`Old Brick' pastor stepping down after 20 years at Episcopal church


June 08, 1999|By John J. Snyder | John J. Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TWENTY YEARS HAVE passed since the Rev. James M. Shields came to the congregation at "Old Brick."

Christ Episcopal Church, an early-19th-century brick structure, is at Dobbin and Oakland Mills Roads in Columbia.

Shields was not thinking of staying when he visited Columbia more than 20 years ago. The Pittsburgh native was fond of New England and saw himself at the helm of a church in Connecticut.

But he visited Christ Episcopal at the behest of the bishop. The church needed a pastor.

"I saw the building as quaint, but I really wanted to go to Connecticut," Shields recalled. "But that night I felt something, and I couldn't sleep."

"I knew then I was called," he said. Much to the surprise of his wife, Seiko, Shields announced that he wanted to stay.

Shields, who will retire July 1, led his last service on Sunday. Between farewells and daily church business, he is quietly packing his belongings.

There is no hurry; It is only a matter of finding space for his things at home in Jeffers Hill.

It's all very matter of fact. After all, this isn't the end of his involvement with the church. His flock will see him frequently. He plans to keep his hand in by helping out with church ministries.

The bookshelves in his office are empty. Framed pictures and certificates stand neatly on edge against the wall.

Reflecting on his two decades at the church, Shields, 67, sees changes -- and progress -- in the church and the community.

When he arrived from Pittsburgh in the spring of 1979, Oakland Mills Road was a two-lane thoroughfare. The post office and other businesses now across from the church didn't exist; farms still dominated the landscape.

Shields said his first months were spent clarifying the identify of the church and the people it would serve.

At the time, the church shared the worship space with a United Methodist congregation. The two groups talked of building a church for both to use.

But the vestry -- a group managing Christ Episcopal's secular affairs -- wanted to strengthen its Episcopal heritage.

Historic Old Brick was beloved but uncomfortable. So the Episcopalians decided to manage on their own.

Under Shields' leadership, Christ Episcopal grew to became the focal point of the community through its parish ministries.

A church building was constructed. Dedicated in 1993, "New Brick" blends seamlessly into its surroundings.

"This was a real step of faith for the congregation," Shields said. The new building, designed to complement the style of Old Brick, has received awards from the American Institute of Architecture and other groups.

Its excellent acoustics bring life to the airy, light-filled building.

The popular Sundays at Three chamber music series has been offering concerts at the church for several years.

Shields sees God's handiwork in the music the group brings to the church. And he is happy to serve as president of the board for the group that books celebrated local musicians to perform in his church.

"It is a very congenial group, and Reverend Shields is a very gracious introducer," said Phyllis Stern. vice president of the board of Sundays at Three. "He welcomes the guests and sets the tone for the audience."

Christ Church Link is another ministry begun under Shields' leadership. Christ Episcopal sponsors the referral service for families and individuals in crisis.

The ministry, which puts people in touch with counselors, shelters and other county resources, reaches out to people of all faiths.

Recently, the church inaugurated the Susanna Ministry for female prisoners who are returning to the community.

"This is a great congregation," Shields said. "Twenty years is a long time, but in this congregation you never get bored."

Shields and his wife will spend part of the summer, as they always have, at a bayside family cottage in Weymouth, Nova Scotia.

Then they will travel around the United States visiting relatives and friends.

Sundays at Three will begin a new series when autumn rolls around.

And Shields will again preside -- right back where the Holy Spirit meant for him to be.

Goodbye, hair

Teachers know that fifth-graders tend to lose steam when spring arrives. The promises of summer and a fresh start at a middle school in the fall make it hard to concentrate.

Phelps Luck Elementary teacher Brian Eisentraut was eager to keep his class focused on reading in their last semester. But, he thought, doing that would require a bold stroke.

He knew he needed something that would motivate even the most distracted student.

"Give them a challenge and they respond," Eisentraut says.

So he cut them a deal. If 80 percent of the class could meet the goal of reading 125 minutes a week on their own for the final quarter, those students could shave Eisentraut's hair down to a military-style cut.

The students met the challenge, and then some. Ninety percent of the 25 students in his class achieved the reading goal.

Eisentraut's students and some faculty members gathered in the gym last Friday to watch him lose his locks.

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