Young and female, new pastor at Concord's First Congregational on a mission for change
The Rev. Emilia Halstead of the First Congregational Church in Concord stands for a portrait wearing her robe and Pentecostal stole in the sanctuary of the church on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Halstead, 32, is the first female leader of the 284-year-old church. The stole was given to her by her church in Glenside, Penn., as an ordination present.
(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)
The Rev. Emilia Halstead of the First Congregational Church in Concord sits for a portrait in the sanctuary of the church on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Halstead, 32, is the first female leader of the 284-year-old church.
(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)
When the Rev. Emilia Halstead took the pulpit for the first time at First Congregational Church in Concord, she opened her mouth to preach.
What came out was a Journey song.
As Halstead opened her sermon with a few bars of “Don’t Stop Believin’, ” the church’s president, Everett Sims, was in the pews.
“If she had looked at me out in the congregation, I was . . . ”
His mouth dropped open.
“Wow,” said Sims. “It was so refreshing, so different.”
At 32, Halstead is the new senior pastor at First Congregational. She’s decades younger than most of the congregation. She’s the first female leader of the 284-year-old church. She tweets as @HalsteadE. She knows she’s “so different,” as Sims said, and she’s embracing that in order to lead one of Concord’s oldest faith communities.
“Churches have a harder time spinning forward because there’s a lot of deeply rooted tradition,” Halstead said. “Learning how to offer up that same tradition in new ways so that it reaches different and new people, that is a challenge for churches, period. How do you take spirituality and make it adaptable, buildable, usable, for people who are just so busy?”
The church’s last senior pastor, who had been at First Congregational for more than 10 years, resigned in 2011. For more than two years, the church has had an interim pastor.
“We just need to head into this new journey, and I think Pastor Emilia is going to bring us into
the 21st century,” Sims said. “I’ve already had discussions (with her) on certain things, how she looks at things. It’s going to be different for us, and I’m excited about it. We need to come into the 21st century. The church is almost 300 years old, and you kind of get stuck in your ways.”
‘It would be you’
“I am a preacher’s kid,” Halstead said, by way of introduction.
Halstead’s father was also a pastor in the United Church of Christ. Halstead studied theater and English at Arcadia University in Philadelphia and graduated in 2005. She worked in children’s science museums in Cleveland and Philadelphia, but she said she found herself wanting more. In 2007, she enrolled at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts.
“Once I really felt called to that, I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do,” Halstead said.
But her family’s history with the clergy goes beyond Halstead’s father. She’s part of five generations of pastors, she said, and she can trace the line back to a Scottish ancestor who worked in the coal mines and preached on Sundays.
“My grandmother . . . she’s got 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren at this point, but she said, ‘Yeah, I figured it would be you,’ ” Halstead said.
Once she graduated in 2010, she worked as an associate pastor at a church in Dover, Mass., and then at the Eliot Church in Newton, Mass. This position at First Congregational is her first as a senior pastor.
In the United Church of Christ, each congregation is self-governed. A search committee from First Congregational found Halstead through the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ and traveled to listen to her preach in another church. Then, the entire congregation heard her preach in Concord and voted to accept her for the job.
Halstead officially started last week, and she preached her first service as First Congregational’s senior pastor Sunday. When it was over, Sims said another member leaned across the pew to whisper in his ear: “She’s a keeper,” he said.
On Halstead’s desk earlier this week was a copy of The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways by Meredith Gould. She talked in terms of Facebook and Twitter – but first and foremost, a website.
“There isn’t a single reason that any church should have a website that’s out of date,” Halstead said. “That’s one of my big pet peeves.”
“And she says (to me), ‘Your website’s out of date,’ ” Sims added.
To Halstead, the website could go beyond basic information like the church’s address and the time of a Sunday service.
“For example, a Bible study,” she said. “Let’s say you have it at 10 a.m.”
But work or school might get in the way for a young family, she said, or an elderly member might not be able to drive to the meeting.
“But if you record it in some particular way and archive it on the website, then anybody who’s anybody can go on the website and participate in that Bible study, whether it’s just watching the video or listening to the audio or even if you’ve got a place for comments where people can say, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting.’ ”
The Rev. Gary Schulte serves as the conference minister for the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ. Around the same time Halstead preached her first sermon in Concord, he said, two other young pastors began posts in Dover and Exeter.
“I think that’s going to have some invigorating influence on the life of the church as well, challenging people who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, to adapt to think a new thought,” Schulte said.
But both statewide and at First Congregational, the church is aging.
“There’s a lot of people in this congregation who have no computer, want no computer,” Halstead said. “So figuring out how not to leave people behind . . . my biggest concern is that we’ll move everything forward, that’s great, but what about people who still like to get their newsletter in the mail?”
Sims, 71, said First Congregational is ready for someone new, even if that someone is fluent in Facebook and sings pop songs from the pulpit.
“I think as a congregation as a whole here, we’re ready for that,” he said. “We’re more than ready.”
Explaining Twitter to an older community won’t be Halstead’s only challenge. She’s stepped into a building that is also aging, and outside her new front door is a growing community of homeless young and old who have traditionally turned to First Congregational for a winter shelter.
“For me, what I sense here already is that there’s a wanting to re-emerge in the community. . . . How do you take what our values are in social justice and mission work, and move that forward into what’s currently going on in Concord right now?” Halstead said. “How can we utilize the tools that exist to make that happen?”
Now, she’ll try to bring her passions for social media and song and spirituality together.
“So from there, what else do we do to create change?” Halstead said.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)