Federated Church of Edgartown elects first female pastor

Congregation members voted Sunday to call the Rev. Amy Edwards as the church’s 65th pastor, the first woman in its 373-year history.

The Rev. Amy Edwards was named the 65th pastor of the Federated Church of Edgartown. — Photo by Parker Banks

Members of the congregation of the Federated Church of Edgartown voted Sunday to call the Rev. Amy Edwards as their 65th pastor, concluding a search that lasted more than two and a half years.

The Rev. Edwards is the first female pastor in the church’s 373-year history. She will move into the church parsonage on South Water Street in Edgartown on Sept. 15, and is scheduled to deliver her first sermon on Sept. 20.

The vote was 72-0 in favor, with one abstention. The final tally easily surpassed the voting requirements mandated by Federated Church bylaw, which state that 75 percent of the members in attendance must vote in favor in order for a new pastor to be appointed.

William Vrooman, the chief layperson of the congregation, said that only full-time members of the church were eligible to participate in the voting.

“We have covenant members, who are solely members of the church, and we have associate members, who are members of another church and are often seasonal residents,” he said in a telephone conversation with The Times Monday. “Only the covenant members can vote on a pastor.”

He said that full-time members constitute more than three-quarters of the 349-person congregation.

Spirituality and the law

The Federated Church will mark the Rev. Edwards’ first pastorship. She completed her studies at Andover Newton Theological School this spring, and she will be officially ordained on Sept. 27 at her home church in Little Compton, R.I.

Prior to becoming a minister, the Rev. Edwards spent many years as a lawyer and as a social worker.

Her career in the law lasted 10 years. She specialized early on in corporate defense, including work as legal counsel to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, but felt unsatisfied with her work.

“The corporate defense work didn’t feel very good for me,” the Rev. Edwards told The Times. “About halfway through my law career, I became a mediator, in which I helped negotiate conflict resolution.”

She said her work as a mediator attracted her to social work. She began her work in the profession in 2000, and will say goodbye to clients this week.

“The more I got involved with mediation, the more I felt that it would be better to help people before they even got to that stage,” she said.

As a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), the Rev. Edwards has worked with children and families, and has also treated clients dealing with grief and addiction. In addition to running her private practice, she has worked in school settings and in an addiction clinic.

Her spiritual calling took off in 2007, when she founded Lotus Rising: Center for Healing and the Arts, in Fall River, which focused on all aspects of the body, the mind, and spirit. “The theme was around spiritual fulfillment,” she said. “It was my first call to create a faith community.”

The center’s facilities included a yoga studio and an art gallery, and the center’s services included massages, acupuncture, workshops, and counseling. The center closed in 2010, when the Rev. Edwards’ husband was diagnosed with cancer.

After the death of her husband, in 2012 the Rev. Edwards began attending Divinity School at Andover Newton Theological School. She was inspired by a minister at her home church in Little Compton to become a pastor.

“I had been very involved at my home church in Little Compton for 10 or 15 years,” she said. “When I went back, the minister that was there called on me to help with visitation, and I quickly became a deacon. He said he thought that I should preach, so I began preaching at the church. He said that I had a calling, and after my husband died, it made sense to return to school.”

After graduating from Divinity School in the spring, the Rev. Edwards began looking for her first church. The sense of community at the Federated Church sparked her interest in Martha’s Vineyard.

“I’ve interviewed with a lot of churches, but the people here are so connected, both with themselves and with the community,” she said. “I like that there’s a lot of mission work being done for the community and the world.”

She was also attracted to the Island for its diversity.

“Though there is a lot of wealth here, there is also a lot of poverty,” she said. “What drew me here was the underbelly of the Island, including problems like addiction. From being a mental health therapist, I felt like there was need here for the gifts that I have. The other churches felt very sheltered and one-classed.”

The long and winding road

The search for a new full-time pastor began in June 2013, when the Rev. Gerald Fritz announced his impending retirement in October of that year from the church. The Rev. Terry Martinson was appointed interim minister while a search and call committee was assembled to begin the process of seeking out a full-time minister.

In the first stage of the selection process, the committee informed a United Church of Christ-affiliated umbrella organization that the Federated Church was seeking a new minister. The organization then proceeded to make a call to potential candidates about the vacancy.

Alice Goyert, who headed the search and call committee along with fellow member Jim Butterick, said that more than 80 candidates expressed interest in the position.

“We read through all of their profiles, and if we liked what we saw, we started talking to them by email,” she said.

The committee continued to narrow the field through conversations with the candidates on Skype, an Internet video-conferencing tool, and reviewing each of the candidate’s references.

The committee settled on the Rev. Edwards after hearing her speak in Sandwich, and extended an offer which she accepted. But before the Rev. Edwards could formally be given the position, the covenant members of the congregation had to approve the search and call committee’s recommendation.

The congregation gathered on Sunday to hear a sermon from the Rev. Edwards, and the ensuing vote secured her position.

Ms. Goyert said that the committee is very satisfied with their selection.

“Amy is bright, well-balanced, sensitive, a good listener, and has a terrific background that will be excellent for our church,” she said. “She is a person who can handle people from hedge fund managers to fishermen, and we are very excited to be her first church.”