New First Presbyterian Pastor Promotes Change

First Presbyterian Church on Orange Street has a new pastor: The Rev. Geoffrey "Geoff" S. Kohler.

And he has some new ideas.

Kohler, 58, said he accepted the call to the historic church because it is "ready to move on to new things."

"New things have always been my thing. I've never had a position where I wasn't looking for new things. Change - to help people get comfortable with change - is a regular part of my ministry," says Kohler, who was born and raised in Babylon, N.Y.

"I see that here," he says. "In the job description, the pastoral nominating committee said, 'We need somebody skilled in adaptive change.'"

One of the first changes Kohler made was to ask the staff to convert his spacious third-floor office, with beautiful views of the city, into a "Dream Center."

"I wanted it to be a space where the teams of leaders could gather, explore together, work on big ideas, make plans and where individuals could pull off to get their heads clear, focus and create," he writes in a blog.

When he arrived here Wednesday, the center was waiting for him, but an office was not.

"Maybe it will be at a nearby coffee shop," he jokes.

Kohler, also a playwright and an author, will preach in services at the church, 140 E. Orange St., at 8:30, 9:15 and 11 a.m. Sunday.

He comes to Lancaster from Tampa, Fla., where he served 10 years as associate pastor for contemporary worship, missions and youth at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church.

Before moving to Florida, he resided in Malvern for 22 years, serving in ministry in five positions.

He graduated from the former Barrington (R.I.) College in 1976; received a master of arts degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif., in 1978; a master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1987; and a doctorate in ministry from Drew University.

He and his wife, Beckie, plan to reside in the city within walking distance of the church. They have three children and three grandchildren.

When Kohler met with First Presbyterian's session Wednesday night, he gave a PowerPoint presentation on the creative changes he proposes.

Instead of a pyramid structure, with the senior pastor at the top and the congregation at the bottom, he envisions the church organized as an orchestra.

He's the conductor; elders, deacons, and ordained pastors are first chairs; the support staff, the rhythm section; and the congregation, the orchestra. Members of the audience are the people in the community the church wants to draw into the congregation.

"They were very positive," he says of the session's reaction to his presentation. "Their first question was, 'How do we communicate it?' They got it."

Kohler isn't new to the area. In 1991 he worked for the Donegal Presbytery developing a model for a new, more congenial church.

In 1992, he organized one: Marketplace Community Church, in Chesterbrook (Pa.) and served as its pastor. Unfortunately, the alternative church was ahead of its time and closed nine years later. But the idea did not die with it.

"Now it's called the emerging church, founded by (the Rev.) Brian McLaren," Kohler says. "The movement steps away from the traditional and the contemporary to do church a new way, helping people to relax, to be open to change, to have the freedom to express their greatest fears of change.

"None of us likes change, but the nature of Christianity is a call to change," he says. "We recognize we, as human beings, are not perfect. A traditional service includes confession. We want to become more Christ-like.

"The New Testament is about change after change," he says. "In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, 'You've heard it was said, but I say,' and then he tells you the difference."

At First Presbyterian, Kohler says, "we'll be creating a different atmosphere of the way we do church. And everybody will have a part. Everyone will have something to do, just as in an orchestra, everyone has an instrument to play."

The orchestra model will allow Kohler to play his part, not every instrument, "so I can do it well."

As conductor, he and the rhythm section will keep the beat going.

"If we're not in sync, the whole thing gets mixed up."

In the Dream Center, staff will design and develop new ideas.

"We'll rehearse in small groups. We'll care for and support each other so the work gets done and done well.

"It's a very natural, life-giving adventure."

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