By Bryan Boyhan
Sag Harbor’s Presbyterian church has several challenges before it; but with an announcement this week, they have one less.
After more than four years without a permanent pastor to lead them, the church has chosen Rev. Mark Francis Phillips to guide the local congregation. Rev. Phillips comes to Sag Harbor from the First Presbyterian Church of Mineral Ridge, Ohio, where he has been since 1994.
While he is expected to start full time at the Old Whalers Church here on April 18, Rev. Phillips spoke in front of the local congregation this past Sunday, and spent time over the weekend meeting its members before they voted unanimously to accept him as their pastor.
The members all appeared impressed with Rev. Phillips, said Susan Blair, chairman of the church’s Pastor Nominating Committee.
“There are no pretensions about him,” said Blair. “It’s just really what you see is what you get.”
The journey to find a new pastor has been a long one, and one where the members have done considerable soul searching. Since its last permanent pastor, Susan McKeegan-Guinn, left in 2005, the church has had a few interim pastors while they established the criteria for a permanent leader.
Early on, the members of the church gathered and spent a day meeting in small groups discussing their hopes for the church and, in broad strokes, imagining a future. From this they established a list of skills, said Blair, they would like to see in their new pastor.
In all about 80 pastors were considered through a matching process administered by the Presbyterian Church USA, and winnowed down to a handful for the local church to consider.
“We have a very healthy Sunday school at Old Whalers, and one thing we wanted is someone who is comfortable with children,” said Blair. “And someone skilled at pastoral care, visiting people when they are sick.”
“And also, very important, is someone who can speak well on Sunday, someone who will give you a sermon that will stick with you,” said Blair.
“You really think that all pastors know all this, but not all do,” said Blair.
Noting the success of former Old Whalers minister, the late Christine Grimbol, Blair said one mission the new pastor will be charged with is developing a youth group.
“That is very important to us, to keep the young people involved. He was successful at that at his current church,” said Blair.
The congregation also wanted someone able to address the business side of the church.
Old Whalers is facing some financial challenges, admitted Blair, but they see Rev. Phillips’ arrival as an opportunity to get the church back on stronger footing. The church did not have a stewardship — or fundraising — drive this past year, but Blair said current temporary minister Jeannine Frenzel, was guiding them to start it up for this year.
“Many in the congregation are not aware what the situation is,” noted Blair, “but they will in the next few weeks.” Letters will be sent out explaining the church’s challenges and announce the annual congregational meeting on February 28.
She added that people are reluctant to contribute, when the future appeared uncertain.
“It is helpful for people to know who is coming and when he is coming, and know that the spiritual leadership will be there,” said Blair. “Just knowing that someone’s coming will help us in the next few months.”
Blair also recognizes the role the church plays in the community, and hopes the community at large will want to help support them. In addition to its own congregation, the Old Whalers hosts the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons and a small Hispanic church. There is the Community Food Pantry in the basement, its lower level is used regularly for community meetings, and its sanctuary for public events such as concerts.
“But we realize, before we reach out to the community, the financial responsibility falls to the congregation,” said Blair.
Reverend Phillips will be coming from a church not too dissimilar to the Old Whalers. The church in Mineral Ridge has about 180 members, while the Sag Harbor church has about 120 active members. And, noted Blair, he comes from a congregation with a diversity of viewpoints, “as we have at Old Whalers.”
“Every once in a while, his old church found itself facing financial challenges,” said Blair, “but he was always able to face those challenges. He comes with his own sense of stewardship.”
Rev. Phillips, who is 43, is a native of West Mifflin, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. He holds a degree in social work from George Mason University and Master of Divinity degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.