Nelson, Rev. John A. Interview
This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Rev. John A. Nelson of the Congregational Church. He is going to talk about the church, his ministry, the programs that he has initiated and future goals. Today’s date is Oct. 29, 2021. This is file #40, cycle 4.
JM:What is your name?
JN:I am Rev. Doctor John Alexander Nelson
JM:Your birth date, please?
JN:June 14, 1961
JM:Your birth place?
JN:St. Paul, Minnesota
JM:Give your route as to how you came to Salisbury.
JM:I want the long story!
JN:The route to ministry for me really began most directly when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid to late 1980s. I was working in Guatemala. Having grown up in the United Church of Christ congregation at Syracuse and then growing uninterested in the church or more interested in other things as a teenager and a young adult, I held it at a distance. While I was in Guatemala in the Peace Corps, I was reading a lot in works by theologians and in world religion. I got more and more interested in religion. I had taken some courses depth psychology and religion when I was in college that really caught my interest. I had the experience with encountering some fellow Peace Corps volunteers who were very involved in the fundamentalist church in Guatemala. Our discussions and sometimes arguments that made me realize these matters were… they really mattered to me. They were of fundamental importance. I began a long conversation with the pastor of my home church in Syracuse, and with my uncle who was then (but now deceased) was a CDC seminary professor and with a college professor of religion at Syracuse University who was a family friend. All of that ultimately lead to my deciding this mattered so much to me that I wanted to explore by going to seminary.
JN:I went without the idea of going into parish ministry. I actually expected to go into policy advocacy and chaplaincy as those were my strong interests. Because of a close relationship with a seminary professor, I ended up going back to Central America with a group called “Witness for Peace”, a delegation in the middle of my senior year of seminary. I was so impressed with the work of “Witness for Peace” which was active then as a non-for-profit organization seeking to inform US citizens about what our country had been doing in Central America, and to support those who were seeking non-
violence and supported the people who had been victims of the war. I was so impressed with the work of “Witness for Peace” that immediately after seminary I joined them and worked in Guatemala again for another 2 ½ years, doing essentially human rights education. When I returned to the states, after that, it is now in the early 1990s, I had the experience while with “Witness for Peace” that the communities in Guatemala that we worked with who were strongest and responding best to the horrors of the war and recovering from the repression there were the communities that had a strong faith community, strong churches. I was so impressed by that that it really got me interested in the local parish: churches as loci of renewal and healing and formation for making our way through the struggles of life. Because of all that experience I began the search for my first church. It took me a while to get there. I collected 52 rejections along the way.
JM:They didn’t know what they were missing.
JN:Or maybe they did know. Maybe I was not ready at the time and they knew it. But after a long grueling search I was blessed to get a call by the First Congregational Church of Gloversville, NY. I was there for three years. Then I got a call to a church in the metro Boston area, Dover, Mass. I had a splendid ministry there. I was really fortunate to be there for 7 years. My next call was a church in Niantic, Ct. southeastern Connecticut. After 9 years of that pastorate, my wife and I already had purchased property in the Berkshires and had built a home there as she was working in the Berkshires. We began to seeing that that was going to be more of a permanent place for us. I was keeping my eyes open for ministry opportunities in that area and ended up serving the Church on the Hill.
JM:Oh that’s a gorgeous church.
JN:You are so lucky.
JN:I was lucky. It was a wonderful congregation. That was a part time position. We had a business: we were running a Bed & Breakfast in Lenox, my wife primarily, I helping. For a multitude of reasons that business imploded. Around the time that happened, I got a call from a colleague who said, “I am putting together a pool of candidates for this church in Salisbury, Ct. I wonder if I can include your name?” Because I was about to look for a full time position, as opposed to the part time one, I said, “You certainly may.” From my first meeting with the search team here, it was clear it was a very good fit.
JM:Yes, and we are so glad you are here.
JN:Well you are kind to say so. Thank you.
JM:And you came April Fool‘s Day Aril 1, 2019.
JN:That is correct. Make as many jokes about that as you possibly can.
