KINGSTON, R.I. — Rev. Jan Gregory-Charpentier finds her new post as Kingston Congregational Church’s spiritual leader as both a “coming home” to roots of her family in Rhode Island and a place to help a congregation strengthen roots in community outreach.
Active in social justice and social-concern ministries throughout her life, the minister said she looks “forward to how we can partner together, and with other local organizations, to be a force for justice, peace and wellness.”
“I have been charged to help this community stretch itself into partnering with the community around it, including the University of Rhode Island, community common causes and other social justice organizations and become bigger influence in the community,” said the 58-year-old minister.
She arrives as the church celebrates the 200th anniversary of the construction of its iconic old New-England style spired church in Kingston Village, across from the Route 138 entrance to URI. After a 15-month process of evaluating 20 candidates, she was the favorite of a search committee and the church members.
She has 30 years of experience as an associate pastor and pastor, including the United Parish of Upton, Mass. and most recently, the First Congregational Church of Westbrook, Conn. She grew up in Lincoln, Mass., while her husband, Ron, grew up in Lincoln, R.I.
In a recent interview with The Independent, she laughed at the coincidence and said that moving to Rhode Island, where she, her husband, and three children frequently spent summer vacations in Point Judith, was a welcoming treat in life.
“This was icing on the cake coming here to Kingston Congregational Church,” said this daughter whose father was a minister and now retired after 40 years in the pulpit.
It could have been love at first sight for Kingston Congregational Church and this minister given shared desires for their futures.
“The church was initially attractive to me in a number of ways,” Gregory-Charpentier said. “They were clear they were looking for spiritual leader wanting to put a lot of emphasis on creativity and scale.”
The priorities of the church include working together for justice and mercy, strengthening inter- and intra-personal assets, caring for all creation and engaging in sacred stories and traditions, according to church officials.
“I really wanted a congregation that has a track record of being engaged in the community, along with social justice issues,” added Gregory-Charpentier, a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School that awarded her a master’s degree in divinity.
She also holds a doctorate in ministry from Drew University of Theology, where her dissertation was entitled “Mother May I? Clergywomen’s Experience of Mother and Ministry.”
Looking back on her life, religion and community engagement, including social justice matters, were always important.
“I knew I wanted to do something in line with my faith. I have always been a fairly religious, spiritual person. I’m one of those persons who didn’t stop going to church in high school and college,” she said.
Pastoral counseling appealed to her through her both church-related work, community projects and studies for her graduate degrees. At the same time, though, she realized that teaching or other work outside direct ministry left her feeling disconnected from a calling in her heart.
“I wanted to be part of a community, baptizing babies, burying parents, being with people, being part of the fabric of the community,” she said.
Her connection to Kingston Congregational’s needs was apparent as well to the search committee that recommended her to church members who chose her as the new minister. She started work about a month ago and preaches each Sunday for the church’s live online service.
Connie Fitzelle, search committee member, remarked, “As I read over (Jan’s) profile, I was again impressed by her compassion, her leadership skills, her spirituality. She seems a perfect fit for our congregation. In Jan, you see the right person to lead us in the search for what God is calling us to become.”
Defining that stronger community engagement is part of the work immediately ahead, said Gregory-Charpentier.
“What the church knows it wants…is a visioning effort with the broad goals of being vibrant,” she said, offering a few suggestions she may bring to the membership for discussion.
The church recently upgraded its kitchen to commercial standards to create a food ministry and a gathering place to open up to the community.
“At least for me, I’m more interested in that then having a ham and bean supper and charge 10 bucks and make some money for the church,” she said about feeding the South Kingstown and other area people who haven’t enough food for their daily meals.
Helping the community in various ways is more important that strictly focusing on membership, she said, adding, “It’s about living the Gospel in real and effective ways.”
For instance, the church has space that can be transformed into an area to provide “quality, affordable child care for those in the community who need it and cannot afford it elsewhere,” said Gregory-Charpentier.
She also wants to engage community leaders in defining that expanded vision of the church’s outreach. “Where might we fit, with the resources we have, in a network of good in the community?” she asked rhetorically.
During the hour-long interview with The Independent, her spiritual view of religion in the 21st Century emerged alongside these practical tasks of being minister.
That discussion focused on matters, regardless of faith, most important when supporting and fostering faith in people today as the quarter-century mark nears in the 21st Century following Jesus Christ’s birth.
First, she said, clergy need to understand, and help communities understand, that old structures and means of promoting faith and sustaining a faith community are crumbling, maybe necessarily, as the U.S. culture and world go through change.
Gregory-Charpentier described it as a “new reformation” that includes widespread deinstitutionalization and distrust of former sources of authority. Shared governance, rather than top-down dictates, is the approach on the horizon, she said.
“Faith communities are still relevant and vital, they just need to move in the direction of being relevant and vital in new ways. More and more people have no experience or interest in church and organized religion,” the minister said.
“Yet we – in church and other faith traditions – are still, in many ways operating on the premise that we are inherently interesting and attractive – ‘No need to reach out, people will find us if they want us,’” she said.
Gregory-Charpentier recalled a former parishioner, who had no previous background attending religious services, telling her how she would drive by the church and think to herself, “How do you get in there?” Finally, someone she knew invited her to attend.
“We assume everyone knows you can just walk in any Sunday morning. Those assumptions don’t bear up anymore. We are not people’s first answer to the question, ‘What are you doing on Sunday?’ We need to stop scolding people for not attending something they have no interest in,” she said.
Instead, church leaders and followers need to “start getting out into the community to show our interest in being a good neighbor dedicated to the common good whether you come to our church or not,” Gregory-Charpentier said.
In addition, she said clergy need to continue to help people connect to what is truly essential and unique in living a particular faith.
“We are not just another nice social group to belong to. We follow the teaching and life of Jesus of Nazareth and have spiritual resources and practices that make our lives more free, joyful and generous,” she said.
“Spiritual community is different than other kinds of community in many ways. We are not bonded by our race, class, education, orientation, ethnicity or ability. We are united in deepening our connection to the Holy and our essential self and to our neighbor through love and service,” the minister said.
And as these changes occur near the quarter mark of the 21st Century, clergy need to help people find the three things that every human being needs, she said.
They are: belonging to a community, becoming and living into each person’s essential self, and understanding a connection to something bigger than the routine of everyday lives, Gregory-Charpentier said.
“No matter your faith, or lack of it, every human needs those things. They are the essence of soul. Spiritual community and spiritual leaders exist to help people find those three things. Christian spiritual leaders pattern that faith journey on the way of Jesus,” she said.
Looking to her own immediate future to bring meaning to these and other ideas, she said, “We’re at the very beginning of thinking about what our specific mission is in this time and place. There’s great potential here.”