2016-06-16 / Front Page

Graceful exit

Reverend served church during toughest time
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

Rev. Doug Nielsen, of the First Parish Church of Saco, United Church of Christ, retired last week after 12 years of ministry for the congregation and 40 years of ministry overall. Nielsen joined the church four years after it burned in a fire and while services were being held at Thornton Academy as a new church was built. Nielsen said he will use the time to reflect and discover what God’s next plan for him will be. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) Rev. Doug Nielsen, of the First Parish Church of Saco, United Church of Christ, retired last week after 12 years of ministry for the congregation and 40 years of ministry overall. Nielsen joined the church four years after it burned in a fire and while services were being held at Thornton Academy as a new church was built. Nielsen said he will use the time to reflect and discover what God’s next plan for him will be. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) SACO — After 12 years at First Parish Congregational Church of Saco, United Church of Christ, the Rev. Doug Nielsen has delivered his last sermon from the pulpit as the senior minister. On Sunday, June 4, Nielsen retired a 40-year ministry career that led him to service in Vermont for four years, Massachusetts for 16 years and Illinois for seven years before settling in Maine.

Nielsen began his ministry at First Parish Congregational Church four years after a fire in 2000 burned the church down; worship was taking place at Garland Auditorium at Thornton Academy.

“My first Sunday, the banana yellow insulation had just been put on the steel framework of the building,” Nielsen said.

In Lagrange, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Nielsen led a thousand-member church.

“I felt displaced, it was not home,” Nielsen said. “I came here and visited on a nasty cold November day. The surf was breaking on the rocks and there were seals there at Biddeford Pool – I started to cry … I felt like I was coming home to a place I’d never been before.”

Nielsen said the four years after the fire and before he arrived was a trying time for the congregation because it took several years to receive insurance money to rebuild the destroyed church.

“It was a really awkward and difficult journey that this congregation did well with,” Nielsen said.

When he explored different ministry positions and read about the Saco congregation meeting all over the city – in city hall, or at Thornton Academy – Nielsen said he felt drawn to the community.

“All these different places opening up to the church so church business could keep going – I remember showing the church profile to my wife, saying, ‘Look at this,’ and she said, ‘It looks like a lot of hard work,’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’

“I had to be part of a community that took faith and church so seriously.”

Saco resident Mary Johnson has attended the church since childhood. She was baptized there and married her husband, Bill Johnson, at First Parish Congregational Church.

“He saw the kind of depth and commitment and willingness to change and grow and adapt and serve, so he wanted to come and serve us in the new environment,” Mary Johnson said.

She said Nielsen did outreach into the community and stressed the importance of serving others.

Nielsen said membership at the church has fluctuated between 400 and 500 people at any given time in its history, with a few hundred attending weekly services.

“I think what is different now, is that churches everywhere are tanking, they’re going down,” Nielsen said. “This church is holding at 250 to 300 people coming every week. This is an extraordinary experience, what is happening here, almost a counterculture in churches, which are closing all the time … A lot of other churches are in a survival mode. Their blinders are pretty narrowly defined as to what’s going to keep the doors open.”

Nielsen said he will continue living in Maine at his home in Harpswell.

“I lot of people have been asking what I’m going to do. I know a lot more about what I’m not going to do,” he said. “What I will be doing is being quite reflective and being open to what else emerges. I got no anxiety about what comes next. I seek that out. It’s all about chaos and surprise, that’s not an issue.”

Rick Campbell, the church’s moderator – the equivalent of church president at most churches – said Nielsen brought a sense of thoughtfulness to his sermons.

“Say we were going into prayer time and there’s a siren because the fire department is responding, he would say, ‘Let’s say a prayer for the people who are responding and the people being responded to,’” Campbell said. “There is a thoughtfulness to him that was very wonderful. He would say what a lot of us were thinking … And he did that anytime there was a siren. That’s the kind of thoughtfulness he had.”

Neilsen likened his contribution to the congregation as the umami to the taste palate.

“In our mouth, our tongue and soft palate have sensors that give us taste,” he explained. “There’s sweet, sour, salt and bitter, but we also have umami, which doesn’t have a taste of its own but makes all those other tastes pop out. Portobello mushroom has a lot of umami.

“My presence here has an umamic effect in making what’s already here taste better.”

“His presence in the pulpit, his leadership in worship was very authentic,” Mary Johnson said. “He was able to translate and interpret any of the scriptures for any of the Sundays into modern day situations and experiences for people so they could hold onto it. There was always something that you came away with.”

Nielsen said he’s actually a “flaming introvert.”

“So just the fact of getting up every Sunday and being in front of 250 people – God has a sense of humor, bringing people together for the extraordinary,” he said.

Campbell said Neilsen’s introversion wasn’t apparent at the pulpit.

