New senior pastor to continue inclusiveness of United Church of Gainesville


The Rev. Shelly Wilson is the new senior pastor at United Church of Gainesville.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, July 12, 2013 at 11:45 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 at 11:45 a.m.

She never wanted to do anything but preach.

Facts

Minister's first sermon is Sunday

What: Shelly Wilson will deliver her first sermon as the new senior minister of the United Church of Gainesville.

When: Sunday, 10 a.m. Until Aug. 11, the church will hold one service at 10 a.m. on Sundays. Beginning Aug. 18, it will hold two Sunday services, at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Where: United Church of Gainesville, 1624 NW Fifth Ave.

"I was sort of, you know, one of those nerdy kids preaching to the animals," 57-year-old Shelly Wilson said.

Wilson has been a minister for about 30 years and believes the ministry is her heart's calling. She moved to Gainesville with her 18-year-old daughter, Julianna Bond, and partner, Diane Lasley, to share her ministerial gifts with a new community.

On July 1, Wilson began a new era for United Church of Gainesville. She is the new senior minister of UCG, a diverse and embracing church that focuses on community activism, outreach and social justice. Her first sermon will be Sunday at 10 a.m.

Wilson, who is gay, said the church's stand on social justice and the way it treats people were central to her decision to accept the job.

She replaces Larry and Sandy Reimer, a husband and wife ministerial team who led UCG for 38 years.

"It's a beautiful place, and I want to find my role here as part of that great presence in this community," Wilson said.

Catherine Berg, a UCG member for 42 years and a search committee member back when the church chose Larry Reimer as minister, said the Reimers came to the church when it had about 60 members. In the Reimers' 38 years at the helm of the congregation, the church grew to 700 members.

"They grew with the church and led the church," Berg said. "They were a deeply loved part of the congregation."

Wilson said she wants to learn from what is already set up by the Reimers, who will be returning to the church as members of the congregation in about six months, part of the transition process.

Wilson said she is not worried about the high bar set by the Reimers because she cannot be.

"I'm not Larry and Sandy," she said. "I'm not going to fill their shoes; I'm going to fill my shoes."

Berg said the committee looked for someone who could carry on the Reimers' legacy.

The committee also searched for someone who it felt could work in unison with Vince Amlin and Andy Bachmann, the associate ministers.

Each minister has a different way of doing things, but they all complement one another, said Gary Kirkland, a UCG member for 14 years. The three ministers are a team, Kirkland said.

Probably the most important thing in the search for a new minister was finding someone who embraced the church compact that calls upon the church to worship God "however known," said Nancy Dana, search committee chair.

"I entered the process with a little bit of trepidation, only because we have had an awesome ministerial team for a number of years," Dana said.

Also important was a list of 10 competencies that helped guide the search committee in its hunt. These included the ability to be personally grounded, profess an inclusive faith, demonstrate openness, communicate effectively, inspire, collaborate, provide compassionate pastoral care, manage business aspects of the church and represent UCG publicly. The minister also needed to be authentic, self-confident, well-balanced and an organized visionary with experience, Dana said.

"We are very excited because we know that we found that person in Shelly Wilson," Dana said.

The search process, which began in April 2012, involved reviewing the profiles of about 60 candidates.

In Wilson's profile, she detailed her background: She grew up in Boone, N.C., a mountain town in a predominantly conservative county. She has served churches in North Carolina and one in Alabama after earning degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Duke Divinity School and Wesley Theological Seminary. She also received an associate degree in nursing from Caldwell Community College in 2011.

She was the founding minister of High Country United Church of Christ in Boone, N.C.

"The belief of the denomination was that we could begin a new church there that would be successful and would appeal to a particular constituency in the town that had nowhere to attend church," Wilson said.

In the 11 years Wilson served there, the congregation grew to 200 members. The open and affirming church focuses on social justice, environmental issues and Earth stewardship.

"She's very aware of and sensitive to justice issues," said Melanie Childers, a member of High Country Church of Christ since its inception.

Childers described Wilson as incredibly gifted and outside the box, which also relates to her commitment to service.

For example, the church launched a nonprofit restaurant in Boone named the F.A.R.M. (Feed All Regardless of Means) Café, which was modeled after the One World Everybody Eats Foundation's initiatives. At the café, customers pay whatever they can. If they cannot pay, they can volunteer an hour of their time.

Wilson said this endeavor is now community-based and has won a national award.

"In many ways, that church reminds us all of how UCG was a number of years ago when we were that size," Berg said. "It will feel familiar to her and us."

The committee conducted phone and Skype interviews, eventually settling on Wilson. In January, she completed a three-day on-site interview, which included several role-playing exercises.

The role playing included administrative, pastoral care and crisis response scenarios that Wilson prepared and played out.

"We clicked," Wilson said. "It felt like family. It felt like we were at home together."

Wilson said her sexual orientation was not considered when she was interviewed. The search committee did not ask a question or raise an issue about it during the process.

"It was not pertinent to how I performed my job," she said.

Being a lesbian is part of her identity, just like being a woman or being right-handed, she said.

"They all have an impact," Wilson said, "but they have no impact to how effectively I might do my job."

Dana said Wilson's sexual orientation came up in conversation, and it is in line with the church's embracing philosophy.

"This is not anything that would be unusual for our particular church," Dana said. "We embrace and celebrate diversity, so this was something to celebrate."

Wilson was asked to return to Gainesville to lead the congregation in worship, and on March 3, she did just that. Afterward, the congregation voted on whether to ask Wilson to be its new senior minister.

The vote was almost unanimous.

Berg was one of those in the congregation that Sunday, and she said it's as if Wilson "already speaks UCG."

"She's just so authentic and so personal in her sharing," Berg said.

Kirkland said the entire search process was transparent and that, even though it's a transition, it's a positive step.

"I think everybody felt the energy and a lot of excitement about who she is and the leadership that she could provide to our church," Dana said. "She is a minister that the members of the congregation can fall in love with."

Looking toward the future, Wilson said she hopes for more creativity, energy and grace, among other things. But most of all, she hopes to continue the uplifting work the church has already done.

"It's been a joy. I love what I do."

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