JM:I am sorry, but I couldn’t resist.
JN:No, please don’t be sorry. I am an April fool.3.
JM:Aren’t we all?
JN:Who was it who said about April fools, was it Twain who said that the day that established what we are from the other 364?
JM:We try to make up for it. Is your title the designated Pastor?
JN:It was when I arrived. When I came here in April of 2019, it was a Designated Term Pastor which meant for a specific term, a three year contract with several specific goals. That contract left open the possibility of my either renewing the contract as Designated Term Pastor or the church could consider me as settled pastor if it wished. If I wish then we could work it out. That is exactly what happened earlier this year. The church leadership formed a search committee. Their first task was to discern whether they wanted to call me a settled pastor. I am very grateful and blessed that they did choose me to do that.
JM:May you have a long and happy ministry.
JN:Thank you very much.
JM:What is your mission statement for the church?
JN:The mission statement is called by Jesus Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, loving and serving God and neighbor.
JM:What is roughly the size of your congregation, members of the rolls?
JN:Members on the rolls are 177.
JM:Your average attendance?
JN:Right now it is about 50.
JM:Because of the pandemic, is that down from what it would normally be?
JN:Yes pre-pandemic average attendance was around 75.
JM:Are there any special programs that you have initiated or are you carrying on for a while what has been started?
JN:Well, much more of the latter. One of the things that I am convinced of in the ministry, not that it begins with me, but I have learned from my lectures and colleagues is that when a new minster arrives in a congregation that arrival, that person, is such a change for the system, for the congregation that you are really better off not introducing a whole lot of other changes. Let people get used to the big change that is you. So I have tried to keep that in mind and also recognize that my predecessors, Diane Monti-Catania and Rev. Dick Taber of blessed memory (See both of their interviews) they had themselves
respected what came before they initiated their own programs. I very much want to honor and continue those programs that are really working. These are ministries that are really working rather than jump to initiate things myself. I am very happy to continue with the Bible Studies that the 2 of them began: a men’s Bible Study that meets early Friday mornings, a women’s Bible Studies that meets on a Wednesday afternoon. Rev. Taber and Joanne Taber…
JM:Why do you separate the sexes?
JN:I don’t know why that happened. I have asked that question and nobody seems to recall exactly what the history of that was. But that is what I have inherited.
JM:So that is what you are going to stick with for a while.
JN:Exactly My hope would be to continue those two groups which have their own energy and integrity and history and then add in more. I figure you can never have too many Bible Studies.
JM:Do you do the Apocrypha?
JN:We have not since I have been here.
JM:That was not a trick question, by the way.
JN:The Apocrypha are marvelous resources to read and study.
JM:Because of the pandemic, you have had to develop you service on line?
JN:Yes that is right.
JM:So that is a change because of circumstances, not necessarily something you came with the idea of doing.
JN:Necessity is the mother of invention. With the necessity of finding ways to continue to worship together, given that for quite a few months early in the pandemic we couldn’t physically meet together, we started out with services on Zoom. We have learned how to do those better and better as we went along. The initial efforts were one of those things that really are in retrospect, the offering was not all that great, but it was so much better than nothing.
JM:Oh yes and we improve.
JN:And we do.
JM:Practice makes perfect.
JM:When is your weekly service?
JN:10 AM on Sundays5.
JM:You have a Sunday school?
JN:We do. We actually have 2 Sunday schools run by the wonderful Barbara Collins (See her interview) who is just a, what a gem with such rich experience. She really knows how to do this.
JM:She is really good at it too.
JN:Yes she is so good. She has a Sunday school that happens on Zoom at 9:00 AM Sundays and that is drawing from the experience of creating a Sunday school class when we were only on line and recognizing that that is the only way that some people are going to continue to participate. As we are having in person services primarily, she is also offering Sunday school in the way that has been the case for years.
JM:That would be part of church and after church?
JN:Part of church so the Zoom Sunday school starts at 9:00 and during our 10 o’clock service, the service always begin with the children present. There is what I call a “thought for young minds” or a children’s sermon and after that the youngsters and the Sunday school teachers come upstairs to their classroom.
