United Church of Bernardston pastor retires after 45 years in parish ministry


For the Recorder

Published: 07-10-2023 1:43 PM

BERNARDSTON — After 10 years leading the United Church of Bernardston, the Rev. David Neil has retired, wrapping up 45 years in parish ministry that has included more than 900 funerals, 400 weddings and 300 baptisms.

Neil gave his last Mass on Sunday, June 4, a day he described as both a church service and a heartwarming community gathering.

“It was kind of nice on my last Sunday,” recounted Neil, 72. “There were people who came to church who normally aren’t church people, but people who I knew through all those different avenues.”

Neil joined the United Church of Bernardston as a seasoned pastor after serving First Congregational Church in Manchester, New Hampshire for two and a half years and Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls for 23 years.

In between, he worked as an assistant ambulance director in Shelburne Falls and boys volleyball coach at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. Community members watched Neil in front of the pews and on stage at the Ja’Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Turner Falls where he starred in about 17 productions.

To Neil, a pastor should be a pillar in the church and broader community, so “people can see the pastor as a person.”

“It makes it a lot easier if you’re ever going to face some sort of unspeakable trauma or really need the pastor in those emergency ways, if you know the person as a human being and not some kind of religious artifact,” he said.

Reflecting on his time at the United Church of Bernardston, Neil said he is “really proud” of the congregation’s decision to become an “open and affirming church” that is “open to the LGBTQ community.” The rainbow doors standing outside the church read “God’s doors are open to all,” a message aimed to “make people feel purposefully welcome,” said Neil.

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The church’s involvement in the North County Cares gift program and its annual Bernardston Gas Engine Show, Flea Market & Craft Fair fundraiser represent two other community bridges and “sources of pride” for Neil.

“I think every pastor should be involved in the community. I think that’s what we are called to do these days,” Neil said. “We’re pointless, we have no function, no purpose unless it’s being involved with where people are every day.”

During Neil’s time leading the United Church of Bernardston, the congregation of 250 to 300 members expanded through Sunday livestreams, a lingering lifesaver from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Neil, about 80 to 100 viewers tune in from across the country, including patients at the RegalCare nursing home in Greenfield who can watch from their rooms.

“I never thought that would be something that we’d be involved in,” Neil reflected, “but you have to take what the world offers you and do the best you can.”

Neil moved to New England after earning a master of divinity degree at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado and teaching at the University of Denver’s seminary. While he had planned to earn a doctorate in church history and teach, after serving as the associate minister at a church in a Denver suburb, Neil said he decided to turn to ministry partly because “10 years of college is enough … and my wife agreed.”

Instead of fading, Neil’s passion for teaching grew as a pastor. He led adult Bible study groups, discussions, Sunday school, sermons — “I probably put way more information in there than I needed to,” Neil noted — and PubTalk sessions, where church members would gather at a local pub or bar to discuss parables and psalms, and “bridge the church and real-life.”

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” he said, “and after 45 years of doing this, I can say I was.”

In retirement, Neil is designing backdrops for Ja’Duke performances while he helps look after his grandson.

Looking forward

Neil said he is unsure of the exact process for finding his replacement at the United Church of Bernardston and the current stage due to church boundaries separating the retiring pastor from the “search-and-call process.” However, if the process runs like usual, he explained that people within the church and a few outsiders will preach to the congregation in the first “supply preaching” step. According to the church’s monthly newsletter that is posted on its website, the July 16 and July 23 services will be led by Justin Lawrence and the Rev. Bill Ault, respectively.

In the meantime, the church will form a committee and work with the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ to find an interim pastor. While an interim pastor fills in for about one or two years, the congregation will create a profile of “what the church might like to be by 10 years from now,” Neil explained. As this profile circulates and interested pastors apply, the United Church of Bernardston will conduct interviews and select a new pastor. According to Neil, this process may take more than a year.

“The ‘search-and-call process’ can be a little long,” Neil explained, “but it’s a good way to make sure there’s a good match between whoever the pastor is going to be and the church.”