When Rev. Mark Wakefield became the pastor at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ in Middletown in 1988 he expected to be there for maybe six to eight years. Thirty-two years later, he’s retiring at the age of 65.
“I have loved working in this congregation more than the congregation will ever know,” he said. “There are new stories to be told.”
Wakefield was ordained in 1980 and his first church was in Henderson, North Carolina. After that, he served at a church in Summit, New Jersey, before coming to Middletown in 1988.
His service has involved many different projects, including supporting and attending mission trips to places like Honduras; helping to organize the churches participation in Habitat for Humanity projects; going on and later supporting youth trips; helping to start the Children’s Center, which provides care and education for children from birth to the end of 5th grade; and partnering with Advocates for Homeless Families to house families in need at the church’s mission house. He also served on different boards and committees with many organizations including the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs.
“I think that’s how we best express and explore our faith is through service,” he said. “Again and again in the gospel that’s what Jesus did and called his followers to do.”
Wakefield grew up in northern Virginia and said the minister at that church served for over 30 years. Once, Wakefield asked the minister why he never moved.
“He said, ‘I didn’t need to move because my church kept changing, you know, I served a different congregation every five years’... and while the church in Middletown has more probably consistency in membership than that, the reality is Middletown’s changed a lot and the congregation’s changed a lot,” Wakefield said. “There’s always new challenges before me so I haven’t felt the need to go elsewhere. I felt called to stay right here.”
Wakefield said one example of the change that has happened is “around the area of human sexuality.”
“For a long time, churches were very suspicious or uncomfortable with the conversation and, you know, at some point we said ‘we’ve got to address this straight on and be honest about it,’ and so we went through a process of conversation, study and reflection and a number of years ago decided to be very clear that, you know, we don’t believe that sexual orientation or gender identity is any bearing on whether somebody can be a follower of Jesus Christ,” he said, adding that the church became, what in their denomination is referred to as O&A, or open and affirming.
He said it allowed people to think about scripture, how the church and culture interact and how to inform their faith in relation to the wider world.
Looking back on his 32 years of service, Wakefield said the O&A process stands out as being important and a bold step for a church but said he’s proudest that the church has a broader vision of itself in the world.
“Mission trips and relations with churches in Germany and with a children’s hospital in Uganda and just the wider world, it has a much broader view of itself and its opportunity to serve and be Christ-representative, not just in Middletown but in a much broader area,” he said.
As for the most difficult part of his time, Wakefield spoke about both a fire the church experienced in 2010 and the COVID-19 pandemic. He said both offered an opportunity to see what’s been missed and taken for granted.
“As difficult as the fire was and expensive as it was, it was a good growing opportunity for us to reevaluate our lives and commit ourselves once again to each other,” he said.
But Wakefield said an ongoing struggle for him has been working to hold the different pieces of his church together.
“A lot of churches, particularly I think newer churches, tend to attract a fairly narrow slice of the population and so they can speak with one mind around things,” he said. “A church like ours, we have very, very conservative people and very, very liberal people.”
He said it’s been a challenge rather than a frustration but the change in culture in Middletown has meant bringing together a broader group.
Wakefield said he has two sermons left and one of them is about liminal time, a time of transition or beginning.
“We’re in that way in so many parts of our lives,” he said. “This is obviously a change in leadership. We have a interim pastor who’s coming in in two weeks … but in the wider culture of the pandemic is the liminal time in that, you know, what does it mean to be in community with one another when we can’t see each other and with the changes in the economy, what’s it going to be like six months or a year from now and how are we going to relate to one another if we can’t be together physically.”
Wakefield said churches are having to work out how to minister in a time that is more secular and less connected with a church as an institution in the community.
“I would say that the wrong thing is to pull in the walls and to focus on ourselves and how do we survive” he said. “It’s not about survival. It’s about exploration and entering into this great mystery, you know. I believe God will be with this congregation in the years to come it just may look very different than it does now and that’s okay.”
He also said it’s important that people understand he’s just been a placeholder during his service, in some sense, a 32-year interim.
“There’s always somebody who’s going to come and have a different vision and a different leadership style and bring out new gifts in the congregation, so fear not,” Wakefield said.
And while it’s been difficult to leave without being able to shake hands, hug or have one more cup of coffee with congregation members, Wakefield said he’s looking forward to taking a breather, sitting in a pew next to his wife on Christmas Eve, visiting colleagues’ churches and staying engaged with community organizations.