By Donna Furey | LB Indy
The Ash Wednesday service conducted earlier this month by Rev. Mary Scifres at Laguna Beach’s United Methodist Church filled the pews with almost three times as many worshipers as in past years. And six new voices fill out the church choir since the recent arrival of new music director Dr. Phil Theodorou, who succeeded Jeff Foster and Pennie, his wife and accompanist. The Fosters retired recently after 47 years.
New leadership often revitalizes a church congregation and brings growth, according to Scifres, who took on UMC’s pastoral responsibilities on an interim basis on March 3 while previous minister, Rev. Doug Williams, is on leave prior to his next appointment.
So far it looks like Scifres’ theory is panning out. And she should know, since she’s taken similar posts before.
Scifries most recently served as a consultant to the local Methodist church, guiding the search for both the youth minister and music director.
Some church members know Scifries as past president of Thurston Middle School’s PTA, as an actress with No Square Theatre or as the spouse of Pastor B.J. Beu, minister of Laguna’s Neighborhood Congregational Church.
She says many church members have expressed their gratitude that she is able to step in for four months as preacher, prophet, consultant and spiritual leader to the congregation while they await their new minister’s arrival on July 1. Scifries notes that change isn’t easy for everyone and that there is “discomfort” for some.
Even so, she said, “It’s kind of fun,” that she and her husband each have responsibilities in different pulpits in the same town.
Through the town’s Interfaith Council, Laguna’s spiritual leaders from the Methodist, Congregational, Episcopal and Presbyterian faiths previously have worked together on social issues such as helping provide winter shelter for homeless people and support for HIV patients.
Methodists, though, are unique among Protestant denominations in how they select their pastors. Church members vote for representatives by region. A regional conference assigns bishops to each region and they in turn appoint pastors to the individual churches, generally serving five to seven years in the pulpit.
Laguna’s Methodist congregation enjoyed an unusual period of pastoral consistency for close to 14 years under charismatic Ginny Wheeler, the assistant pastor who moved into the lead position after Pastor David Beadles retired. It is unusual for a bishop to promote an assistant pastor to serve in the same church, according to Mike Vantrease, a church member sine 1997.
In 2008, when Wheeler was succeeded by two new pastors Doug and Cindy Williams, the Methodist bishop and district superintendents believed Laguna’s congregation was strong enough to support two pastors, according to Scifres, but within months some church members were questioning the wisdom of that decision.
To accommodate two ministers, some staff positions were eliminated. Congregants such as 17-year church member Barbara Crowley stepped up to help the new pastors’ transition. She took on the responsibilities of youth minister and eventually became director of Children’s Ministries, a position she held from 2010 to 2013.
“There is always an ebb and flow in membership,” said Judy McCall a member since 1999, who says some worshipers may have departed after the Williams’ took the pulpit, but some new members followed them to Laguna as well.
Church and choir member Vantrease pointed out that “transition is tough for any organization.” From his vantage point in the choir this past week, he could see the enthusiasm in the faces of the congregation.
“We are looking forward, not back,” said McCall who chairs the church’s administration board.
Crowley, who refers to the Methodist stronghold as “the little church that could,” says its leaders are looking ahead to growing the church by recruiting young families. Currently the congregation on Wesley Road, named by the church for the founding father of Methodism, John Wesley, has 200 family members.
For Scifres the new job is a welcome assignment in her own home.
While her husband’s Congregationalist church was founded on the principal of self-governance with each congregation operating autonomously, Methodists took a different approach. Theirs is a centralized hierarchy and Methodists rotate church leaders as a matter of policy. However, both faiths are committed to social reform and share in common the theological belief that Christ died for all humanity and that everyone is entitled to God’s grace.
Ordained in 1990 at the Chapel of Adrain College in Detroit, Mich., Scifres also earned two masters degrees from Boston University where she met her husband. While Scifres has been a United Methodist pastor for 23 years, she is officially employed by the church’s publishing arm, writing three books a year for Abingdon Press. As a teacher and consultant without an assigned pulpit, the self-employed minister leads workshops and leadership classes and reports annually to the local bishop.
She also undertakes “transitional work,” such as the job she accepted for LBUMC at the request of Bishop Minerva Carcano.
On Sunday, March 23, the church will celebrate the transition with Rev. Scifres by hosting a chicken barbecue luncheon and party at 11:30 a.m. following the 10 a.m. worship service.