A historic church, a new pastor, an evolving vision
August 19, 2008 · Updated 3:45 PM
t The Rev. Cheryl Wuensch joins Seabold United Methodist Church as its new minister.
As associate pastor at Timonium United Methodist Church in Timonium, Md., the Rev. Cheryl Wuensch ministered to a 900-member congregation.
One might think it would have been tough to get to know everyone. For Wuensch, not so much.
“A gift of a good pastor is to get to know people fast,” she said.
And as soon as she arrived on Bainbridge, Wuensch began doing just that, making pastoral visits to congregation members in need before she even gave her first sermon at Seabold United Methodist Church.
Wuensch didn’t always think parish life was her calling; the New Jersey native embarked on her religious career thinking she’d teach.
A Master of Divinity from Yale University followed by a doctorate at Princeton Theological Seminary led to teaching positions at her Princeton alma mater and later, at Lancaster Theological Seminary and Towson University.
But at a certain point, Wuensch realized she’d come to the end of her path in academia; she was ready to take a different fork.
“A lot of that was very technical – like teaching Greek,” she said. “But there came a time when I began to feel that it was very divorced from life ... the real life and death issues that people felt every day.”
Parish life, as Wuensch describes it, is very much about combining the divine with the everyday. To that end, she offers a “ministering 101” that encapsulates basic pastoral responsibilities, including her own.
First, there is “the word,” put forth during worship, proclaiming “a message that’s on target for today’s people.” How is God calling us to live? How does God’s love comfort us, and give us what we need to sustain us in hard times?
Methodists, Wuensch says, place no emphasis on a doctrine of sin but instead embrace a doctrine of love, for their own community and beyond.
“I believe that God is merciful, and just, and compassionate, and loving, and full of grace,” she said.
Service is next, which encompasses leadership, Wuensch says, but leadership through work and humility.
“It’s not telling people what to do,” she said, “but leading by being a servant.”
The sacrament revolves around ceremony, the gatherings and shared acts that a minister oversees such as Holy Communion, baptisms, weddings and funerals. These create a sense of mystery and mutual purpose within a sanctuary.
And then there is order, the nuts and bolts of running a church, which could be the most mysterious undertaking of all.
Think about it – a 900-member church with a $1.8 million operating budget.
“It was colossal,” Wuensch said of Timonium. “It was one, big administrative machine.”
In the relatively intimate 130-member Seabold congregation, Wuensch has observed a “phenomenal” level of organization among parishioners themselves. The machine was humming so smoothly when she arrived that it made her believe it could almost function without a pastor.
That left her free to look ahead a bit.
“Here, I think the role of the pastor is more of providing a vision for the church. I see that as my role and calling,” she said.
One of Wuensch’s most immediate concerns is the lack of younger parishioners at Seabold and in the Methodist community in general. They are those Gen X and Gen Y-ers who she thinks are “strongly seeking,” something, but not seeking it – whatever it is – in church.
In her estimation, the information age has irrevocably altered the way 15- to 45-year–olds think and perceive. And rather than wait for them, she urgently believes the church should shift its m.o.
Just as she views the Gospel and the Bible as living, flexible entities, faith communities need to bend, flex and stretch to reach this demographic. That means acknowledging that people are busy, that communities’ spiritual rhythms have shifted as work and home life have shifted, and that our way of taking in information – spiritual or otherwise – has changed.
“If the church can’t be relevant to today’s world,” she said, “then it’s obsolete, period – if it can’t meet them in the relevance of their everyday lives.”
One idea that Wuensch is keen to explore is multi-sensory worship.
That could mean any number of alterations to traditional worship or education, whether slight or dramatic, from multimedia elements to contemporary music to YouTube videos – which came into play at her last church – incorporated into worship and education.
What, specifically, it means for Seabold is a big part of what she’d like to discover with her congregation. To that end, Seabold will soon begin a four-month discernment process to evaluate the direction they’d like to head in, one that involves a core team but that will be open to the entire congregation. She wants a transparent church that is united in its vision.
In the meantime, she’s getting to know her new home, which isn’t so unfamiliar despite her East Coast origins.
When Wuensch indicated to her bishop that she wanted to move westward, she said she could have been appointed to any church between here and Idaho.
She didn’t land in the state due immediately east, where, she said, “my heart would shrivel up and die.” Instead, she landed in close proximity to her brother, and on the same island her parents have lived and worked on for two decades, operating Wuensch Homes.
Call it God’s hand, or a happy accident, if such things exist. Wuensch just believes she was meant to be here. And in that vein, a little paraphrase of St. Augustine, which she applies to those Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers, seems fitting here, too.
“‘My soul is restless until it finds rest in thee, O Lord.’ That is just as relevant as it was 1,600 years ago,” she said.
Services at Seabold United Methodist Church are at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sundays. On Sept. 7, both services will include a blessing of all students and teachers. For more information, call 842–3622.