Local Ministry Feeds Mind, Spirit

By Barbara Clark

The Barnstable Patriot
January 22, 2015

Bruce Epperly peppers his conversation with animated expressions as he talks about his new adventure as pastor of South Congregational Church in Centerville. His volubility seems to be inborn and just flows naturally as he spins stories, lifting an eyebrow or waving an arm in the air, almost impatient to be sitting down. These characteristics might be one reason his pastor, who saw these qualities in Epperly back in the 1970s, helped shift the young man’s direction toward one of an outgoing ministry to others.

Epperly grew up in California, no stranger to traditional religious forms – his father was a Baptist minister. But young Epperly reached college in the 1970s during the “Age of Aquarius,” at a time when love beads and “Imagine” were assuming relevance over more traditional realms of spirituality. For this young college student, the message of many churches seemed “too straitlaced and out of touch” for the times; so, looking to feed what he called his own “spiritual hunger,” Epperly began exploring emerging spiritual disciplines, including Buddhist teachings and Transcendental Meditation.

He then turned back to the traditional Christian church for a time and, mentored by his pastor, began to feel there was “something [for him] in the Christian story,” now made more inclusive by opening doors to other streams of religious practice. He came to believe that a larger view “could enliven the church,” and during graduate school began to feel a calling “to give back as a pastor and teacher.” Epperly went on to complete graduate degrees in philosophy of religion and theology and was ordained as a Protestant minister in 1980, first in the Disciples of Christ denomination, later in the United Church of Christ.

Throughout Epperly’s long career as pastor, teacher and speaker, he came to feel that his calling to the pastoral ministry was a “practical application of what [he] was learning” as he sought to build up an “intellectually solid Christian faith.” He went on to teach at several theological seminaries and served as a pastor in places like Washington, D.C., Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In 2012 he began looking for a new adventure to stake out over the next decade, and one opportunity that presented itself turned out to be in Centerville. Unlike many folks who gravitate back here after growing up on the Cape or summering here, Epperly had been on Cape Cod only once in his life – to meet an incoming ferry. The new opportunity was intriguing, and something about the Cape, he said, made it seem “like a place to come to.” He and his wife, Kate, also a minister and spiritual life coach, moved to Centerville in 2013, and Epperly has remained enthusiastic about his good fortune and ultimate choice of venue.

His ministry in Centerville has been focusing on the growing number of retired baby boomers moving here, as well as on the many older members of his congregation. The church, he noted, will hold its 218th annual meeting this year, making it a venerable institution in the local community.

Epperly described his church as “interested in creative worship.” He said the congregation is “innovative but appreciative of tradition,” perhaps the best of all possible worlds for a man whose roots are in the “older” evangelical tradition but who has come to embrace the hard questions emerging in the current scientific “show me” age.

His new book, “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” came out of a Bible study class where Epperly said participants came armed with “no holds-barred” questions – they weren’t about to pass through the Book of Job with just a cursory look. There was so much “meat” to the sessions that a book seemed the natural outcome. Epperly said his approach in such classes is to “share the best biblical information that’s out there” and encourage participants to share their own spiritual journeys rather than just accept “the least common denominator” in any meeting. He “aims at accessibility. … I want people to read and understand,” he said.

Besides Epperly’s many books (he’s written more than 30 over his career), he does “a lot of blogging” at his site at patheos.com called “Living a Holy Adventure,” where he writes about scripture for an audience of “pastors and educated laypeople.” As if this doesn’t keep him busy, he also serves as a residential and online teacher in several theological areas at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., traveling there once or twice a year to present classes.

Asked what he thinks people are searching for today, he said, “There’s a quest for meaning, for healing – and people want to serve.” The church, he said, is one of many pathways through which we can realize we “have resources, and we’re not alone in the world.”

What’s a church these days? Epperly thinks it’s where “people gather as a community, support each other and ask the important questions of life.”

Bruce Epperly will give a talk and sign copies of his latest book, “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey With Job,” at 11 a.m. Jan. 31 at the South Congregational Church, 565 Main Street in Centerville. He’ll also explore the Story of Job as it relates to the problem of evil and our experiences with suffering. 508-775-8332; www.southcongregationalchurch-centerville.org.


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