Location may be everything in real estate, but for the Rev. Dr. Shannon Smythe, the opportunity to be pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church wasn’t about a church a block away from the ocean. Instead, she said, she wanted to be pastor at the downtown Rehoboth Beach church because she would get to oversee its transition into a modern congregation.
The beach is great, but it definitely wasn’t the real draw, said Smythe
Westminster has had a presence in Rehoboth Beach since the early 1930s. The church is in the middle of transitioning its presence in the community – from a congregation with its activities centered at the church, to a congregation that uses the church as a home base but is in the community much more.
Smythe described it as a hub-and-spoke model. She said the church hired a consultant to begin the work; it’ll be her job to finalize the transition.
“I thought this would be a good fit,” said Smythe, on why she was interested in the position. “I wanted to join the church as they set out on that work.”
Smythe said, in many ways, the new model is being used as a way to encourage younger members of the church to be more active. As with many churches, the majority of the congregation is aging, while the younger generations are finding spirituality outside of the walls of the church, she said.
At the time of the interview, Smythe had been Westminster’s pastor for a week. This church is full of life and activity, she said.
“I’ve never had such a full first week,” said Smythe. “Folks here are excited about the future.”
Smythe has a master of divinity degree and a PhD from the Princeton Theological Seminary, and she is the author of two books. She comes from a family of ministers, including her dad, which means she moved around a lot as a child. She said she generally identifies the Pacific Northwest as her home. Immediately prior to her new appointment, Smythe was pastor at a church in Westfield, N.Y., a small town south of Buffalo, off Lake Erie.
Smythe is the first woman pastor in her family. She said her father wasn’t happy about her career choice, but it was slightly better than her second option – becoming a theology professor. Her dad’s opinion is that both callings are for men, she said.
Smythe said one of the things that attracted her to Westminster was how it has embraced the Presbyterian Church (USA), a Presbyterian denomination that allows same-sex marriage. The church has staked a claim that it is open and affirming, she said.
“It’s a very clear statement,” she said.
Smythe is expected to be pastor for at least three years, but she said she and her husband, Kevin Subers, are looking to make this their last stop for a while. They have an 8-year-old son, Micah, and she said it would be nice to be settled.
Due to COVID, the downtown church has not been open for months. However, Smythe said, in many ways her schedule is as busy as it’s ever been. There are committee meetings, prayer groups, Bible studies and general preparation for church services.
In addition to helping Westminster increase its presence in the community, Smythe is going to help the church transition to the use of modern technology – beginning with getting services livestreamed. Currently, she said, the worship services are recorded at the church, without video, and then uploaded to its website.
Many, many people are not going to be coming back to church, said Smythe. To remain relevant in this world, the church has to change how people can follow Jesus, she said.
It’s a challenge, but it’s also intriguing, said Smythe.
Services may not be in person or livestreamed yet, Smythe said, but she still takes her weekly sermons seriously. She said she’s always reading, listening and taking notes on how the world around her may fit with the week’s biblical text.
Smythe said she tries to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable with her sermons. It’s a hard balance, but adults learn when they’re uncomfortable, she said.