Historic St. Elmo Presbyterian Church selects new pastor

Predecessor Cal Boroughs held position 30 years

Contributed photo / Daniel Wells, left, will be moving from Cortland, New York, with his wife and four children, ages 3 to 11. He is seen here with Ralphie, 11.
Contributed photo / Daniel Wells, left, will be moving from Cortland, New York, with his wife and four children, ages 3 to 11. He is seen here with Ralphie, 11.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the type of firm used by the St. Elmo Presbyterian Church pastor search committee.

St. Elmo Presbyterian Church, whose pastor of 30 years retired in 2020, has selected a replacement to forge a new era for the historic congregation in a fast-changing neighborhood.

Daniel Wells has since 2017 pastored Church of the Redeemer in Cortland, New York, a dairy farming and college town near Syracuse.

Following an examination before the Tennessee Valley Presbytery -- a local body of the Presbyterian Church in America -- Wells plans to arrive in Chattanooga around early June, when he's set to take over for interim pastor Bill Massey.

Massey has held the role since the 2020 retirement of Cal Boroughs, who had himself helmed the church since around 1990, when it was on the brink of closing its doors.

(READ MORE: In Chattanooga and beyond, United Methodist Church split echoes Presbyterian past)

Boroughs announced his retirement well in advance, and the church had long planned to have an interim pastor, said Lance Wescher, a church elder who was chairman of the search committee.

"We wanted to create a clean environment for the new pastor to come in and not try to have to fill Cal's shoes right away," he said by phone Monday.

Massey proved an able shepherd, Wescher and others said, and helped to institutionalize church protocols -- writing manuals, for example -- for things that previously Boroughs just did himself.

Before the search committee convened, the church held a listening session with congregants.

Some felt it did a good job supporting people known to be going through a hard time but could better support people whose personal problems did not so plainly show, Wescher said.

Others wondered what foundational mission held together the church's sprawl of ministries, which in some cases spawned out of the discrete personal interest of this or that individual and were sustained through a kind of institutional inertia.

The church discussed narrowing its focus. And, though the pandemic slowed things down, the newly elected search committee wrote up a church profile, posted the job listing and had a firm process applications. They listened to candidates' sermons, narrowed 40 down to five, to three, to two, Wescher said.

About a year ago, Wells and his wife were thinking about moving to a bigger city with better schooling and more expansive friendship possibilities, he said.

In January, as a finalist for the St. Elmo Presbyterian Church job, he visited Chattanooga with his wife, Ashlee, to interview and see if she could picture making a life in the town with their children.

Wells, 37, distinguished himself with his ability to speak to a broad array of people, and for his impressive foreknowledge of Chattanooga: its major employers, schools and other churches, Wescher said.

In February Wells returned to give a test sermon, and at the search committee's recommendation, the church voted 70-0 earlier this month to hire him.

Wells graduated from Erskine College with a degree in philosophy and religion before attending Reformed Theological Seminary.

He planted and pastored Hill City Church in Rock Hill, South Carolina, before moving to his position in upstate New York -- all a contrast from his upper middle class, Nintendo video game-heavy upbringing in Tampa, Florida.

"I went from a church full of artists to a church full of blue collar dairy farmer types," Wells said, recalling his stints in South Carolina and New York. "Now I'm going to a church full of PhDs."

St. Elmo Presbyterian Church has many members with ties to Covenant College and Chattanooga Christian School, an asset and a weakness, said Wescher, also a Covenant College professor, who said some in the community might feel the congregation is only concerned with issues of direct relevance to those worlds.

Wells said he has the sense the congregation is trying to be more actively welcoming to the immediate St. Elmo neighborhood.

"I don't care about numbers or budgets as much," he said by phone Sunday. "Are we being good neighbors?"

Wells likes writing, philosophy, a good party, going on dates with his wife and a couple of sports teams, according to his website bio.

In New York he, for a period, led a men's group called the Garage Gang.

"We enjoy fine drink, a good smoke and deep discussion of a book every month," his website said.

He is active on Twitter, where recent posts range from religious intellectual musings ("I think George Marsden's Doctrinalist, Pietist, Culturalist taxonomy still holds up pretty well") to NBA punditry ("Warriors are heating up! And the Clippers are regretting that Westbrook signing").

In his early pastor days, he sometimes put ministry in front of family, and he said he's made a point of prioritizing and being a better husband and father. Success in the initial Chattanooga years would mean his family of his wife and four children ages 3 to 11 are acclimating well to their new home, he said.

As he's matured as a pastor, he said, he's worked to become more comfortable openly bearing his emotions and personal challenges.

"Sometimes in ministry, pastors feel like they need to have it all together," he said.

He's interested in the idea of leading from a place of human weakness and vulnerability.

"I've tried to grow in that way," he said.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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