“He is definitely an introvert, but with that said, you’d think as an introvert, he is not going to be a good public speaker, but he gave wonderful sermons,” Campbell said. “He was at his best when he was in front of the church giving services.”

Nielsen earned his master’s degree of divinity from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

“What got me (interested in ministry) was a professor that convinced me that they had every bit as much to learn from their students as they had to teach,” Nielsen said. “I’ve taken that with me … In some ways, I try to create a church community, try to turn it into a seminary.

“We all see the world through our own lenses, we can’t help but do that, but we need to be aware of what that lens is so we can see the whole story.”

Nielsen said members of First Parish Congregational Church of Saco have surprised him when he doubted certain projects could be pulled off.

“You maybe underestimate a person or group of people. In your heart of hearts, you think that’s not going to work, but it works when people pull together,” he said. “It taught me how when a group of people work together for something, it really is possible. Maybe it’s the only way things get done.”

Nielsen said the church community has always been supportive of him and his wife, and when his wife died from a heart attack nearly three years ago.

“This community carried us through extraordinary life circumstances, and they did it with humor and compassion. It’s a phenomenal community. I’m pretty well indebted.”

Mary Johnson said Nielsen also led the congregation toward greater outreach and involvement with the surrounding community.

“Mission, meaning outreach to the community and wherever there is a need, whether it’s the food and the housing or political issues – taking a stand and being willing to work toward something where everyone is included in what’s good and what’s available – I think he led us in those,” she said.

Although Nielsen grew up Presbyterian, all of his ministries have been with United Church of Christ by choice.

“I went through this whole existential thing with God being a gag and when I came back around, mostly through social justice issues, I was recovering from bruises of a civil rights demonstration, and I had a college chaplain who said, ‘Look under the rock of your actions. What’s deeper? What’s there?’

“I was amazed to find God.”

Neilsen said United Church of Christ values social justice activism.

“United Church of Christ is brilliant in valuing the way that God can work in bringing social justice to the world,” he said. “That’s the creation of the Kingdom. If you do that, then we’re all going to do better. So I have given my heart to the UCC precisely because they do that so well.”

Nielsen said United Church of Christ was the first denomination to ordain a black man, a woman and an openly gay man.

“They’ve been at the forefront of every important social issue. I’m real proud of UCC. In this part of the country, congregational churches are at the root of that,” he said. “As you go farther and farther west, there are fewer and fewer UCC churches … The more conservative, more fundamental churches have really hijacked the main Christian culture.”

Nielsen said he cherishes the congregation, especially since New England is demographically one of the least religious areas of the nation.

“The least religious according to demographics of who goes to church, with the exceptions of Seattle, and Portland, Oregon,” he said. “And Maine is the least religious in New England, so anything going on here is a testimony to the movement and power of the spirit. And even in those diminished capacities, the church in general still seems to be the front line of assistance to people.”

Nielsen said parishioners learned even more about the importance of giving to the community after the church burned down in 2000.

“Even before the flames were put out, there was already a bank account started to help rebuild the church, started by non-church members,” Nielsen said. “There was a great outpouring that came out for church and the community and this church hasn’t forgotten, so they’re putting themselves out to the community.

“I got here because of what I sensed was the spirit of the people who had just experienced a real catastrophic experience. I started here because that spirit was really pure and manifested itself in a variety of ways, with genuine compassion.”

Mary Johnson said Nielsen will be missed, and it may be one or two years before a permanent minister is appointed.

“Our congregational way of governing and of choosing leaders is very much based on a democratic process,” she said. “The whole congregation will be a committee, will be interviewing and bringing possible new leadership in and then the church will vote.”

Campbell said the interim pastor will be the Rev. Deborah Breault, an interim transitional ministry specialist who is completing an interim ministry at First Congregational Church of Blue Hill. Breault will begin her ministry with the Saco church July 25. To fill the gap, Campbell said seven ministers, either from other congregations or retired, will lead services as guest ministers until Breault assumes the interim post. On Sunday, June 12, the Rev. Ineke Mitchell delivered the church’s sermon.

“Generally speaking, the interim pastor serves anywhere from a year to two years,” Campbell said. “Their job is to help the congregation make any changes they need to change, help us figure out what God wants us to be as a church. We’re a church of Jesus Christ, so we believe that the mission he started is part of what we’re all about.

“What’s ahead of us is to readjust, refocus, pray about what missions God would have us do, see what kind of church we’re going to be going for. Then, when we have those answers, we’ll search for a settled pastor.”

Nielsen said he is grateful for his time with the Saco parish.

“I leave with a great sense of gratitude for these dozen years. Every minister should have such a congregation to be part of. I go with that blessing, hoping the next person has that experience, hoping that someone will be as enamored with this place as I was and am.”

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