JM:You have a couple of Outreach programs with Bridgeport.
JN:Well the relationship with Bridgeport is very important to us and the Bridgeport United Church of Christ: I think it is Union Congregational Church. I am not exactly sure of the name. Their pastor is also the founder and CEO/President of a wonderful non-for profit called “Nourish Bridgeport Inc.” which is providing critical social services to the people of that community. That pastor, Rev. Sarah Smith, was a close friend and colleague of Pastor Diane Monti-Catania. They formed a close relationship, not only the 2 of them, but also people of the congregation. We continue provide some financial support and a number of our members have stayed personally in touch with Rev. Sarah and with “Nourish Bridgeport Inc.” She is actually our guest preacher this coming weekend.
JN:which I am very excited about as a way of keeping attention of our folk on that relationship.
JM:Good move. Simply Smiles
JN:Simply Smiles is an organization that began by providing dental services and repairing cleft palates to children in 2 struggling communities. They are struggling with systemic impoverishment and the issues that go along with it. One is Oaxaca, Mexico and another in the Snake River Reservation in South Dakota. That organization has expanded its focus, not only from that dental surgery service, but also at this point they are building houses along with the elders, the people of the reservation in South Dakota to respond to the dire need for secure housing for that community. Our church over the years has financially supported them and also encouraged adults and youth in the congregation to volunteer
with them. They have an active program where they invite the people to experience the work in Oaxaca and in the reservation in South Dakota.
JM:Now we have one outreach program that in Salisbury and that is the Faith Housing. I knew we would get something local eventually.
JN:Which I believe Rev. Taber was instrumental.
JM:Very much so.
JN:As he was in so many of the programs here. He was trained as a social worker and just about every service that was working for the well-being of people had his fingerprints on it. He was a gem. There are a handful of folk in the church who have renewed interest in digging into reporting efforts for creating affordable housing in this area which is so direly needed.
JN:Faith House, Sarum Village would be good examples of that.
JM:And there is also East Meadow and Sarum villages 1, 2, and 3. Quick switch who is your new Minister of Music?
JN:Samuel Lord Kalscheim
JM:Where did he receive his PhD in Composition?
JN:AT the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon. We were very fortunate to find him. His family is in West Stockbridge, just 45 minutes north of here. So when we were casting about for opening a search for a music director, we were very fortunate that Samuel who was just shy from completing his PhD work. He was back in the area. It was a colleague, another UCC minister who passed along Samuel’s name. We were just delighted when we captured him, not only for his musicianship, but he is just a gem of a person.
JM:Al Sly was my neighbor for 41 years so he has a special place in my heart. Now we are getting to you. What are your special talents that you have brought to the church, of which I know there are many. Shall I list them?
JN:Sure, by all means! My background in theater is very helpful in my ministry. I was only occasionally on stage, but that was never my strongest gift, but my wife reminds me of how much of a ham I am in the pulpit.
JM:You have to be a ham in teaching, too, especially with young children, but not so much the older ones. It helps, too.
JN:Yes a certain amount of capacity to entertain is important. I did a good bit of stage managing and that kind of experience in organizing is often useful in church work. I focused more than anything else on scene and lighting design, and having been in the background in visual arts in that way. I did some directing as well which I very much enjoyed. Those experiences in theater and having a sense of how to make an event like a worship service hold together so that one piece connecting with another has been really helpful for me during these 2 decades of ministry. I was always from the time I was a youngster messing about in my dad’s workshop at home. I always loved carpentry and tools. As a set designer I was also building just about every set that I worked on. Those kinds of handy abilities, I still do a fair bit of wood work and other kinds of handy stuff around the house. These skills have also been useful for running cables to connecting a computer or fixing lighting-whatever.
JM:You are good at remembering names.
JN:I do have the facility for remembering names.
JM:That is quite an asset.
