Understanding the history of the church and community is as important as leading the congregation, said Craig Sumey, pastor of Oakland Presbyterian Church.
“I just always felt the pastor should be a historian and know the stories,” Sumey said. “This church’s history is intwined with the town’s history: Judge (James Gamble) Speer was a Presbyterian and was a charter member of this church.”
There is an abundance of history in this 134-year-old church, and it’s Sumey’s job to connect its past with its future.
“You have a church in a crossroads, and it owns its own property, has multi-use facilities,” he said. “I just thought, ‘That’s a church that would be well positioned to be a blessing in its community. … And then I met the people, I thought, ‘These are good people, it’s got a diversity of people here, they seem like they want to honor their past but not be beholden to it, but they need guidance, they need leadership and to move forward.’”
Sumey has been pastoring for nearly 30 years. He has learned that when he moves to a new community and church, it’s important to listen and learn and gather information about a place and not try to do “anything other than what’s basic to being a pastor and do that as best as I can and focus my energy on that,” he said.
“When I’m preaching, I’m as connected to them and God’s word as I can,” Sumey said. “Learning people’s stories and really just, I’ve really only asked one question of people when we meet. I ask, ‘What’s your greatest hope for Oakland Presbyterian?’ and kind of leave that open-ended and let them answer that question however they want.”
One theme emerged, he said. Local folks are discovering the median age is younger than the national average here in West Orange County, which means an increase in young families to bring into the church and preschool.
“I’m preaching a whole series on Children’s Church, and it’s basically, ‘How do you care for children in your midst, how do you steward?’ And Jesus had a lot to say about caring for children. My first message was ‘children need to be safe.’ The church is supposed to be a refuge for parents and for children so that they’re safe — and when they’re safe, they thrive.”
At the job just five months, Sumey is serving as the church’s leader at a time when it’s difficult to organize group gatherings.
Sumey and his wife of 28 years, Lynn, have made several moves to and from Florida. He started a church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and then was an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in Lakeland before accepting a pastoral position in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. Their next move was to the warmer climes of West Orange County, where they found many similarities between Coeur d’ Alene and the Winter Garden/Oakland area.
“My personality is to come and sort of help a church innovate, and I really like working with existing churches that want to sort of find a future,” Sumey said. “They’ve had a rich and glorious past — and now, in a changing world, how do we find that future mission? That’s kind of a specialty that I’ve been drawn to.”
This month has been reconnecting with everyone, he said.
“It’s a generational game-changer for the church and may go way past generational, too,” Sumey said. “If you think about it, the way churches are accustomed to running and the value they put on things, COVID changed that. Gatherings, use of buildings, pastors had to relearn their jobs, where suddenly I’m standing in front of a camera and microphone week after week after week.”
Sumey said he is motivated by transformation.
“I just like to see things get better,” he said. “I like to see people get better because they’re effective dealing with their stuff, and some of the burdens they’re carrying are starting to fall away. And then I really like to see groups of people get better together.”
As a child growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, Sumey knew he was destined to be a speaker.
“I remember seeing people who were speaking to a crowd and imagining myself in that,” he said. “Very early on, my grandmother, who’s passed on now, her favorite story was my first sermon which was standing on the wall … and I was preaching a sermon about how God should do something about my little brother because he was being a pest. I would have been 5, 6. She loved to tell that story, especially when I actually became a pastor.”
Sumey said he received the pastoral call when he was a college student looking for a summer job. He was hired at his home church to help with the summer youth program. He found himself in the fortunate position of being mentored by the church’s pastor, and then he went from college straight to Princeton Theological Seminary.
The Sumeys have two grown children, a son and a daughter, and are living nearby in Winter Garden. They are eager to meet even more people in the area, and they invited folks out to either the more casual 8:45 a.m. service or the traditional 11 a.m. service.
“We just would love to meet people, and if you can’t join us in person, the 11 o’clock service is on Facebook live,” Sumey said.
“This church is in an excellent location to reach a lot of people,” Sumey said. “We have wonderful resource; caring, loving people; a facility; property, and so we have a call really to reach the community as it is now.”