By JESSICA NICOSIA
For The Recorder
The United Presbyterian Church on Church Street in Amsterdam installed a new pastor on Nov. 4. James "Jamie" McLeod has not wasted any time getting involved in the church and the community, and the congregation has responded with apparent enthusiasm.
This church seems to be revitalized by the young pastor, who is married with one child in kindergarten. The congregation has not had a long-term pastor living in the community for the past six years since Dan Wheeler, their pastor of 25 years, retired. Since that time the church has had an interim pastor installed by the Albany Presbytery, Roland "Mac" McDonald, who commuted 90 miles to lead Sunday worship. Although church members said they liked McDonald, who retired this May, they all stressed the importance of having a pastor who is truly part of the community.
"We really wanted someone who understood us," said Kay Oliver, a member of the United Presbyterian Church since 1973. "I think that was a very important part of our search. Looking for someone who wanted to live here, be part of our community, and part of our family."
"The pastor is somebody in your life that's somebody you can call for emergencies, bounce things off of, so physically being a part of the community is important," said Bill Mayer, worship leader of the church and a member of the elder board.
A nine-person Pastor Nominating Committee formed in December 2011 worked for nine months to choose a new pastor. They used a website called Church Leadership Connection that is a cross between Monster.com and Match.com, where they got personal referrals and computer matches for interested pastor candidates. Starting out with 72 referrals, the group narrowed it down to 15 candidates, then to five who they interviewed via Skype. Two candidates, one of which was McLeod, were finally invited to visit Amsterdam.
"From our very first conversation with Pastor McLeod, the committee's reaction was very positive," said Jim Falato, a church elder who helps make decisions for the church, and served as chairman of the Pastor Nominating Committee. "You could just tell there was a difference between us speaking with him and us speaking with the other candidate. So it was kind of like ... we think this means something."
McLeod, who was serving as a youth pastor in his hometown of Lumberton, N.C., visited at the beginning of August. Falato said all nine members of the committee were unanimous in thinking he would be right for their church, and McLeod agreed.
"I fell in love with the committee and their vision for how to do church and how to be in a community," said McLeod. "A lot of what I liked about the church, what I still like about the church, is that they don't take themselves too seriously. There's not an over-formality both to worship and to interaction. Everybody's very collegial with one another, and there's a sacredness to worship, but there's not an overly formal feeling."
"We were first attracted to the energy of the church, particularly ... the family nature of the church," said Lesley Earles, McLeod's wife. "And even though we didn't have any firsthand experience with the church, we really could sense that from the Pastor Nominating Committee. They were so warm and welcoming and just really genuine people. And it was just like something clicked right away. It seemed like home, which is strange because it's so far away."
According to Falato, the committee chose Jamie because he had a lot of experience with youth groups, was scripturally strong, and had a good pastoral sense, or sense of how to be a spiritual leader in people's lives.
The committee presented Jamie to the congregation Sept. 16, and they voted to elect him pastor two days later. He began as pastor Oct. 1, and was officially installed with a Nov. 4 ceremony.
"It's been a big change," Earles said. "We're really excited to be here, so it's been a bit of a whirlwind."
Already, the family has energized the congregation to get more involved in the community. Earles came up with the idea to send buckets of cleaning supplies to people affected by Hurricane Sandy, and when McLeod brought it up at a meeting, the idea took off.
"We were aiming for 10 buckets worth, and each bucket is worth about $56," said Falato. "Our friends at True Value donated the buckets."
The church ended up collecting 50 buckets, which Jamie called a "powerful" response from the community.
"I like the fact that his wife has been involved in something early when they first got here," said Tony Scott, who has been going to the church for 50 years. "I like to see a minister and a preacher that's going to have a family as part of the congregation. And that's what it seems like it's going to be."
McLeod has also been working to revitalize youth membership at United Presbyterian, a goal the committee used in choosing a new pastor.
"We have a lot of older congregation and we're hoping now with a younger pastor and a younger family that it will also attract younger age groups to the church," said Sandy Steenburg, an elder in the congregation who serves as the church clerk.
One of the ways they are doing that is with a movie night open to the whole community, this coming Thursday.
"It's the first time we've had it, at least the first time in recent memory," said Falato. "We're trying to invite people in to the church. If this brings people in to church they will get, hopefully, something else other than a movie out of it."
Along the same vein, the church is trying to reach out to young families in the community, especially families in need. The church has agreed to adopt four families this Christmas.
"This is the first year they're going to start doing it, adopting families," said church member Beverly Bush. "We have four families. There's lots of kids, and they're all under seven."
While McLeod and his family have easily fallen in step with the church's goal of getting more involved in the community, he has tried to make it a place where all generations will feel comfortable.
"It's been a lot of back and forth," he said. "Being able to combine both the desire for many in the congregation to have a more upbeat, a more contemporary worship style, with my worship which ... I think draws on a lot more of the traditional, has been both a challenge and exciting. To say, week to week, what do we want worship to look like. And I just hope that we can continue to creatively collaborate with each other."
"I don't want to be an everything to every person sort of pastor, but at the same time I do want to provide my members and anyone that would come in here with some amount of choice in what moves you to authentic worship."
Meanwhile, the family is settling in to the community, which is enough for many of the parishioners at this point.
"The area provides a lot of good opportunities for both life and for ministry," said McLeod. He and his family live in Broadalbin, where his son Jameson goes to kindergarten, and they hope to buy a house in between Broadalbin and Amsterdam in the near future.
"You have sickness, you have deaths, you have births. And people really want their pastor. They want a spiritual presence when they're experiencing something major in their lives," said Falato. "We thought that he had the heart of a pastor."