July 31, 2014

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N.R. pastor goes from classroom to pulpit

NORTH RIDGEVILLE – There`s a lot of history involved every time Pastor John Fairweather steps up to the pulpit.

That`s because Fairweather, who has been leading the North Ridgeville First Congregational Church since March, is preaching from the same pulpit used by renowned evangelist Charles Finney.

The church, which is celebrating its 185th anniversary this year, began in 1810 as an unstructured gathering of believers who had settled the North Ridgeville area upon arrival from Connecticut.

“In those early days, there were bears in the area and friendly Indians,” Fairweather said. “We have to think about what it was really like in 1810 in this part of the world. It was very hard.”

Twelve years passed before the congregation organized and, through assistance provided from Oberlin College, became a part of the Congregational denomination. The first person to be ordained was D.C. White in 1841. Charles Finney – a onetime Oberlin College president – conducted his ordination ceremony.

“This church is deeply indebted to Oberlin College and to Charles Finney,” Fairweather said.

Fairweather, 64, a native of Arkansas, took a roundabout route to the historic pulpit.
He attended Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he received a master`s in divinity and a doctorate in theological ethics. But instead of leading a church at that point, he ended up in the classroom – serving as a professor at several universities including Drake, Simpson, the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin. That`s when he embarked on a second career as a lobbyist and legislative liaison between the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Iowa State Legislature.

“In all those years, I was hoping to make a difference in society,” Fairweather said, noting that that career still didn`t fulfill what he wanted to accomplish. “But I also wanted to get a little closer to individuals and their everyday stories.”

Fairweather`s wife, Carol, had the answer.

“Follow your heart. Go into ministry,” she told him.

And so the man who had already had two successful careers opted for a third. And although he already had the schooling he needed to enter the ministry, he decided to pursue specialized training to equip him to serve churches in crises.

“I figured I`d be in a place maybe two years and get the church moving forward again,” Fairweather said. “I served a couple churches that really were in various kinds of trouble.”

He also spent 3½ years as the senior pastor of First Christian Church of Fremont in Omaha, Neb., before he and his wife moved to Ohio so his wife could become the executive director of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, a large social service agency in Cleveland.

Fairweather, meanwhile, took a position as the interim pastor at Ridge Road United Church of Christ in Parma and served there for 15 months.

He then received a call from the search committee at the North Ridgeville First Congregational Church.
Mary Stoffiere, the chairwoman of the church`s search committee, explained that the committee members were unanimous in their impression that Fairweather was “sent to us by God.” The committee was impressed with his experience and energy level, and she commented that it is apparent that Fairweather loves what he does.

Fairweather said he was told that the church was “looking for something more than interim, but not necessarily long-term,” someone who could be an installed pastor for five or six years because the church is in a phase of transition.

“That fit with where I am in my life,” Fairweather said. “I would like to give this church what I can and when they`re ready for another phase in their ministry, we`ll move on.”

Stoffiere said the transition is that the church is working to blend tradition – those things that have worked in the past – with more contemporary concepts.

“If a church stagnates and doesn`t adapt, it will die,“ she said.

To that end, the church has formed a committee to focus on five areas of change to assist with this transition.

“We want to be open to more people and committed to growth, but we don`t want to shut anyone out,” she said.

Because of his diverse background, Fairweather has a lot to offer the church. He has life experience – in human services, civil rights, and crisis situations at churches. And because of his experience as a professor, he appreciates knowledge and loves to teach.

Fairweather said he was impressed with the North Ridgeville church from the beginning.

“It`s a church that looks around the community and tries to be a voice for justice,” he said.

The church, in partnership with Fields United Methodist Church, founded Community Care, an organization to serve the poor people in Lorain County. It is also involved in programs that assist the homeless, Earth Day, and Saving Darfur.

“The church is to be a witness to the world of a loving and compassionate God,” Fairweather said. “It`s not a country club for saints; it`s a station along the way, to try to serve other people.”

Fairweather said the church leaders want to become even more active in the community, and that he will be helping them to assess what ministries are needed in North Ridgeville.

“Another objective the congregation has set is to begin what we call a process of discernment,” Fairweather said. “We`re going to talk about being an open and affirming congregation. That takes a long process of discussion, but I`m certainly interested in becoming very intentionally an open and affirming congregation.”

And how about this latest career – has he finally found his calling?

“I miss the bigger picture of social change, but this is more meaningful,” he said. “It`s just a joy to be a part of people`s lives.”

Contact Dale Sheffield at 329-7155 or metro@chroniclet.com.