to the Brandon community. You see him all around town,” Murphy said.
Kramer helped to found the Brandon Valley Ministerial Association, which sponsors the annual Brandon Area Prayer Breakfast, and sits on the board of the Brandon Area Food Pantry.
“He’s a people person,” said Mike Benson, a longtime member of Brandon Valley Baptist. “I’ve had several health issues, and he always shows up at the hospital, no matter what time of day.”
In 1993 Benson suffered cardiac arrest. He was wheeled into intensive care and not expected to survive.
His wife, Jolene, was overwhelmed. The Kramers took over, helping to watch their children, cook meals and arrange counseling for the family. 
“He’s also a good speaker,” Benson said. “He speaks from the heart.”
He has fond memories of playing basketball with Pastor Kramer in the church league and being guests in the Kramers’ home for holiday get-togethers and game nights. 
“Jackie is a good hostess. She enjoys it, and she’s always so encouraging,” Benson said. “That’s part of her ministry.”
While the Kramers will no longer lead the ministry at Brandon Valley Baptist, they’ll remain close.
“They’re not going anywhere,” Benson said. “This is their church home.”
 
Kramer’s pilgrimage 
Kramer started thinking hard about his faith when he was 11 years old. 
After high school, Kramer moved to Sioux Falls to attend Sioux Falls College. He went on to North American Baptist Seminary, now Sioux Falls Seminary, and graduated in 1967.
Three years into their marriage, Merv and Jackie Kramer moved to the Chicago area, where he worked as a youth pastor. In 1969 they moved near Denver, where he was a church planter for the North American Baptist Conference. Kramer started Sierra Baptist Church in Arvada, Colo., and served as pastor there until 1978.
The couple moved back to the Brandon area in 1978 with their three children, David, Debra and Nancy. 
Jackie taught at SDSU and helped get the church going.
“She was very vital to our ministry. She has awesome gifts of communication and talking one-on-one with people as a nurse,” Kramer said. 
Their work had barely begun when the Baptist conference changed its criteria and determined the Brandon area no longer qualified. 
“I told them, ‘You may pull out, but I’m not,’” Kramer said. 
The conference backed him.
The congregation has remained around 120 members over the years. One of the most crucial moments for the church, Kramer said, was the decision to devote 50 percent financially to missions, both in the church and locally.
Their children grew up in the church. David Kramer went on to become a church planter and now leads a congregation in Brass Valley, Calif., north of Sacramento. Their daughter Debra Weber lives in Kalamazoo, Mich., and their daughter Nancy Marion lives in Lakewood, Colo. The Kramers have nine grandchildren, the oldest of which recently graduated from engineering school.
David, Debra and Nancy all came home for their father’s final sermon Sept. 24. David’s arrival was a surprise.
The Kramers returned from a trip to Germany late Friday, Sept. 22, and found him waiting for them. The church hosted a community open house and farewell the following day. 
Erica Skogen has attended Brandon Valley Baptist Church for 16 years.
“We’ll miss him, but we’re happy for him to be able to retire,” said Skogen, one of the program directors for Awana, the church’s children’s ministry.
She described Kramer as caring and inspirational.
“He lives out what he preaches, and he just makes everyone feel welcome,” she said. 
Congregation members put together a scrapbook of photos and memories, which they presented to him at his final service. Skogen and her daughters, Hailey and Cassie, designed their family’s page in the church fellowship hall, which was filled with cardstock, scissors, embellishments and other scrapbooking materials in the days leading up to Kramer’s retirement.
“Oh, that was a surprise,” Kramer said with a smile. “That was something else.”
 
Looking ahead
Retiring is bittersweet, Kramer said. It feels like the right time, yet he isn’t quite ready to be done. 
“I’m sure I will not be idle,” he said. “There are always opportunities for interim and short-term ministry that we will be involved in.”
Kramer will write, too. It’s a gift he’s been sharing for decades. 
He’s thinking about inspirational topics, particularly contentment. He’s already got endorsement for the idea, too. 
“A man who’s been in the ministry 40 years surely must know something about contentment,” a friend told him. 
Last Sunday Kramer shared a communion service with Brandon Valley Baptist Church’s new pastor, Randy Battey, who comes from Aberdeen. 
“I’ve just enjoyed every week. I don’t remember ever saying, ‘Why should I be doing this? Why should I continue?’” Kramer said. “It’ll be exciting to see what the Lord has in store for us in the future.”
 
 
 

 

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