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Oldest Presbyterian church charts new course, hires first female pastor

The Rev. Sarah Bigwood, who started her career

The Rev. Sarah Bigwood, who started her career as a computer programmer, is the first woman to become pastor of the 379-year-old First Presbyterian Church in Southampton. Credit: James Carbone

A Presbyterian church, billed as the oldest in America, has hired a woman as its top leader for the first time since its founding in 1640.

The Rev. Sarah Bigwood spent her first full day on the job Wednesday at the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton, and said she was thrilled.

“I’m excited,” said Bigwood, 45. “I think it shows that there is a willingness here or a desire to do something new, to see the future unfold in a new way.”

Church leaders said they did not intentionally set out to hire a woman for the first time in the church’s 379-year history but were open to the idea and found Bigwood a compelling candidate.

“I’m super-excited and super-proud of my congregation, that they took this leap of faith and invited the very first female minister to be part of the oldest Presbyterian church in America,” said Kristin White, whose family goes back 12 generations at the church to its founding a decade after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

“It wasn’t just the fact that she was a female,” White said. “We were really drawn to her personality, the effects that she has had on young people, the fact that she has grown her youth group and her Sunday school exponentially at her current church” in Minnesota.

Another parishioner, Bill Sickles, said, “I think this is long overdue. We were looking for the right pastor. It just so happened it turned out to be a woman, but that made it that much more special.”

He added, “I know she is going to be an excellent fit.”

The 350-member congregation voted on whether to hire the Minnesota native after she traveled to Southampton in February as the final part of the interview process and delivered a sermon.

The vote was unanimous.

Southampton is among the oldest Presbyterian churches in America. The only others the group knows of that were also founded in 1640 are in Southold and Shinnecock, said Kris Valerius, a spokeswoman for the Presbyterian Church USA.

Southampton appears to be the oldest continuously functioning Presbyterian church in the country, church members said.

Bigwood is married to Tom Bigwood and they have two children.

On Sunday, Sarah will deliver her first sermon as pastor of the church. The theme, based on a reading from John, will be love, and how it plays out in community, she said.

After Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Bigwood worked as a software engineer with a degree in computational economics, but soon got involved in church work focused on children and loved it, she said.

Eventually she attended seminary, earned a master's of divinity and served as associate pastor at Valley Community Presbyterian Church outside Minneapolis.

She also started an after-school STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) program at a church in an impoverished area in Minneapolis.

She arrived in Southampton on May 4 and is already acclimating. She has been invited to deliver invocations or benedictions at the local Memorial Day Parade and the Southampton High School graduation.

She said she was not overly nervous about serving as the church’s 32nd pastor — and its first female leader.

“I want to do a good job, and I want to be able to love people through their difficult times, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in their joyous moments and minister to them well,” she said.

She is also making the adjustment of moving from the Midwest to the East Coast.

“I love New Yorkers,” she said. “They really say what they mean and say what they are thinking … very candid. I like it. Then I know where I stand.”

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