, Salem, MA

November 24, 2010

New pastor combines ministry, engineering

Longtime Pastor Raymond Phyles retires at 70

By Will Broaddus
Staff Writer

PEABODY — Some would say that science and religion contradict each other, but don't tell Charles Stevenson, the new pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Peabody.

When he isn't tending to his congregation, a duty he assumed in September following the retirement of Pastor Raymond Phyles, Stevenson teaches computer science at Salem State University, where he is an assistant professor. "There is not a conflict," Stevenson said. "The two most important things in our society are religion on one hand; on the other is science and technology. How we understand those two is one of the biggest challenges for the 21st century."

Stevenson, 51, who was born in Michigan and lives in Stow with his wife and two of their four children, completed a master's in divinity in 2006 and a master's in sacred theology in 2009, both at Yale Divinity School. These were added to a master's and Ph.D. in electrical engineering he had already earned, earlier in his career, at Purdue University.

It has been a career in which "I'd work for a while, then go to school," Stevenson said.

This is his first position as a pastor, following jobs in corporate research laboratories at General Motors, Delco Electronics and IBM, in addition to one at MIT's Lincoln Laboratories — the job that first brought him to Massachusetts.

Work experience is a must for any pastor at St. John's, because the position is part time.

"We call it 'tent-making ministry,'" said Phyles, 70, who served at St. John's for 33 years. "St. Paul made his living as a tent-maker, not as a missionary."

During his tenure at the church, Phyles also worked as an editor and proofreader of marketing materials at financial services firms in Boston.

St. John's was founded in 1904, and the building it now occupies on Ellsworth Road was built in 1915. The church was established by "Finns who came and worked in the tanneries," Phyles said. "Old-timers know it as the Finnish church in Peabody. You don't have to be Finnish to go there, although we're proud of the heritage."

The congregation numbers around 200, according to Phyles, "a number that has maintained itself over most of the years that I've been involved."

"St. John's is not large," Phyles said, "but it's big in terms of what it does and what it is."

Stevenson said that one way to grow a congregation in a place like Massachusetts, where Lutherans are far less common than in the Midwest of his childhood, is to "de-emphasize the Lutheran aspect." But that isn't an option for the congregation at St. John.

"The Lutheran heritage is very important for them," Stevenson said. "What we will try to do is embrace our identity. We're not going to shy away from it."

That heritage is based in the challenges to religious orthodoxy first posed by Martin Luther on Oct. 31, 1517, when he nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg. Lutherans celebrate this event every year, and it is in staying true to these roots that Stevenson sees the future of St. John's.

"The Reformation heritage is still relevant and vital today," he said. "We want to bring that to the ecumenical conversation."