Chuck St. John, the town's former finance director, has returned to Williamstown as pastor of First Baptist Church.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When Charles "Chuck" St. John left North County three years ago to answer God's call, he never expected to be called back.
But St. John, who gave up a position as the town's finance director in 2011 to enter a seminary, returned this spring as pastor of First Baptist Church of Williamstown.
A native of Cheshire, St. John worked for Williamstown for 27 years before a personal loss led him to find his second calling.
"I was a member of the Stamford Community Church when my wife passed away," he said this week in an interview in his office at the Main Street church. "For 20 years, I filled in for pastors on vacation or filled in for pastors who were ill.
"My wife and I had Bible studies in our home. With her passing, God gave me the opportunity to be a pastor. I began taking courses long distance — partly to fill the time after she was gone. At the same time, North Adams Baptist Church asked me to be an interim pastor.
"In the process, I became comfortable that this is what God wanted me to do. I also felt the need to study."
So he gave up his position with the town and enrolled at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton on the North Shore. At the time, his plan was to find a position in eastern Mass, more centrally located to his children and grandchildren in the Lynn and Springfield areas and Maine.
"I didn't expect to be back in the area," he said. "It surprised me to come back, but it all seems somehow orchestrated — I would say by God.
"It's nice to come back and reconnect with people I've known for years — other pastors in the area who I've worked with. Having family, friendships is important, especially as we get older."
At its height, the congregation numbered as many as 80 regular churchgoers. Now, that number has dropped below 20. Part of the reason was the abrupt departure of St. John's predecessor, Peter Daniels, for the business world.
St. John recognized that the modestly sized congregation poses a challenge but expressed a belief that the small community has the strength to grow again.
"In order to be self-sustaining, we need to be bigger," he said. "But it's a challenge. We want to focus on being a Christian congregation. We talk about being Christian, and hopefully that is attractive to people.
"Because of that Christian focus, people will attend, and the church will grow. We don't want to grow for growth's sake. If we reach out and love people, God will take care of that."
St. John talked about the church's mission at the tail end of a Tuesday morning Bible study. Two of the participants in that study took part in the discussion. One, retired farmer Dave Towne, said the congregation is optimistic that its message will resonate with wider community.
"We're not dead in the water," Towne said. "We're moving ahead. We want to get the word out to people that the doors are open and we love them."
One potential source of new congregants is the college. First Baptist has a long tradition of strong student participation. In fact, the school is the reason the congregation moved close to campus back at the turn of the last century.
"The church started as a mission to the village and the college from the original Baptist Church," Towne said. "That was on Sweets Corners on Route 43, an old stone church that's now a residence. We are a result of that mission.
"The original church was founded in the 1700s. We started here in 1906."
St. John said students have been part of the congregation's praise team in the past. He recently sent out a letter to the incoming Williams students who expressed a religious preference, and he hopes they will find a family environment at the church.
"My wife and I were part of what we called the Home Away From Home program [at the church]," Towne said. "Nancy and I had 'adopted sons and daughters' from all over the world. One of those families was part of our 50th anniversary celebration here at the church."
St. John said that his approach to worship centers on a personal relationship with God more than a formal, dogmatic approach.
"[At Gordon-Conwell], they emphasized the fact that information is not as important as your relationship with God," he said. "We're Christians first and pastors second."
That personal relationship has been the focus of recent sermons at First Baptist.
"We're going through a series on the Ten Commandments," St. John said. "We're talking about how, yes, they're statements of what God would have us do, but they're also statements of God's character. The Commandments are more of a paradigm that tells us who God is.
"Yeah, you shouldn't kill, but you shouldn't kill because God is the author of life. Yeah, you shouldn't commit adultery, but you shouldn't be unfaithful because God is always faithful to you and never breaks his word.
"I'm excited to have the opportunity to encourage people to have a relationship with God."