Craig Whitcher: Building Faith and Community

Dr. Craig Whitcher is the new pastor of First Church of Christ in Old Saybrook.
Dr. Craig Whitcher is the new pastor of First Church of Christ in Old Saybrook.

Six months ago, Dr. Craig Whitcher lived far from his New England roots, serving as pastor of a congregational church in Greeley, Colorado, a town not far from where his daughter was in graduate school. But New England was pulling him to return to his long-time home. Posting his vita on the congregational church job match site last year, he was contacted by First Church of Old Saybrook. Through interviews and discussion, the church search committee and Craig agreed that their mutual vision of what the church could be was a match and he joined the church as its newest pastor last August.

Craig brings with him a strong commitment to help the less fortunate through community service and civic engagement. He has personally led or co-led 13 mission service trips to places all over the world from Honduras to Haiti and from India to Zambia, Africa. Most have been service trips undertaken under the umbrella of Habitat for Humanity, the non-profit organization that builds houses in impoverished areas for individuals who agree to contribute many work hours of their own to help with the effort.

"Someone for whom you're building a house will ask why you are spending your own money, taking your vacation time to come and help them. It opens many doors. The fact that we come from the U.S. can be an eye-opener for them since they only know us as seen on television shows," Craig says.

"In Zambia, we were out in the bush, building block housing, and showing them how to make their own blocks. Their own homes were made of sticks with dirt floors and had problems with vermin," says Craig.

Craig also recalls an incredibly moving moment when, after a villager had been killed by someone wielding a machete, the Americans were asked to join the villagers in their small low-ceilinged room, their church, to join in a memorial service.

"It was one of the most moving moments of worship for me; even though the songs and language were new, it didn't matter," says Craig.

Craig has several goals he hopes to accomplish in his new post. One is to recapture and recover the original role of a church deacon as a partner of the pastor and a spiritual lay leader through a deacon training program. He also wants to introduce a confirmation for life program for youth to guide them through the four years of high school.

"This is the time that young people are questioning; the church needs to be with them then," says Craig. "I believe that doubt is the 'ants-in-the-pants' of faith, especially for young people."

A third goal is to restructure the church organization by creating more and smaller teams.

"We're trying to address the issue that in this day and age, people have limited time, but they want to serve," he continues. A small team focused on a smaller task or that is responsible for overseeing fewer activities could help "to involve as many people as possible in the church while respecting their time and honoring their talents."

"No team meeting should go beyond 90 minutes and the first 20 minutes should be to share the joys and concerns of the team about their 'walk.' If you're able to do that, there is a sense of trust and it's amazing how quickly the group learns to work together as a unit," says Craig.

Craig's work experience includes both community pastoral work and work with military troops. He served for 10 years as a captain-and chaplain-in the U.S. Army Reserves, where he learned to work with a broad cross-section of people.

In addition to his pastoral and mission trip experience, Craig also for 16 years was chairman of the Board of Directors of the Caleb Foundation, a non-profit affordable housing organization he helped found. It has more than 20 properties in New England and serves more than 3,000 adults and children. The foundation's model is unusual in that it hires a corps of social workers, called resident-coordinators, to support residents in their housing.

Craig says that his main goal in his new post is to continue to build and strengthen his new church community-and to work to deepen its faith.


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