JN:I was fortunate to have a good background in music because it was around our house all the time. My parents met when they were singing in the Chorus Pro Musica in Boston. Music was fundamental really to the existence of our family. My dad was a tenor and my mother was an alto. I have an older brother who is a really talented pianist. We had music in the house all the time. When we had our daily dinners we were at the table together 6 days a week, usually instead of a spoken grace, much more often we would sing a verse of a hymn.
JN:I can carry a tune, I studied voice for one year just to learn a little about it, I am not a trained singer but I do love singing and I just adore listening people who really sing and play well.
JM:I asked before with the congregational church, you don’t have a hierarchy so it is you and the congregation that make decisions as far whether you stay or whether you go.
JN:That is correct. One of the theological things that form the Congregational Church from early on was the gathered people is the vessel of the Holy Spirit. That means that we are not going to really understand where the Holy Spirit is leading us until we are gathered as a people. So the gathering is enormously important. It also means that direction for the congregation can’t really come from outside the congregation. We don’t have the direction or structure of an episcopal set-up of bishops. All direction of the church and all the decisions of the church for what our ministries are going to be, what our strategic planning is going to be, whom the congregation will hire or fire as a minister, all of that
comes from within the congregation when they are gathered to discern what the Holy Spirit is calling them to do.
JN:Well it is and if I remember correctly, but I may have the details a little off, when I read McCulloch’s biography of John Adams years ago, I recall that one of the sources, one of the primary sources in developing the constitution of the country was the constitution of the churches which were our predecessors also. The idea of democracy precedes or leads to the structure of both church and country. Although it is also important to say that the key difference is that in the church the primary mover is understood to be not the will of the people, but the will of the Holy Spirit. It is our task and our aim to leave ourselves open to be moved by the Spirit.
JM:Now we are going to get into some of the committees and what they do. How many trustees?
JN: there are 9 trustees, currently.
JM:And they do building and grounds?
JN:Well yes, buildings and grounds but basically the trustees are responsible for the stewardship of all assets, physical and financial assets at the church. Of equal importance or equal seniority would be the Board of Deacons of whom there are 12 whose charge is to stewardship of the life of the spiritual church and the well-being of the church members. Pretty much everything that happens in the church you can see fitting under the aegis of either the Board of Trustees or the Board of Deacons.
JM:What is the Board of Christian Action?
JN:The Board of Christian Action is responsible for the relationships with 4 organizations that we have supported and partnered with over the years. These are organizations that are carrying out works that really correspond to our own church’s mission. Sometimes that relationship is largely financial where we are giving benevolences for supporting those works. Sometimes there are direct personal relationships where folks on our Board of Christian Action and others of the congregation are going to volunteer at the ”Nourish Bridgeport” that I mentioned earlier or “Friends of Service to Humanity” over in Torrington or groups like Women’s Support Services closer to home, and affordable housing efforts in this area.
JM:How many are on that board?
JN:The Board of Christian Action currently I believe is 6 members.
JN:First let me name the Board of Religious Education which is the fourth board that we have.
JN:There are I believe 5 elected members on there now. I say elected members because the Moderator of the church is the senior lay leader and I am actually members of every board and committee as ex officio as a matter of holding our office. The Board of Religious Education does pretty much what it says. It has a responsibility for overseeing and guiding and informing all our education projects for youngsters, and also when we do educational programs for adults.
JM:Would that include the Bible Studies?
JN:Yes, you mentioned the Church Council which comprises representatives of all the standing boards and committees.
JM:You said there were three officers.
JN:They are the moderator, the clerk, and the treasurer.
JM:And you mentioned 3 at-large members.
JN:That is correct.
JM:The Church Council presently is 15 members?
JN:Oh approximately, I should look at the list, but don’t hold me to that.
JM:The numbers are not as important as what they do.
JN:Right, the council provides a place where the representatives for all these groups who serve are meeting and reviewing what we are about every month. You mentioned before about the special democratic structure of the congregation which is accurate when there are major decisions to be made like passing a budget, calling a minister or appointing or voting in officers or board committee members, those are all made by the congregation gathered in a congregational meeting. In order to do that you have to give a couple of weeks’ notice, share the agenda, all that kind of thing. At times when the congregation is not meeting, in between the meetings, the Church Council acts in the place of the congregation: it acts on behalf of the congregation. If there are changes of direction or specific needs or opportunities that come up, the Church Council can act with the authority of the congregation.
