Leaving the pulpit, but not the faith

Packing away more than four decades of church life has not been an easy task for the Revs. Mary Jane and
Gary Saunders. The couple are retiring from their pastoral ministry after the last 10 1/2 years as
co-pastors at First Presbyterian Church in Bowling Green.
Despite their official terms ending with the last day of September, they will have one more role in the
pulpit by presiding and preaching for World Communion Sunday this weekend.
The church family will join them for a celebration luncheon in their honor after the worship.
“It has all gone very well,” Gary said of their service to the Bowling Green church.
The couple did a nationwide search for their last planned official ministry and have been very pleased
with their choice of the BG church. They began their ministry here on Jan. 9, 2009 being welcomed by a
snow storm.
Despite the gloom of the storm, the local community has been a welcoming one for them and a primary
reason for their choice of the church as it is considered a “more light” church in the Presbyterian
designation.
“That is a distinct stand for all that everyone is welcome, especially the LGBTQ folks,” Gary said.
That open atmosphere was one of the attractions for the couple.
“That was not just on their website, we have spent these decades looking at ‘what does that really mean.’
We have all lived that out and it has become part of the fabric of this church,” Gary said.
Over the years, they have worked on remodeling and refreshing all the windows of the church and focusing
on being welcome and opening. But they both agree among the greatest accomplishments was performing the
first same-sex weddings in the church.
“I like to say we are walking with the church to be a mainline church in the 21st century in the United
States,” Mary Jane added. “We have always been open to more cultures and remain present in a culture
that is creatively traditional. We have had success with that.”
Both of the pastors have raised the visibility of the church through their community activity. She has
been active and will continue to be active with the Human Relations Commission; while he has primarily
focused with the Not in Our Town group and the Bowling Green Ministerial Association. They also have
partnered with La Conexion which holds regular meetings at the church.
“I’ve also had great joy in working with the Interfaith Breakfast group. The way that has become a major
community voice has been very rewarding,” Gary said.
The couple have jointly been awarded the I Love BG award as well as the Spirit of Wood County Award for
their active roles in the community.
“Those awards are really for the church in its role of good relations with the LGBTQ community and the
students,” Mary Jane said. “I think more and more it is clear to us this church is affirming people
along their way. We are affirming them as they are.
“The inclusion flag that we have posted is very important. It is not just a token, it is a symbol of our
belief systems. We have claimed ourselves as a downtown church and a welcoming church.”
The couple met while they were in seminary at the same time. Over their marriage they have worked both
together and in separate churches. They have served in Michigan and Albion, New York, as well as in
small country churches. They chose the BG church to allow them to finish with one more ministry together
before they retired.
“Bowling Green is a great city and we love it here and that’s why we’re not moving,” Mary Jane said.
“We really do enjoy our house and this community,” Gary added.
She said they will be church hunting for their own congregation.
“There are many things we will miss, like that built-in community you have with a congregation — we will
miss that community. It’s been an interesting time. Now we will have to spend some time finding a
church. We will still be Presbyterian, but we may have some fun looking at other churches — something we
could not do as pastors.”
Mary Jane said they’ll miss the weekly sermons.
“We both love preaching, so that will be a major change. It seems like we were always preparing a sermon
for that mysterious spiritual experience called worship. We’ll miss planning and leading worship. We
will miss having that platform as pastors of a church, we’ll just be Gary and Mary Jane.”
She added that though it will be hard to leave, they are confident in the future for the church.
“We see a great future for this church. It has a nice mix of town and gown and it will continue to do
that. This church has been a supportive and a resource for us and the community.”
The Rev, David Montgomery has been hired as the new interim pastor as a search committee will look for
the next full time pastor(s). Montgomery has served in campus ministry at the University of Toledo.
“This finishing-up time has confirmed that God has been good to us. There’s a lot to celebrate and that’s
not nothing to be taken lightly,” Gary said.