Romancing a church: New pastor nonchalant about her history-making

The Times Leader

    If it were a personal ad, it might have begun like this: TPC seeks PWV.

    Traditional Presbyterian church in heart of challenged, changing city seeks pastor with vision to lead evolving 250-member congregation into the unknown.

    Forgive the analogy, but the search for a new minister at a Presbyterian church can bear a little resemblance to anonymous courtship.

    Consider how the Rev. Mildred Louise Robinson, better known as just Micki, came to call Westminster Presbyterian Church, a stately neighborhood landmark on Westminster and Hanover streets in South Wilkes-Barre, her new home.

    The Canton, N.Y., native helmed at her previous, small church near Lake Ontario for 17 years and was looking for a change. So off her resume went into cyberspace, where it caught the eyes of a nominating committee at Westminster.

    Robinson's self-profile easily could have continued like this:

    Forty-nine-year-old St. Lawrence University and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary graduate seeks welcoming church for possible long-term relationship. Plays harp, piano (and organ when no one's around). Will sing in choir. Willing to relocate family, including attitudinal 7-year-old beagle. Biblical storyteller. MWF.

    Biblical storyteller?

    "I think that was what caught the committee's ear," Robinson said on a recent frosty morning in her new offices.

    If instead it was the "F," as in married white female, she isn't aware. And though she can now claim her place as the first female pastor in the church's more-than-100-year history, about that she's nonchalant.

    "I've been the first female pastor everywhere I've been," she said, noting that though the Presbyterian Church began ordaining women in 1955, female pastors are still fairly rare.

    So back to that biblical storytelling.

    "I tell the Gospel from memory nearly every week. I think there's a lot of power in story."

    In lieu of ordinary preaching, she might create a story around a biblical character. For example, she sent an audiotaped "sermon" to Westminster in which her husband, lay preacher Mark Patsos, dialogued with her in the character of John The Baptist.

    It's safe to say the nominating committee was intrigued. Even though such committees routinely receive videotapes and even PowerPoint presentations from potential new pastors, plain old audiotapes secured Robinson the single invitation to lead Westminster in Sunday worship. After this presentation to the congregation, a vote gave her the full-time job.

    Since her installation in November, Robinson said, she hasn't yet done much biblical storytelling. But she has identified a few challenges for the days ahead, such as discerning the future for this historically local church. Many longtime members now commute to Westminster, so one task is to find out how the church "connects with this neighborhood and is a sign of God's loving presence in this neighborhood."

    Demographics and geography may challenge, but Robinson couldn't be more pleased with the spirit of present congregants.

    "They have been very receptive, warm and welcoming," she said, so much so that her daughter, Lauren, who struggled at first with the move to Wilkes-Barre, found herself somewhat sad to return to her college music studies after winter break.

    And Lauren might be a tough critic.

    Asked if any words could best describe her, Robinson thought hard and came up with "positive," then a humbly qualified "innovative."

    "My daughter says I'm just weird," she finally offered, with a modest chuckle.

    "It's the way I look at things ... sort of askance, with a sense of humor. That's not unkind. I like humor, and I like humor in the church. We should have the ability to laugh when we take ourselves too seriously."

    That outlook might be responsible for uniting her with her husband of 20 years.

    Robinson met Patsos while doing a mission trip. They drove to Tennessee and back with almost a dozen junior high school students, and that was his vacation. They married a year later.

    "I figured any man who could do this as his vacation could probably fit in as a minister's spouse," she said with a wistful smile.

    The couple make their home in Wright Township.

    Patsos may not play the tidy, traditional role of minister's spouse, which works out just fine, as Robinson prefers not to focus on male-female leadership differences anyway.

    She will say she might lift up biblical characters such as Elizabeth or look at certain things from a mother's perspective. And she'll admit her sex was sometimes a tough sell, even to other women.

    In her previous church, some women initially were "very nervous" but later didn't want to see her go, she said.

    A particular memory of the goodbyes puts one more wistful smile on Robinson's gentle face.

    Said one woman as she was departing: "Well, I think we better get another woman."