The Rev. Kenneth Fellenbaum said he always pictured himself spending his semi-retirement years in a little white church in a village.
And that is just where he is.
According to the people at the little white church in the beach village of Wildemere Beach, under Fellenbaum’s leadership, the church has started to reach out into the community and become a bigger part of the neighborhood in which it lies.
About 100 people recently gathered at the Wildermere Beach Congregational Church on Broadway to celebrate Fellenbaum’s ministry — specifically his 40 years of ordination — and to gather together as they have done increasingly since Fellenbaum started ministering at the church.
Fellenbaum’s story starts in Lancaster, Pa., where he was born and raised a Mennonite. He attended East Mennonite College in Virginia, where he majored in history.
It was in Virginia that he met and started dating the woman who would become his wife, Debra. She invited him to her church, an independent Baptist church, and he went.
It wasn’t long after that, he said, that he “got the call.”
A spiritual calling is different for everyone, Fellenbaum said, adding that it can be hard to explain.
“But when the big recruiter wants your attention, you hear it,” Fellenbaum said.
The church he’d been attending with Debra, People’s Baptist Church in Virginia, was growing and officials there told Fellenbaum they wanted him to be ordained so he could minister there.
He wasn’t quite done with seminary at that point — though he finished his classes later — but he was ordained that May. He was 25 years old.
Fellenbaum was working alongside the minister in Virginia when a Maryland church official called looking for someone to minister there. The senior minister turned the request over to Fellenbaum, and Fellenbaum became the minister at the Church of the Open Door in Maryland, a non-denominational church he stayed at four years.
He thought he’d be there longer, but then he got word that the pulpit at Grace Baptist Church in Milford was open. He arrived in Milford in 1978 and served as the senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church on Burnt Plains Road for 21 years.
The Mennonite faith had taught him that people are supposed to be “the salt and the light,” and with that in mind, Fellenbaum ventured into the community. That led him to volunteer for several non-profits, including the board of Boys Village, where he led a campaign to construct new shelter buildings that cost $4.5 million.
When Boys Village — today Boys and Girls Village — needed a new CEO, Fellenbaum was asked if he’d be interested.
“I gave it a lot of thought,” he said, recalling that he told the board he’d have to “talk to the big boss about that.”
That spiritual conversation led to Fellenbaum taking the post in 1999.
He still preached on the side, however, because ministry was a part of him.
Fellenbaum was with Boys Village 10 years and retired five years ago at age 60. He started his own ministry, the Village Church, catering to people of faith who didn’t belong to a congregation.
A beach calling
It wasn’t long before the Wildermere Beach Congregational Church members asked if he’d be interested in ministering there, where his wife had been playing piano for services.
He was driving away from the church, pondering the offer, when it dawned on him that it was a little white church in a village, and he knew that the answer was “yes.” He started in June 2012.
“I love it,” Fellenbaum said. “It’s wonderful.”
It was a bit unusual for a congregational church to choose a minister who was ordained Baptist, but not unheard of.
The United Church of Christ (UCC) granted him “dual standing” ordination status, which means it recognized his ordination.
Virginia Kelsey is a longtime church member. She was baptized there in 1943 and never left.
“I wasn’t worried,” she said. “We’ve had Episcopal, Methodist and others at the church over the years,” she said.
And because Fellenbaum had filled in on occasion when the previous pastor, John Thursby, couldn’t preach, Kelsey knew “he could adapt to the congregational style of worship.”
“He’s a good man,” Kelsey said, adding that she is pleased with his ministry. She said he’s brought in new, younger people who are willing to take over some of the tasks the “old-timers” had been doing.
The compliment isn’t by any means a criticism of Mr. Thursby, who retired. The two leaders simply have different styles, she explained.
“Pastor Thursby was a sincere, gentle pastor,” Kelsey said. “He is one who would sit by someone’s bedside as they were dying and sing them a song.”
Ed Murphy, president of the church council, agreed.
“Certain pastors are better at certain things,” Murphy said. “Not every pastor can grow a church. Pastor Thursby, his niche was his passion for people and being there. That’s not to say anything against Ken — he’s very strong in that area too. But Ken is just one of those unique fellows who can grow a church.”
“The Wildermere Beach Congregational Church dates to 1895, at which time it was a community meeting place for religious and legal meetings,” according to the book Sand in Our Shoes, which is a history of Milford’s Walnut and Myrtle Beach communities.
In 1923 it became the Walnut Beach Union Chapel Society Inc. In 1943 it was accepted into the Connecticut Conference of Congregational Churches and later changed its name to the Wildermere Beach Congregational Church.
During its early years, the church was served by visiting pastors and students from Yale Divinity School.
In Sand in Our Shoes, Eugene Peterson wrote, “We had all the ministers that were studying at Yale; and they were some of the best I’ve ever listened to. They brought a youthful exuberance to their sermons…”
Small, but vital
The church has always been a small, community church. There are about 70 church members now, up from about 48 when Fellenbaum took over the post.
“At most services we have between 35 and 40 people,” he said. “When I started, there were only about a dozen or a dozen and a half.”
Former Alderman Paula Smith, who grew up across the street from the church, is one of those new members. She’s been with the church about a year and a half.
She said Fellenbaum has brought a new level of energy to the church and he’s gone out to meet neighbors and to make the church, once again, a vital part of the church community. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, the church collected needed items for neighbors who lost so much to the sea and maintained a distribution area to get those needed items to the people.
“He’s one of those guys who steps in and says we have to do this now, and they do it,” Smith said.
When Smith was a child, she remembers going to a Christmas bazaar at the church each holiday season. But the bazaar hadn’t taken place in years.
“Last year we said it was time to bring it back,” Smith said, “and we had a great time. We had an incredible cookie stroll: People are still talking about it. Debra, Ken’s wife, was in charge of the music, and she had flash caroling mobs break out during the bazaar.”
Jill Reis, another new church member, said Fellenbaum has created an environment that is drawing people to the church, partly because he encourages ideas, like the Christmas bazaar.
“It’s an old-fashioned Christian church,” Reis said. “Everyone is very nice and accepting, and Ken Fellenbaum really pushes that attitude along.”
The combination of Fellenbaum and his wife, Debra, as the church musician creates another layer. Reis calls them the dynamic duo.
The church has been hosting events that the members propose and Fellenbaum supports. Reis, a professional party planner, organized the ordination anniversary celebration; there’s also been an ice cream social with the Wildemere Beach Association. And this past weekend there was a pet blessing: Members and non-members gathered in front of the church with their pets to receive Fellenbaum’s blessing, as Debra played tunes like Where Is My Little Dog Gone and Who Let the Dogs Out on a keyboard.
“I call it the little church that could,” Reis said.