Rev. Earle Baker set to retire after 40 years on Delmarva

Bethel United Methodist Church pastor leaves strong legacy
May 15, 2020

When the Rev. Earle Baker was a young man trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, he kept hearing the same thing from people.

“I think God might be calling you,” they would say to him, urging him to become a pastor.

“My excuse was always that I was too shy and I couldn’t speak in public,” he said. “That’s true. I am shy and nervous when I speak in public, but it’s not traumatic.”

For the hundreds of people who attend Bethel United Methodist Church’s three services every Sunday, they would never know.

“I’m uncomfortable in a healthy way,” he said. “It energizes me.”

Forty years of practice helps too.

Baker, 65, meticulously prepares each week’s message and follows a script to ensure he stays on track.

“I could never preach extemporaneously,” he said. “I try to be careful how I word things. If I don’t pay attention to the manuscript, I might say it wrong.”

And getting across the message of that week is what’s most important.

The pastor’s journey

Baker came to the Lewes church seven years ago. He lives south of Milton with his wife Lisa and son Andrew.

He was born and raised in Denton, Md. His father was a laborer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, driving from the family home to Harrington every day. His mother was secretary for a doctor and a lawyer, and eventually worked in the clerk of the courts office. 

His family was always religious and were members of the largest Methodist church in Denton.

“Many of my friends from school were also my friends in Sunday school and my friends from scouting,” he said. “I felt accepted at church in a way I didn’t always feel at school, because I was kind of a scrawny kid.”

He attended a United Wesleyan College in Allentown, Pa., where, he said, his faith and understanding of God grew.

“I felt I could be useful to God, but not as a pastor,” he said. “I liked studying. I liked research. I liked teaching. I thought I was probably going to become a teacher in a missionary situation.”

To get the right credentials, Baker attended Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky to get a master of arts degree. It was there his classmates and teachers urged him to become a pastor. Eventually, he felt the call to ministry and sought his master of divinity degree.

It was during his time at Asbury that he spent the most time away from Delmarva. During the summers of 1978 and 1979, he served as a student chaplain at Yosemite National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

Because the job of a student chaplain is limited to mostly Sundays, he also had a job in the parks. At Yellowstone, he worked at a busy gas station near the center of the 3,471-square-mile park. He pumped gas, changed tires and added fluids. At Yosemite, he worked in the windowless pot room of a restaurant in the valley, not nearly as picturesque as working outside.

In both cases, he got two days off a week, which he used to explore the parks.

After achieving a master of divinity degree in 1980, he was appointed to serve three small churches on the west side of Wicomico County, Maryland. They were called the Westside United Methodist Churches.

“They were used to having a rookie pastor, and they knew how to train us,” he said. “They saw that as part of their ministry to the larger church.”

Five years later, he moved from the three churches with a combined attendance of about 100 to the largest Methodist church south of Delmar. Asbury United Methodist Church had 1,200 to 1,400 members and grew to 1,600 while he was there as an associate pastor.

“I just had my eyes opened to the many things a large church has the resources and manpower to do in a community outside the church walls,” he said.

The church was also home to many of the affluent families of the community. What he discovered, though, was they were not much different from the farmers and watermen who attended his first group of churches.

“They really weren’t any different in terms of their spiritual questions,” he said. “They might be really smart about what they did for a living, but they might still only have a fifth-grade Sunday school spiritual education. And those fifth-grade answers were no longer adequate for the things they were facing in the workplace, in the world and with their families.”

Baker’s family expands

Baker met his wife Lisa during his first appointment, and they were married in the church of his second appointment, two weeks before he became the associate pastor there.

Lisa, a native of southeast Pennsylvania, works for Delaware Seashore State Park as a revenue specialist. They will be married 35 years this year.

After five years in Salisbury, Baker was reassigned to Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Seaford. He followed a 40-year-old pastor who died suddenly. Baker and his wife were also in midst of adopting their son.

“Our first Sunday there we were childless and our second Sunday we had a baby,” he said.

He said their son was a great thing for the grieving congregation.

“A new pastor with a baby just kind of symbolically gave new life to the branch,” he said.

While there, he helped with the creation of what is now Delmarva Adult & Teen Challenge, which uses the power of Christianity to free people from life-controlling issues such as substance abuse.

After nine years in Seaford, Baker and the family moved on to Milford in 1999.

“This time I got to be the senior pastor, although every other staff person was older than me,” said Baker, who was 44 at the time.

The church had been struggling for about a decade, he said, and he was able to turn it around. He was there for 14 years.

“A lot of good things happened there,” he said. “It was a good time in our life, but I knew by about year 12 that if I stayed much longer, I would stay too long.”

He said he wasn’t feeling particularly challenged, and he thought the church could benefit by having a new pastor with fresh ideas.

His final approach

With just one assignment left before retirement, Baker was asked to move to Bethel in Lewes, partly because of his experience in fundraising for major capital improvements at his previous assignments.

“So many churches have not had a major building program in a long time,” he said. “The pastors and the members don’t know how to do it anymore.”

The church is in good shape, and with Baker set to turn 66 this year, he said, he believes it’s time to take a step back.

“I don’t want to continue to work at this pace,” he said. “And I think I’ve done what I was sent here to do. The church is healthy.”

He will remain pastor at Bethel until the end of June.

His successor is James Penuel III, a pastor with two young children, who will be coming to Lewes from Union United Methodist Church in Bridgeville.

Baker said he will still have some denominational responsibilities, including serving on the conference’s board of ordained ministry.

He’ll remain involved in the conference’s archives and history branch.

He also wants to spend some time doing the things tourists do, including simply relaxing on the beach and enjoying the slower pace.

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