Sometimes breaking the rules can be a good thing, even a God thing, as Pastor Josh Kerr said.
Not long ago, Kerr was a member of the congregation at First Presbyterian Church, catty-corner from the Belvidere Mansion in Claremore.
He served in the church office, peering out of the marvelous stained glass windows.
Eight years later he returned to Claremore to serve as the pastor, a move that is often considered a bad idea in pastors’ circles.
But the church members and Kerr are optimistic that this move is the best choice for re-establishing the church’s presence in the community.
THE HISTORY OF JOSH KERR
Kerr grew up in East Tulsa, a life-long Presbyterian, regularly attending the local church with his parents.
Kerr attended East Central High School and several local community colleges before graduating from Rogers State University.
He met his wife Tara while working at a church camp in 2002 and they were married in 2006 in Stillwater.
The couple moved to Claremore shortly thereafter where Tara took a position as a counselor with Claremore Public Schools.
That is when they first got involved in Claremore’s First Presbyterian Church.
“We were here for a number of years just as members,” Kerr said.
Then he felt the calling to become a pastor.
“We started looking at seminaries while my wife was pregnant with our son Kellan,” Kerr said. “We moved away from here, all of our family and everything, when he was about two and a half months old, to Austin, Texas, which is a much bigger, busier place than we had ever lived.”
Kerr attended graduate school for three years and then served as a pastor for five years in Perry, Oklahoma.
When the need for a new pastor arose in Claremore, they remembered Kerr and invited him back to interview for the position.
“It is something that in many cases is frowned upon,” Kerr said. “If a congregation knows you in a certain roll, sometimes it is hard to return to that context in a different role. Will the people be able to see you as Pastor Josh versus Secretary Josh of Youth Leader Josh?”
“That was something that I had a lot of discussions with mentors about,” Kerr said.
After eight years had passed, and after seeing Kerr’s spiritual growth in that time, the church enthusiastically accepted him.
“We decided, collectively and prayerfully, that should the congregation feel that I was the right person for them, that there wouldn’t bee any barriers,” Kerr said.
Kerr’s prior experience with the church turned out to be a benefit.
“I came in knowing most of the people here already, so that is a big advantage,” Kerr said. “The familiarity with the people, their gifts and their passions, the traditions of the church, those things are really helpful.”
THE FUTURE OF FIRST PRESBYTERIAN
At the young age of 36 and having lived and worshiped in a variety of places, Kerr brings a fresh perspective.
“My time away opened my eyes to a lot of the things we can do better here, and that is something that the congregation is eager to pursue once we really kind of get rolling,” Kerr said.
“I asked our committee members ‘What is the perception of the church in the community?’ and they had done some research into that question. There actually isn’t much of one at all,” Kerr said. “Claremore knows that the church is here, but they don’t really know what we do.”
Kerr views that as more opportunity than challenge.
“That got me excited because being active in the public arena is something I really like to do,” Kerr said. “Showing the community the good work that the church is already doing, the ways we want to expand that work, and then inviting them to join us in that work, that is what I’m excited about.”
Modernizing church communications with a new website and Facebook page and website is also on the agenda.
Another opportunity is showing people the distinctions that exist between Presbyterian practice versus other more well-recognized denominations.
“Presbyterians, first and foremost, are people who believe strongly in the grace of God and the sovereignty of God,” Kerr said. “God saves us not because we earn it, say the right words or do the right things, but because God wants to save us.”
When it comes to the Bible, “We study hard and we ask critical questions. We’re not afraid to question the teachings of our tradition. In fact it is our tradition to ask important questions.”
As the church reintroduces itself the community, Kerr highlighted a few of the key things people need to know about First Presbyterian. Namely, that the church is open and responsive to the people and needs in the community.
“We’re a welcoming church, and we really mean it,” Kerr said. “We acknowledge and utilize the gifts of everybody, whether a man or woman; red, yellow, black or white; gay or straight, you are included fully in this congregation. That makes us distinctive from a lot of other congregations in the community, frankly.”
There church board is half women, “and I think that makes us a much stronger congregation than if we just had only men represented,” Kerr said. “There are too many gifts that God has given women to ignore them.”
“I want the community to know that we want to know what they want and what they need,” Kerr said. “Often times, people are afraid to reach out to churches because they see us as stuck in our ways – a force of nature. That’s not how I think the church ever should have been.”
Quoting a famous theologian, Kerr said, “Christians should have the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We are grounded in what scripture teaches us on how to live, but we should always be responsive to what is going on right now.”
“If you went to a church Sunday and the pastor didn’t address the shootings, you’re not being present to what is going on in the world around you,” Kerr said. “If we are in this neighborhood and we don’t know the names of the neighbors next to us and what their challenges are, we’re not doing our job.”
In ten years from now, Kerr said, “I would like our church to be in a place where, when a community needs presents itself, that somebody thinks ‘let’s call the Presbyterians.’ I hope we will become known as Claremore’s most compassionate congregation.”