JM:No coffee hour I would assume.
JN:Unfortunately no, not at this point.
JM:But they do the collation after funerals.
JM:And flowers and memorials as well?10.
JN:They do. The hospitality Committee has over the years been the group who make certain that when folk are laid up at home for whatever reason, they are getting them meals and making certain that they are looked after.
JM:Do they actually make the meals or do they just see that someone in the family provides the meal?
JN:Oh more often or not they make the meal.
JN:Yes we have an Ushers Committee and they are making certain that there are a couple of ushers and greeters at every worship service and actually they often make certain that other events like a few months back we added a monthly meeting house music and meditation when our Music Director provided a beautiful half hour of organ and violin music. The ushers will help with greeting people at that event also.
JM:Do you also greet people?
JN:I do. Yes it is my practice before worship services to stand out in front of the church and greet folk.
JM:And you remember their names?
JN:Most of them!
JM:Good. Is there a group of local clergy that work together in town?
JN:Currently there is not an active group of all the clergy in the area. I think that there had been in the past.
JM:Oh yes there had been.
JN:But not since I have been here. Before the pandemic hit there were several local churches that participated as the shared Thanksgiving Service.
JM:I remember that well. My husband was a Unitarian: therefore he spoke at every Thanksgiving Service. I am not.
JM:You had some hopes for the future.
JN:I do. One of things that I would love to see happen here is increasing involvement in the kind of pattern that Rev. Taber set for us of staying attentive to and responsive to the needs of folk in the local community which certainly includes continuing to advocate for developing affordable housing and to support the incredibly important work of the Women’s Support Services is doing. We are in an area that
is rich with resources for helping people who are in recovery from drug addiction. Anything we can do to support those kinds of services and being engaged with the people who are doing the work is a golden opportunity for us. We are also in a place that is rich with educational institutions. Of course we have a number of private schools within a stone’s throw. Over all the residents who are educated and who are interested in learning and I think that is a powerful opportunity for us to offer different kinds of educational programs: Bible studies for certainty and also studies of issues that are important to the day, the kinds of things that affect us as a local community and as a country and its citizens of the fragile planet and its serious need of help.
JM:Oh yes, definitely you have a theatrical dream.
JN:Well I do. A play by William Gibson “The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut, and the Slaughter of 12 hit Carols in a Pear Tree”. That play was written in the 1970s (1975 Ed.) when he was a resident of Stockbridge, Mass. I know that the play was first presented at what was the Lenox Boys School where Shakespeare & Co. now is. In 1976 one of my predecessors, the Rev. John Hay, produced a production of “The Butterfingers Angel” here. I saw that play as a high school student in Syracuse when it was performed at Syracuse Stage. I was just so delighted by it. It is really a marvelous script that I carried it around for years, the idea of mounting a production. I actually did a production in one of my former calls, when I was serving the Niantic Community Church. I want to do it again.
JM:You have had practice.
JN:That is right, I have had practice. I’ll keep doing it until I get it right.
JM:Well I am glad you did it in Niantic first: it will be better in Salisbury. Is there anything you would like to add before we close?
JN:Well first a word of appreciation to you, Jean, for this oral history project that you have picked up a number of years back and have carried forward so thoughtfully.
JM:You read the paper.
JN:It is really just such a marvelous project and ought to be geared to the hearts of anyone in the faith tradition because we are people who live by the stories of our ancestors who were people who lived by how it is that our ancestors understood their relationship to the Divine and to one another and how they taught about their relationship to the Divine and one another, but the way they did that was by telling stories. It is their own stories. Your work in preserving stories is encouraging the telling of stories: stories of import, stories about who people are, and how they see themselves fitting into this community and the world. That is just an enormously rich invaluable store for all of us in this community and for us to learn to honor and keep on with the story telling ourselves.