BELFAST — Rev. Roger MacPhee is about to celebrate a unique milestone — 25 years of ministering to the same parish.
MacPhee took over at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Belfast in September of 1987 and he shows no signs of ending his record run any time soon.
While he’s not the longest-serving minister in the province, he is bucking the trend. The average tenure of a minister at a single parish in the Presbyterian church is six to seven years.
MacPhee simply can’t picture himself anywhere else.
“I love this place and I have since I was a boy,’’ MacPhee says of the community and the church. “My grandfather was here, I grew up here, spent my summers here, came back here as a student.’’
MacPhee and his wife, Kathie, who is instrumental in his ministry, were married in the very church he ministers at now by none other than his grandfather, Donald Nicholson, who served as minister at St. John’s from 1956 to 1967. Roger and Kathie married in 1976.
The community plans on celebrating the couple and honouring their ministry with a big party on Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Belfast Rec Centre from 8:30 p.m. to midnight and again following the 11 a.m. service at St. John’s on Sunday, Oct. 21, with a potluck luncheon.
Rev. Douglas Rollwage, minister at Zion Presbyterian Church in Charlottetown, calls MacPhee the ‘world’s most loveable guy’.
“He’s a great guy. To be in the ministry for that length of time in the same congregation is not easy and he manages to maintain a very high degree of freshness,’’ Rollwage says. “People love him.’’
MacPhee has also managed to hold on to much of his parish’s young parishioners, something a lot of other churches have struggled with. The key, he says, has been changing how the message is delivered — not the message itself.
“It used to be a traditional form of worship,’’ MacPhee says. “I did a lot of looking and reading and researching and felt I knew what was happening across the country that there was a move, that while the message stays the same how you communicate it has changed dramatically.’’
MacPhee’s service tends to deviate from the traditional approach of a formal call to worship. It isn’t out of the ordinary for the reverend to begin the service by talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs game from the night before (when the NHL is playing hockey that is).
“We realized at one level we have to find a way of casting the net wider, so I challenged a bunch of early 20-somethings, my daughter Sarah being one of them, to help create youth work that would do that. Now we have over 40 teens, all led by people in their early 20s or late teens. To me, that’s the thing that gives me hope.’’
Rollwage says older parishioners can be quite resistant to change but MacPhee found a way.
Rollwage explained, “Because of his integrity and the kind of person he is he survives that (resistance to change) and people don’t go after him like they do after some other ministers. That has contributed to his longevity. He’s got the character to make the big changes and he’s got the character to weather the storm when those changes cause upset and disruption. He sees it through.’’
MacPhee says it’s all about balance.
“You have some very traditional folk who prefer that method. You have folks who like it very comfortable, informal, almost a living-room feeling. You have to find ways to bridge all of that. You’re always trying to find a balance.’’
None of it would be possible without Kathie, his wife of nearly 36 years. They have five children — Andrew, Robbie, John, James and Sarah.
“She does a lot here with music and the church,’’ MacPhee said. “She is very important. It’s about doing it together.’’
Having ministered at St. John’s for 25 years (and counting), MacPhee said he’s had the chance to observe the cycle of life.
“I’ve married parents. I’ve baptized their kids and, in some cases now, I’m marrying their kids. I love that.’’
Life seems perfect for MacPhee, with one exception.
“I want to see the Leafs back on the ice (this season). This could be their year,’’ he winks.