By Stephen J. Kotz
When Pastor Tom McLeod took the reins of the Sag Harbor United Methodist Church in 2002, the congregation had about 20 members and maybe a dozen in the pews of its expansive but dilapidated church on Madison Street most Sunday mornings.
When Mr. McLeod ends his tenure after presiding over services on June 22 before moving to a new post in Southold, he will leave behind a healthy congregation of about 90 members, a good many of whom attend services on a typical week in a brand new church on Carroll Street just outside the village.
Along the way Mr. McLeod, in his first stint as a pastor, has become the longest serving leader in the church’s 179-year history.
“If we have done anything here—and I say ‘we’ because I am surrounded by a great group of people—we have developed a sense of community,” he said on Tuesday afternoon. “People are searching for community and church is a place where community can be found. We are very good at that here.”
When Mr. McLeod arrived in Sag Harbor, the church’s outlook was bleak.
So, in what Mr. McLeod concedes was “a very radical thing to do,” the congregation put its landmark church in downtown Sag Harbor on the market, eventually selling it in 2006 to former Southampton Town Councilman Dennis Suskind for $2.9 million. The building has since changed hands twice, and is currently being renovated into a single-family residence.
“The building needed over a million dollars worth of work, and we had a very limited congregation that could not afford it,” he said. “Our backs were really up against the wall and I had to decide whether I was going to spend 20 years of ministry fundraising or concentrate on bringing positive change.”
“When we sold the church on Madison Street, some people were upset,” he recalled. “They thought we were abandoning our building for money.”
But in a very real sense, the congregation didn’t have much of a choice. “If they had not accepted me they would have closed,” and the Methodist Conference, the church’s governing body, would have sold the church and used the funds elsewhere on Long Island,” he said, adding with a smile, “but they weren’t going to give me a church I could kill.”
It wasn’t long after the building was sold that the economy tanked. “I believe that if a door opens you have to walk through it because if it closes, it might stay closed for a long time,” Mr. McLeod said.
He used a story from the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament in which God tells Moses to rally the Israelites, who are too busy praying at the shore of the Red Sea to realize that that God has rolled back the waters, giving them safe passage. “There comes a time when you have to cut and run,” he said.
The congregation moved to temporary quarters in the former St. David A.M.E. Zion Church on Eastville Avenue across the village before buying a 3-acre wooded site on Carroll Street. Architects Dave and Dawn Harvey designed the new church, with its light and airy sanctuary, plenty of parking and not a single stair to impede older members from attending.
Mr. McLeod, who had a career in the building trades before entering the ministry, found his skills as a general contractor and carpenter came in handy during the building process. Besides building a thoroughly modern church, the congregation was left with about $300,000 to use as an endowment, a significant portion of which goes toward outreach programs.
Without the needing to focus solely on keeping its building intact, the congregation was able to focus on its mission, Mr. McLeod said, including making it more inviting for young people.
“The church today is more needed than at any time,” he said. “Young people don’t want to come to church just for Sunday worship. There has to be a ‘What now?’ element. They want to know what we are doing Monday through Saturday.”
Besides mission trips to places like Nicaragua and Haiti, the congregation has worked locally, helping raise funds charities like the Sag Harbor Food Pantry. “Last year almost 20 percent of our budget went out the door to missions in our midst,” he said.
Mr. McLeod, who grew up in Bellport in a Methodist family, said he was typical of many young people. “At the age of 16, I walked away from my faith and drifted for 22 years,” he said. He eventually rediscovered his faith and followed his heart into the ministry.
After several years in campus ministry at Suffolk Community College, he received the call to Sag Harbor, and he and his wife, Bobbie, moved to Shelter Island. A year ago, when Pastor Yuri Ando left the East Hampton Methodist Church, Mr. McLeod added that church to his duties.
The Southold United Methodist Church invited him to become its minister because “they want to do something like we did here. They have begun the appraisal process” and are looking for a new home.
Although Mr. McLeod said he would miss the eclectic group that makes up his current congregation, at age 61, he said he wants to live closer to his son, Jim, a Riverhead teacher who lives in Jamesport, and his two grandchildren. Mr. McLeod also has a daughter, Jackie, who works for the International Rescue Commission with Syrian refugees in northern Iraq.
“Some were mad, some were sad, and some were glad,” he said with an easy laugh of the reaction of his congregation when he announced his impending departure. “But I’m going to use my God-given talent to try to build another church on the North Fork.”