Reverend Eckhart named new senior pastor at First United Church

The First United Church of Christ (Congregational) in January officially will welcome a new senior pastor, the Rev. Adam E. Eckhart, although he is hardly a new face in the historic congregation.

Actually, Rev. Eckhart is 13 years into his calling at the First Church, having served 13 years there as associate pastor after his 2001 graduation from the Yale Divinity School and ordination. Rev. Eckhart also is a Yale College alumnus with a degree in religious studies.

As the new senior pastor, Rev. Eckhart hopes to assist the continuing spiritual work that First Church already does; to remain open to new ways of ministering to the congregation and to the entire community; and, always, to listen as God speaks.

“Before Gracie Allen died, she wrote a note to her husband, George Burns, telling him to ‘never put a period where God has placed a comma’,” Rev. Eckhart explained.

“In our United Church of Christ (UCC) tradition, we use this sentiment to refer to the ways that God is continually speaking and working in our lives today. In every new situation we find ourselves, the Holy Spirit is working.”

A vibrant 38-years-old, Rev. Eckhart clearly is as faithful as he is energetic. Those qualities — and certainly more — must have been noted by the church committee searching for a new pastor, after the 2013 departure of the previous senior pastor, Jim Tudesco. Before concluding its search with the call to Rev. Eckhart, First Church was led by interim Senior Pastor Doug Clark.

Rev. Eckhart said he was humbled by the unanimous support he received from the search committee, the diaconate, the church board and, ultimately, from 96% of the congregation members who voted on Dec. 7. He officially begins as senior pastor on Jan. 7, 2015.

In accepting the call, Rev. Eckhart becomes the fourth so-called “settled” senior pastor at First Church over the last 69 years. First Church was founded here 375 years ago, and today is the biggest Protestant church in downtown Milford. With 720 members, First Church is the second largest United Church of Christ in New Haven County.

Rev. Eckhart thinks the church's historic status, while certainly a blessing, can present challenges.

“This is kind of a 'postcard' church, in that, for some people, we kind of fade into the beautiful downtown landscape. Some folks assume that every member here has lineage to the Mayflower or our founding fathers. Some do, but our First Church actually has a most interesting socio-economic diversity — a lively membership that is completely committed to God and to our community,” he explained.

Rev. Eckhart has infused his own commitment to the congregation since arriving in 2001. He said he was attracted here by the Church's strong youth ministry. Rev. Eckhart arrived at First Church a bachelor, but changed that shortly afterward by marrying the Rev. M. Ashley Grant, who today serves as the church's minister of Christian education. The couple has four children under the age of 10.

During his time as associate pastor, Rev. Eckhart sought to continue nurturing the rich youth ministry. He has coordinated 12 mission trips, enabling more than 100 different youth to minister to others in places like Maryland, Maine, Kentucky and Louisiana.

Locally, Rev. Eckhart as associate pastor was involved in restarting the popular Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Eve service at First United Church of Christ (Congregational). Following the tragic death of a local high school student, Rev. Eckhart helped organize a community vigil at the church. He has served as the pastoral liaison to the Outreach Ministry.

“We are sustained here by a community of faith, and we are all challenged to serve,” Rev. Eckhart said, calling it a “wonderful organic process. People coming here contribute to our ministries, and we are always open to new ways of service.”

In addition to the long-range outlook for First Church, Rev. Eckhart acknowledged he has a few short-term goals as he accepts his call as senior pastor. Among them, he wants to ensure that the church's historic organ refurbishing is completed, that a music minister is selected, and that a new associate pastor is selected.

As for the long-range outlook, Rev. Eckhart noted it is “so important to keep working, to continue our momentum as a faith community. Especially in our busy culture, we are challenged to reach out even more.”

As senior pastor, Rev. Eckhart said he will be responsible for listening to the congregation and helping discern both the church's vision and mission. He anticipates this likely will include overseeing the multi-step congregational process of officially designating First Church as “Open and Affirming.”

According to UCC standards, this designation is for congregations, campus ministries and other bodies of the United Church of Christ, which “make a public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry, to persons of all sexual orientation, gender identities and gender expressions.” The Open and Affirming process is known as an extended time of prayer, dialogue, study and discernment.

That process, however, does not change what Rev. Eckhart sees today in First Church.

“Our doors are always open,” Rev. Eckhart said. “People in Milford deal with the same stresses and brokenness as others do. I love that this is a distinctive faith community with compelling programs, and with a progressive spirit unlike any place else in Milford. We must continue working to give meaning and hope that God intends for us.”