Reverend Dr. Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke has been the senior pastor of First Congregational Church of Wilmette since 2004. The church draws its congregation from Wilmette, Winnetka, Glenview, Northfield, Glencoe, Evanston and Chicago.
Patch: What makes First Congregational Church of Wilmette a great place of worship?
First Congregational Church has a long history in the village. It was founded in 1875 and our current building, constructed in 1905, was renovated in 2010. It is fully accessible and a wonderful example of the arts and crafts architecture that was prevalent on the North Shore in the 1900’s. We have a beautiful worship space.
But a church is more than a building, it is characterized by the people who attend. Our congregation is warm, well-educated, intellectually curious, socially conscious, and welcoming of all people, couples and families. We often say that we are a place where both faith and doubts are welcome. We strive to be a place where the generations gather, grow, and learn from one another.
We are part of the United Church of Christ, a denomination formed in 1957 as a merger of historic Protestant denominations: the Congregational Christian churches and the Evangelical and Reformed churches. Our denomination often says that our faith is old, but our thinking is not.
The United Church of Christ is a denomination of ‘firsts’ in faithful response to God:
- the first denomination to ordain a woman (in the 19th century)
- the first denomination to ordain an openly gay clergy person
- a denomination that took prophetic leadership roles in abolition, civil rights, and now in the movement for marriage equality for gay and lesbian persons
First Congregational is proud to be part of the United Church of Christ, and we endeavor to grow, learn, and serve in response to God’s grace, which we believe is extravagant, abundant, and available to all.
Patch: What does the church do that you wish the community knew about?
Our congregation is known in the community for civic engagement. We hope that the community knows that First Congregational was instrumental in founding the Interfaith Housing Center of the North Suburbs and the North Shore Peace Initiative.
Our congregation owned a property on our east border called Gates House, which was a youth drop-in center. When we sold the property, Gates House took on a new life as the Warming House Youth Center. Gates Manor now stands on the Gates House property and it provides housing for seniors in our village.
In every generation, the congregation attempted to speak prophetically and faithfully, whether for civil rights, for fair housing, for equality for gay and lesbian persons and their families. In more recent decades our congregation has been a leader in Jewish-Christian dialogue and in response to white supremacist and anti-semitic activity on the North Shore.
Our church recently gave birth to the Raven Foundation, created by two of our members as an educational resource for peacemaking and nonviolence. Our senior high youth group continues a 25-year relationship of service with the people of Edisto Island, South Carolina, a Gullah/Geechee community where we partner to work on home repair, literacy, and education.
We are increasingly committed to environmental ethics through our Green Committee. The first Wednesday of each month during the school year, we hold an Intergenerational Service Night to carry out a hands-on project to benefit a population or agency in our community. This history and these activities are attempts to be faithful to the God we believe is revealed in the compassion and love of Jesus Christ.
Patch: What’s the biggest issue the congregation is facing?
The biggest issue the congregation is facing is what to do next with our energy and resources. We completed a major building renovation and capital campaign in 2010 in order to make our facility accessible, safe and functional for the next generation. Now we are embarking on a strategic planning process to discern where we are called to wider service in the community and the world. It is a fun and exciting challenge to face.
Patch: What is the biggest issue the church is facing?
The biggest issue the wider church is facing, particularly mainline Protestant denominations such as ours (the United Church of Christ), is that churches that used to be central to American culture (in the 1950’s and 1960’s) are edging more and more to the periphery. This is largely because church membership is no longer the culturally expected thing to do for many younger people.
We are now in a demographic situation where half the American population identifies its religious affiliation as “none.” Churches cannot sit back and expect that when young people grow up and start their families, they will find their way “back” to a church.
More and more people have never been part of a church, and don’t know why they would want to. Many see churches as exclusive, condemning, judging. Churches are going to need to be creative, communicative, and invitational about welcoming people to a circle of intergenerational support, spiritual sustenance and civic involvement.
As we become more isolated, fragmented and busy (despite the technology that keeps us in constant communication), there is a lot to be said for having a local congregation where you are known, where others know you, where you can find support, relationships, and opportunities for hands-on service.
The challenge for churches in the coming years is to let go of lamenting that things are not as they used to be, and to embrace and welcome people as they are now.