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May 7, 2019 2:20 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

First Woman Ever To Become Minister Of 379-Year-Old Presbyterian Church In Southampton

Reverend Sarah Bigwood is the new minister at the Southampton Presbyterian Church.    DANA SHAW
May 9, 2019 4:32 PM

For the past 379 years, First Presbyterian Church in Southampton—the oldest Presbyterian church in the country—has been led by men.That will change this month.

The church has announced the hiring of its new minister, the Reverend Sarah Bigwood, who is set to deliver her first sermon on Sunday, May 19.

Rev. Bigwood comes to the church after a roughly two-year selection process. When it comes to choosing a new pastor, this is standard procedure for Presbyterian churches, according to Kristin White, a member of the church’s pastoral nominating committee.

The Reverend Chuck Carey had served as interim minister for nearly two years after the church’s former pastor, the Reverend Rick Boyer, stepped down in February 2017. He had been the pastor of the church for eight years.

According to Ms. White, the church—which has a steady attendance of around 100 people every Sunday, and can swell to more than 300 in the summer—had a particular vision for the kind of pastor it wanted, and it was a vision shaped by the congregation. Rev. Bigwood fit that vision perfectly.

“We put together a questionnaire of about 20 questions for the congregation, asking people what they were looking for, and we got a very high response,” Ms. White said. “We wanted to see somebody young, with a family, who would become invested in the community and attract younger people.”

Rev. Bigwood fulfilled those requirements, and, luckily for First Presbyterian Church, she was looking for a church of her own at the same time.

Ms. Bigwood was working as an associate pastor at Valley Community Presbyterian Church outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. She had earned a reputation not only as a great pastor but as someone particularly engaged with the church’s youth.

As part of the church outreach, she began an after-school STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) program for 21st Century Academy at Liberty Community Church in North Minneapolis, which grew in popularity over the years, bringing to bear her background as a computer programmer.

“The goal was always to have my own church,” Rev. Bigwood said in an interview last month, as she was busy making preparations for the move. Rev. Bigwood arrived in Southampton the first week in May, and will deliver her first sermon on May 19. Her husband, Tom Bigwood, is still in Minnesota and will remain there until the end of the school year, along with her children, Robert, 14, and Kate, 13.

Rev. Bigwood said she didn’t initially set out to become a Presbyterian minister, starting her career instead in computer programming and consulting. But when it came time to raise a family, she found that, for her, a programming career and motherhood weren’t compatible.

“Once I got into the zone of programming, I sort of left the world,” she said. “I couldn’t do that and raise kids at the same time. I loved it, but for me, it wasn’t going to be the kind of thing I could do and raise babies.”

Rev. Bigwood paused.

“So instead, I replaced it with a job that requires 60 hours a week and doesn’t have a whole lot of boundaries!” she added with a laugh.

Rev. Bigwood had been active in her local church before making the decision to go to seminary school, working as a volunteer for several years. Once she had her own children, she said she felt an urge to be even more engaged spiritually.

“It started really calling to me after I had kids,” Rev. Bigwood said. “I don’t know if it was having children at home and realizing how important family and connections are, or if it was just settling in that it was really something I got a lot of fulfillment and enjoyment doing.”

After going through seminary school, and with several years of experience as an associate pastor, Rev. Bigwood fine-tuned her philosophy about church leadership and the role a minister should play. She is a proponent of inclusiveness and collaboration, principles she hopes to bring to First Presbyterian Church.

“I love the idea of being able to see the kind of leadership that I think is critical for the church of the future,” she said. “I really want to put that into play. I believe the church of the future has to be something where everybody is involved. It has to be truly collaborative. In churches that I’ve been in, that isn’t the vision that always gets carried out.”

Rev. Bigwood elaborated. “There is an old-school style of church leadership, where the pastor sets the vision and the church folks get their marching orders, and they all fall in line,” she said. “I’ve been working with younger people, and I don’t think that’s how they operate. Millennials and younger kids have been so steeped in collaborative types of learning, so marching orders don’t resonate. They don’t need to be told what to do—they need to be given permission and to do something interesting and unique.

“And it’s not just generational. I think when you have that style with the pastor at the top and everyone falling underneath, you marginalize or re-marginalize folks who have traditionally been marginalized, like women and minorities, or people with disabilities, who would otherwise be incredibly effective leaders if we just got out of the way.”

Rev. Bigwood’s approach and philosophy were attractive to the church’s pastoral nominating committee—so much so that she was chosen from an initial group of more than 50 ministers. She was one of three ministers the church interviewed in person, and Ms. White said it was an easy decision after that.

“We had three great candidates, but she was the youngest and had a family and also a background in being a youth leader,” she said. “She also had a background in increasing the attendance of the youth group in church, so we were very impressed not just with Sarah but her family as well. They were a great family unit.”

Rev. Bigwood was invited to deliver a sermon on the second weekend in February at the church. After that, she was the unanimous pick of the committee to take over.

Ms. White said that she and the rest of the committee are thrilled to have Rev. Bigwood and excited for not only the congregation but the entire Southampton community to get to know her and her family.

“It was very important to hire somebody who we felt was going to make Southampton their home and engage in the community, and be able to have positive relationships with the other clergy people in the community,” she said. “We’re the oldest Presbyterian church in America and have always had a physical position, as well as a spiritual position, in the Village of Southampton. It was really important to find somebody who could really embrace that.”

Ms. White said the fact that Rev. Bigwood is the first female minister in the church’s history is not lost on her either.

“We have had a female assistant pastor before, but generally we’re on the conservative side of things,” she said, comparing First Presbyterian Church to other Presbyterian churches. “We don’t have a rock band or a projector screen. I feel, especially as a female, that I’m very proud of my church to take that leap of faith.”

Of course, a leap of faith was certainly required for the Bigwood family too, moving from a colder, landlocked state in the Midwest to a beachside community on the East Coast. Her husband, a computer analyst, will telecommute from their new home in Southampton.

Rev. Bigwood said she was also very attached to the STEM programs she had created in the church, which served not only children of the congregation but also a diverse group of teens from schools in the inner city of Minneapolis who were bused in on a weekly basis to attend the programs, giving Rev. Bigwood a bigger reach in her ministry.

“One of the hardest things to leave, aside from our families, is the current context I was working in with the after-school program at Liberty Church,” Rev. Bigwood said. “I told my husband that I wasn’t going to move unless there was another opportunity to be part of a community that wasn’t just affluent and white, that I needed more of a ministry than that. When we came and visited Southampton and were able to experience the diversity, we knew there were some incredible possibilities here.

“And we said there was enough flannel out there for our family,” Rev. Bigwood added with a laugh.

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