After four years devoted to designing a new position that caters to families and young adults, First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara called Orange County native Erik Wiebe to join its clergy and staff.
Wiebe, 33, will become the church’s assistant pastor for Christian formation and community outreach, beginning Monday. Church officials created the position to focus on ministering to younger members of the congregation and encourage their participation in the community.
Coming to Santa Barbara from Evanston, Ill., Wiebe has been working on his Ph.D. at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He received a master’s of Divinity from Princeton Seminary in 2005 as well as a master’s in theology from Princeton in 2006, after graduating from Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. He is ready to be ordained in the fall.
Wiebe has moved to Santa Barbara with his wife, Kate, a psychotherapist and member of the National Response Team for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and their three children.
Wiebe told Noozhawk that he believes First Presbyterian is a vibrant church with an exceptional vision for its future, and he is excited to become a part of its mission.
“My family and I are both humbled and thrilled that we have the opportunity to enter into the life and ministry of a church like FPCSB,” he said. “There is nothing more exciting for me than to see a group of people step forward in faith and seek more ways to love God, and love and care for their neighbors.”
First Presbyterian members developed the position to accompany the current pastoral leadership led by the Revs. Peter Buehler, the pastor, and Judith Muller, associate pastor. FPCSB desired an individual who could focus on a Young Adult and Family Ministry Program, helping to invest in the next generation of the church at 21 E. Constance Ave.
According to Buehler, the church’s clergy and lay leaders recognized the need for someone who could help younger families and adults connect with the active religious community.
“One of the things we realized is that younger people want to see a church in action and people who don’t just talk but do,” he said. “We want to reach out to younger folks who wanted a pastor in that age (group).”
Buehler also said the church was looking for someone who could assist individuals during their spiritual journey.
“(We wanted someone) who would recognize that there are lot of people who didn’t grow up with faith or a church background,” he said. “We want to be the kind of church where people can come and we have all kinds of support for them as they and their children grow in their faith.”
Wiebe said he’s often thought about where he would begin after his ordainment, and feels incredibly pleased with his position at First Presbyterian.
“I have wondered many times what would be the first congregation to which I was called into full-time ordained ministry,” he said. “FPCSB seems very much like an answer to prayer. The church is poised to enter into the next season of its ministry and mission, and has a great many relational and community resources to exercise as it does.”
The new assistant pastor described his desire to help eliminate the assumption many people have when they think of church leadership, that the clergy must finds ways to get the community more involved.
“I think that if we start from that place, it’s akin to a marketing strategy for the entertainment industry, really, and if we as a church follow that path we get all tied up in knots trying to be creative enough and attractive enough to the community, to ‘draw them in the doors’ so to speak,” Wiebe said. “That’s just not the right assumption from the start. The church wasn’t meant to compete, and frankly can’t compete, with Hollywood and Madison Avenue.”
Flipping this presumption — a method popularly known as the missional church — focuses on looking outside of the traditional understanding of the church’s role. The missional church seeks a shift from over-emphasizing the church as a physical institution toward taking the messages of the Gospel out into the world.
According to Wiebe, FPCSB does exactly this by bringing people together and promoting the formation of lasting communal relationships.
“When people walk through the doors of FPCSB, they’ll see a community of faith that loves each other and is constantly amazed by how much and how fully God loves them,” he said. “And they’ll see a community of faith that is deeply, compassionately and genuinely engaged in the lives of their neighbors in the surrounding Santa Barbara community.”
Funding for the new position was part of a two-year campaign called “Building a Bridge to Our Future” and was raised by members of the congregation. Individuals made pledges to finance the new assistant pastor position for at least five years as the primary part of the endeavor. The campaign also called for other improvements for the church, including new vans for senior members, meeting space renovation, and building the endowment.
Nine members of the congregation representing various age groups and interests made up the nominating committee for the selection of the position. The committee spent 18 months reviewing more than 110 candidates from around the world.
Candidates were able to apply individually or by referral through a matching system of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The committee reviewed resumes as well as questionnaires filled out by the candidates, conducted interviews via Skype, and invited the top candidates to Santa Barbara for additional interviews.
Describing the interview process, Wiebe said his connection with the selection committee gave him positive vibes about the mission and presence of FPCSB as a whole.
“As I got to know the committee, I really had a strong sense that I was getting to know the larger church,” he said. “This made meeting the congregation feel totally natural and familiar.”
The committee was looking for someone with prior experience building communal relationships with younger people, one who was a good teacher and preacher, and who has been successful in productively organizing programs.
Buehler said Wiebe had all of these qualities, and also had crucial experience engaging people in ministry inside and outside of the church.
“Erik impressed them right off the bat with his warmth and his ability to listen well to people,” he said. “He demonstrated that he understood the position very clearly and got what this church is trying to do.
“A lot of people today don’t have community — they live separate from their families and are extremely busy, they don’t have the support or the faith that makes life wonderful,” Buehler continued. “First Presbyterian is all about the joys of community and the ways in which people can join together to help change the world, and I think Erik will help us greatly in that.”