Article By: Karen Gardner
Photos By: Josh Triggs
As the new pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Martinsburg, Rev. Matthew Day doesn’t have to rush through sermons the way he once did.
While serving two parishes in the rural community surrounding Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Day had his Sunday services timed to the minute. “I had a system,” he said. “I had to be done by 10:12.”
Now his services are all in one place, at St. John’s, a historic church at 101 W. Martin Street. Day is settling into his role leading the St. John’s congregation. He came to the church in July 2016, but is still relatively new compared to the previous pastor. Rev. James D. Riley served as the church’s pastor for 36 years, before retiring in 2014.
When he first enrolled in seminary, Day planned to serve an urban parish. But circumstances took him in a different direction, and he spent a year in southwest Virginia. He loved it, and planned to spend his career serving rural parishes.
But after coming to Martinsburg, he has come to realize he has a bit of both in his new church, fulfilling both his goals.
Day, 33, is the son of a Lutheran pastor, and didn’t plan to follow his father’s career path. A native of Owings Mills, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, he majored in sociology at community college. He transferred to Towson University, where he majored in social work.
It was at Towson that the ministry began calling to him. He became interested in the campus ministry. “Towson let me explore the program,” he said. “I had a way of relating to the other students.”He became involved in the college’s peer ministry, and led the music at the contemporary worship service. Day plays the guitar and spent many years taking guitar lessons, and he feels close to God when playing worship music.
He graduated in January 2008, and had six months off before he entered seminary at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. At that time, he had hoped to enter seminary in Philadelphia, where he could study urban ministry, but Gettysburg offered him more financial aid.
In the interim before seminary, Day worked at St. Joseph Hospital in Baltimore and then for an adoption program in Atlanta. His job was to organize events for potential adoptive parents. He still had the goal of doing urban ministry when he started at Gettysburg, but the school sent him to rural Virginia for a year.
“I fell in love with the place and that kind of ministry,” he said. “After that, I took as many rural ministry classes as possible.” When he graduated, he was assigned to the Mount Joy-St. Paul parish near Gettysburg. “It felt right,” he said. “I wasn’t looking.” But after a couple of years, St. John’s bishop approached him about coming to West Virginia.
On his first day at seminary, Day’s life changed in another way. “I wanted to be a monk,” he said. But a fellow student from across the hall introduced herself. “I was trying to set up my stereo, and she just wanted to talk,” he recalled.
They went through the four-year program together, a program which Day dubbed “the longest master’s degree program in the country.”After graduation, the couple married. While Matthew worked for the Mount Joy-St. Paul parish, Diane became chaplain at Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster, Maryland. She also worked in the admissions office at Gettysburg College.
But she was looking to serve a congregation, and is now the pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Charles Town.
Early in 2016, Matt got a call from the church leaders at St. John’s. “I wasn’t looking,” he said. “They approached me.” Church leaders were seeking someone with more experience, he added. “But I thought I’d do the interview for the experience. I was honest with them.”
Pastor Matt, as he’s known, worked his way through the interview process. He wasn’t sure he was ready to leave his parish in Gettysburg, and thought each step in the process would be the last. After meeting approval with the bishop, the call committee and the church council, he gave a sermon before the congregation.
“I wasn’t sure, but all these people wanted me to come here,” he said. In the meantime, Diane became pastor at St. Thomas, and the couple moved to the parsonage in Charles Town. They live there with their 9-month old son and two dogs, Maple and Louie.
“Every person in both our congregations is amazed that it all worked out,” he said.
Pastor Matt wants to continue St. John’s tradition of serving Martinsburg, a tradition which has been around for two and half centuries. He walks around the historic church with wonder, pointing out the bullet hole the building sustained in the Civil War. The church’s historical facade has been shielded with a modern glass front to preserve it.
The church dates back to 1775, and the current building was erected in the 1850s. Stained glass windows bear the names of prominent church members over the years. In the musical nook is a Moller organ, with its massive pipes shielded by a wooden screen. The pews bear the same carved wooden pattern as those in the rural Gettysburg church where Pastor Matt served.
Pastor Matt looks at the musical nook with wonder. “We put a lot of effort into our musical ministry,” he said. “On Sunday mornings, the sanctuary is filled with music.”Musical heritage in the Lutheran church runs deep. “Martin Luther wrote many hymns, and our liturgy has always been very musical,” he said. He wishes he had more time to play music, but he still brings out his guitar to play for the children of the Mustard Seed Child Care. This busy child care is one of the church’s ministries.
Pastor Matt’s days are filled with visiting members of his congregation. “One of the most important things I do is hospital visits,” he said. “If people are having surgery, I try to be there or stop over. One of the most important things about being a pastor is showing up.”
Preaching also takes up much of his time. He spends hours polishing his sermons, making sure they are theologically sound and easy to follow. He often writes it at the Daily Grind in Martinsburg, where the background noise helps him focus.”Nowadays, the average churchgoer may only attend once a month,” he said. “You used to be able to have a bad week, but nowadays, you have one shot, or you could lose them.”Church member Ralph Baker, who has attended the church for over 35 years, enjoys Pastor Matt’s sermons. “Most certainly,” he said.
Doug Widmyer, who has attended the church for about 70 of his 87 years, said he’s impressed with Pastor Matt’s first 18 months at the church. “He’s very good at visitation to the hospital or shut-ins,” Widmyer said. “That’s a big plus.”
Pastor Matt also preaches interesting sermons and gives good funeral sermons, “if there is such a thing as a good funeral,” Widmyer said. “He stays with the family.”
Pastor Matt recently collaborated with other established downtown Martinsburg churches, Trinity Episcopal and First Presbyterian, to do a Palm Sunday procession. “It was fun,” he said. “I got to stop traffic in all my vestments and cope.”The churches expected 25 people to show up, and instead they got 100. “We’ve been talking about what the three of us could do together,” he said. “We liked the Palm Sunday event. We’ll be sticking with that every year.”
The average age of St. John’s members is on the older side, he said. People tend to go away from church attendance once they are confirmed, often not returning until they have families of their own. “Which is why building a relationship is so important,” he said. “We want to give them the tools to know they will always have a church here waiting for them to help them face the world.”
The Mustard Seed Child Care helps the church connect with young families, he said.
Building relationships is one of the most important thing a pastor can do, and that goes for congregations large and small. “I never thought I’d work for this large of a congregation,” he said.
There are about 300 members of the church, with about 125 who come each Sunday. “I get up every day, excited for what awaits me, and I go to bed at night not sure if I got everything done,” he said.