The Rev. John D. Carson will retire in June after 10 years as pastor of Elijah Kellogg Church. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
The pastor of Elijah Kellogg Church will retire on June 5 after a decade in the role, which he views as the pinnacle of his four decades in the ministry.
The Rev. John Carson has led congregations on both coasts and in his native Midwest. He has traveled the world as an ambassador for the church. But none of those experiences compare to his time in Harpswell.
“This was such a wonderful place and discovery and time, I can’t tell you,” Carson said. “This is the best place that we’ve ever been.”
Carson describes Elijah Kellogg Church as a community church. “For us to be present and available to the people here is really what it was all about from the beginning,” he said.
The beginning was way back in the 1750s, when parishioners built the original church. The building, now known as the Old Meeting House, still stands across Harpswell Neck Road from the present-day church.
About 50-70 people attend services at Elijah Kellogg Church in the offseason, while the congregation grows to about 80-90 in the summer. The church broadcasts services live on WHPW and Harpswell Community Television records the services for broadcast in the afternoon.
But the role of Elijah Kellogg Church extends beyond a place to worship on Sunday mornings. The church provides space for community organizations, including the Harpswell Community Nursery School. It organizes community events, like a barn sale and a chicken barbecue. It was instrumental in the founding of Harpswell Aging at Home.
“People in our church, they thrive on being together and working hard to provide service and opportunity for their community,” Carson said. “They’re at their best when we’re doing that.”
Carson exemplifies the church’s focus on community, visiting the sick and giving his time to community organizations.
He is a past president of Brunswick’s Tedford Housing, where he was active in planning for a 64-bed homeless shelter at Cook’s Corner. The organization plans to break ground this summer, according to The Times Record. Carson has served the homeless throughout his ministry because he knows that housing can transform lives.
Carson is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He grew up in Milwaukee’s North Shore Congregational Church and knew he wanted to become a minister before he graduated from high school.
“Faith and church have always been important to me,” he said. “I wanted to be a teacher, or maybe a social worker or a counselor, and I thought, well, why don’t I try and do those things as a parish minister?”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and religion from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota; a master’s degree in divinity from the United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and a master’s degree in sacred theology from the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. He met his wife, Susan, an English major from Minnesota, at St. Olaf.
As an associate minister at Plymouth Congregational Church in Lansing, Michigan, he volunteered in a church-run homeless shelter. After Lansing, he discovered New England when he accepted a post at Third Congregational Church in Middletown, Connecticut. The couple from the Midwest found that they loved the region’s natural beauty, the ocean and mountains.
Carson’s next stop was at the First Congregational Church in Tacoma, Washington, an “aircraft carrier” of a church with a gym, a movie theater and two stages. In Tacoma, he was active in efforts to build a homeless shelter.
Wanting to move closer to their families, the couple returned to the Midwest and Carson pastored Central Congregational, a historic Romanesque church in the college town of Galesburg, Illinois.
Carson’s next stop was at the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, where he functioned as a globetrotting ambassador for the organization. He visited churches in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.
“It was difficult to be a Christian in some places,” Carson said. “Not only were you poor, but you were also maligned and oppressed.”
Carson’s work supported the churches’ efforts to serve their communities, not just through presentation of the Gospel, but through schools, hospitals, orphanages and agriculture.
When budget cuts eliminated Carson’s position, he found himself in search of something new. Enter Elijah Kellogg Church, where the Rev. James Henry had retired after 12 years.
Carson had long hoped for a return to New England. Elijah Kellogg’s mission, which talks about “striving for truth, justice and peace,” resonated with him. He came to Harpswell in July 2012 and was formally installed as pastor the following April.
Carol Coultas, a member of the committee that selected Carson, said that he “has a wonderful ability to use the immediacy of events unfolding in the world around us as a framework to interpret Jesus’ teachings and how we can apply them in our lives today.”
“He’s also a roll-his-sleeves-up kind of guy — always helping in tangible ways like directing traffic at the annual Barn Sale and hauling up the massive Christmas tree from the church basement,” Coultas added. “In my mind, he is a man of God equally at home in the pulpit as he is working the pit at the annual Chicken BBQ.”
Now, the church is beginning its search for Carson’s replacement. The process often takes a year or more, during which time an interim minister will serve. In keeping with tradition, Carson will attend services elsewhere to allow for a clear transition to the next minister.
In retirement, Carson plans to read, travel, volunteer and spend time with friends and family, including his three adult children. The Carsons will stay in their home on Harpswell Neck, and in time, Carson would like to return to Elijah Kellogg Church as a member.
“On my leaving, I would like people to know that I do wish every love and opportunity and success for the church, and that I’m so very thankful for having had the chance to serve here in these years,” Carson said.