WESTMINSTER — The Rev. Thomas L. Shields III, pastor of the Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church, has a unique perspective of Christianity.
It'sone you may not hear very often -- at least not as bluntly as Shields puts it.
"How can you be a Christian and not enjoy it or not have fun?" heasks. "I believe you can be a Christian and have fun. That's one issue that the church needs to deal with -- that Christianity is not an oppressive demand or a list of prohibitions."
He views being Christian as a positive lifestyle, and he looks to the Bible for guidance in his life.
"Clearly, there are some things we should not do, such as what the Ten Commandments say," Shields said. "But when I read Scripture, I see there's more things we should do, and if we were doing those things, then we wouldn't have time to do what we shouldn't."
The 41-year-old pastor also refuses to wear a robe when preaching.
"They're too hot, and why should I be uncomfortable?" he said. "Idon't see myself as a minister, except in the general sense that everybody is a minister of God. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to us. I'm just exercising what God called me to do -- and that's preaching and teaching."
And that's how he leads the congregation of about 15 families that meets weekly in the cafeteria of Westminster Elementary --everybody ministers to everybody else.
The tiny congregation, with no sanctuary of its own, is quite atransition for Shields. In July,he came to the county from a 400-member Rochester, Pa., church, where he served for seven years.
The pastor is hoping the move to Carroll will be his last for a long while.
"I've come to where I believe the Lord wants me, and I'm looking to be here a long time because it takes time to establish a small group like this," he said.
The Westminster congregation has been meeting for about 10 years. For thelast two years it has had no pastor, although the group has maintained its services and identity.
"They've developed a tremendous sense of empathy and encourage one another," Shields said. "The group is biblically sound and spiritually mature and just looking for someone to coordinate their ministries in meeting the needs of the community."
In the last four months, Shields has attempted to meet those needs by leading Sunday worship, starting a women's Bible study, and establishing a men's ministry group.
"We had a good summer, with a lot of new faces showing up and people expressing interest in the church, which is good for the core group," he said. "We had a good response to the men's ministry and Bible study."
More interested in the spiritual health of the congregation than increasing membership, Shields has put a building project on the bottom of his priorities.
"Wehave 7 or 8 acres of land on Rockland Road and we would anticipate building in the future, but we have no timetable for that," the pastorsaid. "You want to build up the spiritual foundation of the church, and that brings people in."
Westminster Reformed Presbyterian is Shields' fourth church since being ordained.
Born and raised in Charlotte, N.C., Shields grew up in the Presbyterian faith. He attended Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1974. Three years later, he received his master's of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.
His first position came upon his ordination into the ministry. For three years, he served as pastor to Ridgecrest Presbyterian Church in Stanfield, N.C., a congregation of about 110 members.
"That was my first experience, and I went by that gauge," Shields says. "Then I went to McGee Presbyterian in Charlotte, which had about 170 members, but only 50 to 60 showed up for worship."
He later went to Rochester, where 690 members were on the rolls, which he promptly trimmed to a more realistic 390.
"I came in 1984, when the recession hit the steel mills and about 130 members moved away to find jobs," he recalled. "Plus, the rolls had not been updated. But the church grew in active membership, and that was one of my proudest accomplishments."
While he leads Sunday worship and the men's ministry, which he has had special training for, his wife of 19 years, Lynda, is leadingthe women's Bible study.
After almost four months, the Shields family is still settling into its home in The Greens. The couple has two children: Leslie, 11, a sixth-grader at West Middle School, and Philip, 6, a kindergartner at Westminster Elementary.
Just last week,the pastor installed a separate phone line in his office at home forthe church and is hoping to find space elsewhere to do his church work.
"An office would give us a sense of permanence and roots for the congregation and a way for people to have contact with somebody. An answering machine will come later," he said with a smile.