Middlebury Methodists welcome new pastor

MIDDLEBURY — The Rev. Elisabeth Smith’s lengthy pastoral career has taken her to churches stretching from South Carolina to Massachusetts.
She is now preaching the Gospel in Vermont, as the new pastor at the Middlebury United Methodist Church (MUMC).
Smith, 50, officially began her new duties July 3. She replaces the Rev. Jill Colley Robinson, who recently took over leadership of the Lebanon (N.H.) United Methodist Church after eight years with the MUMC.
Smith was raised in Spartanburg, S.C. She became interested in theology at an early age, attending church regularly with family while developing a particular affinity for youth ministry. She attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Smith comes to Middlebury after having served five years as pastor of the United Methodist Church in Hamilton, Mass., a small, suburban community located around 30 miles north of Boston.
“It was a nice place to be,” said Smith, who served a congregation of around 50 people. The majority of her parishioners were either longtime, senior residents of town or young professionals who live in Hamilton and commute to jobs in the Boston area.
Prior to serving in Hamilton, Smith was pastor of Methodist churches in Pepperell and Townsend, Mass., for four years. She thoroughly enjoyed that experience, too.
“It has been a wonderful experience in New England,” Smith said.
Experience that she said stands in contrast to her more than 15 years spent preaching at churches in her native South Carolina. It was a timeframe during which Smith took the helm of five separate Methodist congregations within the South Carolina Conference.
“It’s very difficult still for women clergy in the South,” Smith explained. “I was generally located in rural areas, which tend to be more conservative. It became a very frustrating experience, which is why I came to New England.”
She has found congregations in the Northeast to be more accepting of women clergy.
Smith’s transfer to the MUMC became possible when her congregation in Hamilton decided, for financial reasons, to be led by a part-time pastor. That spot was ultimately filled by a theology student from Boston University, Smith recalled.
The United Methodist Church bishop appoints pastors to fill clergy vacancies throughout the country. Smith was tabbed as a candidate for the Middlebury vacancy, a move that was formalized after she met with MUMC leaders, who agreed she would be a good match for the congregation’s needs
She formally assumed preaching duties at MUMC early this month and has already delivered several sermons and officiated at two weddings and two funerals.
“It’s been very busy,” she said.
Smith is gratified by the welcome she has received. Parishioners have helped her with her move into the MUMC parsonage, and have invited her to meals to lessen her workload as she learns the ropes of her new job.
“I’m just trying to get to know my congregation right now,” Smith said.
She is impressed with the MUMC’s church buildings at 47 North Pleasant St. and at the intersection of Routes 125 and 116 in East Middlebury.
“They have great acoustics,” Smith said of both buildings.
MUMC leaders, including Smith, are discussing some new initiatives to keep the church thriving for years to come.
Among the ideas:
•  The potential addition of a more “contemporary” church service each week. The contemporary service would differ from the more traditional service in that it might feature, among other things, some worship videos and more modern music, according to Smith.
•  Development of a long-range strategic plan to assess the church’s current programs and determine how they might be tweaked or supplemented to best serve the congregation in the future.
Smith is excited about her future as leader of the MUMC.
“There is such a variety of what you do as a pastor,” Smith said. “I get to be there when new babies are born and to work with young and old people.
“It feels right,” she added. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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