Six years ago this month, I stood before my fellow members of Westminster Church and took public vows of installation to serve as an elder on the church’s session, an office I have held off and on (mostly on) since I was ordained in the 1980s. This month, I assisted with the ordination and installation of a new class of elders and deacons beginning their service. Although “once an elder, always an elder,” I am rotating off active service on the session, which prompts these thoughts.
The last six years have been a whirlwind at Westminster. Exactly one month after I was elected clerk of session in January 2014, our longtime and much-loved pastor Phil Windsor announced his retirement. Most of that year was consumed with saying goodbye to Phil and Diane, and preparing for a change in pastoral leadership.
In the Presbyterian system, congregations “hire” (the term we use is “call”) their pastors after a lengthy and thoughtful search process. During the interim period between called pastors, congregations engage in a time of reflection to discern their future, with an interim pastor helping with the transition. The Rev. Dwain Lee was with us for 18 months, encouraging us to study and learn, try new worship styles and explore new missions.
An openly gay pastor, Dwain helped us move closer to our goal of being an open, affirming and inclusive church, not only for LGBTQ persons, but for people of all races, ages, economic status, family configurations and abilities. During the interim period, we developed a comprehensive mission study that outlined our goals for the church. We used this study to search for a pastor whose skills and vision align with ours.
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We found that pastor in the Rev. Patrick Heery. Patrick and Jenna came to us in May 2016, moving to Auburn from Louisville, Kentucky, where Patrick had been the editor of the denominational magazine Presbyterians Today. Patrick’s superb leadership skills, inspiring preaching, firm belief in God’s love of all people, and passion for social justice made him a good match for us, and us for him.
Not long after Patrick arrived, we tackled the challenge of declining enrollment at Westminster Nursery School due to competition with free UPK and 3PK options in the community. The school had been part of the church’s ministries since 1952. After considering many options, it was decided to close the school, which we did by celebrating all it had meant to the community in its 65 years of existence.
At the same time, recognizing the need for active and relevant youth ministries, we started a new program called REACH (Relate, Explore, Act, Care, Help), whose mission is “to strive for an environment and culture within the church and in the community that reflects transformative love,” becoming a place that welcomes all children and youth and empowers diversity, offers a chance to wonder by asking big questions, and explores faith in a variety of ways, involving all generations in the journey.
Our congregation is growing, attracting new members and visitors, and is becoming more diverse and inclusive. We are making our worship more creative using visuals, art, drama and varied styles of music to appeal to all the senses. We are more active and involved in the community, getting outside our doors to be Christ’s hands and feet in Auburn. We were the site of Auburn’s first Pride Month service last summer.
In short, these last six years have been a wild ride, with many changes and challenges. When I answered the installation vows in 2014 to serve the church with “energy, intelligence, imagination and love,” I had little idea what that would entail. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Presbyterians believe that God’s voice is heard in the collective voice of our leaders, called by the congregation to serve. Elders and deacons are ordained to a ministry of service, and bring many different gifts to their ministry. Every ordination service begins with this beautiful passage from 1 Corinthians 12: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Change is a constant. And thankfully, so is God’s love.
Jill Fandrich is a ruling elder and clerk of session at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 17 William St., Auburn, where she edits the newsletter, church website (westminsterauburn.org) and Facebook and Twitter pages.