MOUNT VERNON — It’s been nearly 11 years since Keith Stuart stepped into the pulpit as pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ. After numerous years of faithful service, Stuart will now be delivering the final sermon to his congregation this Sunday as he plans to answer the next calling in his career path.
Stuart came to Mount Vernon in 2001 from Kansas City, having previously served at churches in Indiana and Missouri. Raised in a Southern Baptist church, Stuart received degrees at the University of Kentucky and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., as well as the University of Capetown in South Africa.
“This church has an amazingly rich history,” recalled Stuart. Formed in 1834 and based on an anti-slavery stance, “It’s always been a social justice church, making sure that everyone is included.
“I’m just one of a long line of people who have been actively engaged in those kinds of issues, everything from the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s to civil rights, to voter registration in the south, to women in the ministry.”
It was only three months before the terror attacks in September 2001 when Stuart took over as pastor at First Congregational UCC. “The world changed completely. People became a little more fearful and anxious, and we began the process of making the church a safe and trusting environment. Because of that, people have embraced who we are,” he said.
The mission statement of the church has been to, “Seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”
“Every mission endeavor we do is focused around that,” said Stuart. “We’ve continued our tradition, trying to enhance it and expand on it. Seeking what it means to be a follower of Jesus, that’s what we understand as our calling. This church challenges people to put their faith into the water.”
Leaving Mount Vernon after this Sunday’s Mother’s Day sermon, Stuart will be venturing on to Dover UCC in Westlake, Ohio, where he begins his duties on June 10. “It’s a church that has great potential. I’m excited about the challenge that’s before me,” said Stuart.
In looking at his decision to make a move, “I was looking for a different challenge, listening to God the best I could, where I could use my gifts in a different way,” said Stuart. “There’s also a tendency for the community to identify with a particular pastor. I think that’s a real danger. And I’ve always shared with my congregation that they are the church.”
Although Stuart feels that it is God’s calling for him to move on, it’s not necessarily an easy decision to make. “There’s mixed emotions when you have to leave. It’s very difficult saying goodbye to people you love,” he said. “But the nature of ministries sometimes is there is a point when you do leave. But this church is going to be fine. It’s strong. It’s vibrant. The next person that comes in will take the church to maybe newer heights.”
Stuart has been married to his wife, Cynthia, for 33 years. They have two children, Laura, of New York City; and Joseph, of Manchester College, Fort Wayne, Ind. Stuart is an avid reader and writer who enjoys golf, playing guitar and refinishing furniture.
A special service with lots of music is planned Sunday in Stuart’s farewell. Representatives from the UCC will be present with a dinner following the service.