Pastor George H. McConnel, affectionately known as Sandy, has recently retired as head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian, on North Wilkinson Street in Dayton. He began his ministry there in January of 1993, after serving churches in Jamestown, N.Y., and Pittsburgh. He was also a stockbroker and a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
We recently caught up with him to ask him about his pastorate, and his plans for the future.
Q: You’ve had quite a long tenure as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian. What was your greatest achievement there?
A: I think I’m pleased most with Westminster’s increase in spiritual growth. Westminster is a great congregation of folks who take their faith seriously and live it out in their daily lives. We had a wonderful increase in significant relational groups and hands on mission in my tenure at the church. Our church/school partnership with E.J. Brown has become a model for over a hundred similar partnerships in Dayton, and as far away as Florida.
Q: Church leaders have quite a challenge in today’s world, with more people ambivalent or maybe even hostile toward Christianity. How did you handle this?
A: The 21st century is a challenging time indeed to be a Main Line Protestant! Our voice, which for most of our country’s history was the dominant religious voice, has of late been drowned out by other forms of Christianity and by secularism.Those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” are the fastest growing group in the U.S. In the face of this growing trend, Westminster has tried to be a safe place to ask questions and to live the questions of life that have no easy or pat answers. We understand the life of faith to be a journey, and we walk that journey with God and one another. Words that describe our ministry are: authentic, relational, and caring. As the founder of Westminster Choir College (now located in Princeton, N.J.) music has set a standard of excellence in our congregation which has spurred the other program areas in the church to keep pace.
Q: What are the challenges of being a “downtown church?”
A: Believe it or not, most folks in the Miami Valley don’t wake up on Sundays and say, “Let’s go to downtown Dayton.” Yet, we sometimes describe ourselves as a regional church in a downtown location. Our membership draws people to downtown Dayton on Sundays from as far north as Troy, as far south as Lebanon and from places like Springfield, Wilmington and Springboro. We serve families who come from 27 school districts. The challenge is to have worship, education and fellowship opportunities worth driving from these different communities to be a part of. We think we serve a niche market of people who are looking for traditional worship in a cathedral atmosphere where divergent people are taking their spiritual journey seriously.
Q: Of all your sermons and messages, which was the one that resonated the most with your congregation?
A: I think those sermons that dealt with the reality of evil in the world and the presence of a loving God. The topic of “when bad things happen to good people.”
Q: You end your emails with this quote by Voltaire: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” What do you find truthful or interesting about this statement?
A: We live in anxious times and many people are looking for certitude. Yet, doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it alive and growing.
Q: Now that you’re retired, are you going to keep a hand in at Westminster, and in what capacity?
A: Our Presbyterian tradition is to give the new pastor a free hand in leading the congregation. So … I will be very scarce at Westminster. A difficult but necessary transition.
Q: You won two junior world championships in sailing in 1963. Do you plan on spending more time on your sailboat? Your bio on the churches’ website also listed your other hobbies as golf, reading and playing the guitar. Are you looking forward to indulging in these pastimes on a more regular basis?
A: It’s hard to sail around Dayton, but I look forward to more time doing all the other things you mention.
Q. And lastly, what advice would you give to a new person embarking upon a career as a church leader?
A. Stick with Jesus and with everything else, hang loose.