LPC's first full-time female pastor leading revitalization effort
By RYAN LESSARD Union Leader Correspondent
Pastor Karla Dias, left, hosts a recent summer cookout with church members at Londonderry Presbyterian Church. (COURTESY)
LONDONDERRY — When Karla Dias, 63, started her job as the new pastor of Londonderry Presbyterian Church (LPC) in November 2016, some church members left because she was a woman or because Dias, a native of Brazil, spoke with an accent.
But since then, they've added new members, and Dias has been spearheading a community grief counseling initiative.
Founded in 1735 by Rev. James McGregor, LPC is one of the oldest congregations in the country. And for the past 280 years it has never had a full-time female pastor.
Longtime church member Lucille Robbins said that, at its height in the mid-1990s, the church had about 800 members and three services.
But the church’s ranks had aged and dwindled in recent years, and it suffered a mass exodus of members about 10 years ago when it experienced a schism — an ideological split that led to a spinoff Evangelical Presbyterian church. LPC remained a part of the traditional Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination.
Robbins said the schism and the acrimony surrounding that event is long behind them, and they now have a positive relationship with their sister church, Orchard Christian Fellowship, which is located down the road. But Robbins said their church suffered a branding issue; people saw them as “the church that fights.”
When Dias came on board, there were about 30 members.
“They hired me to be the revitalization pastor,” Dias said.
While a few members responded to her arrival by quitting the church, she said the larger church body welcomed her.
“Here I am, a Latina, ... and this little church, 100 percent white, accepted me ... with open arms,” Dias said.
When asked about negative response to efforts to increase diversity in the state, she said it’s really sad. “We grow more beautiful when we acquire colors from everywhere,” Dias said.
Membership in LPC is a little over 40, and Dias said more members are staying after the service for coffee and fellowship. And Dias said she has been learning a lot about New England culture, and her English has improved.
And they have a strategy for future growth. To start with, Robbins said they plan to knock on the doors of 55-plus communities to hand out fliers and talk about the church.
“I am praying for youth too,” Dias said.
There are a handful of preteens in the church who are about to become teenagers. She hopes to be able to start a youth group that might attract a younger demographic.
The worship music at LPC is a mix of traditional and contemporary, with an “small orchestra” of musicians who can play the cello, flute, french horn, violin, trumpet, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano and drums.
“I’m not an ordinary pastor,” Dias said. “If I have to dance, I dance. If I have to laugh, I laugh.”
Karla said the music and inclusivity of the church is what made her fall in love with it early on. She says it’s “Christ-centered,” which she defines as a church that treats all kinds of people with love.
Eventually, the goal is to have enough members to send missionaries abroad, something the church hasn’t done for a while.
So far, most of her ministry has been for older generations, with a lot of focus given to grieving widows and widowers, who find themselves alone often after decades of living with another half. And Dias is no stranger to starting making changes later in life.
She was a longtime missionary to indigenous Xavante tribes in the forests of Brazil, but she didn’t get her masters of divinity from Andover Newton Theological School until 2015. She also served as a hospital chaplain for many years.
Today, her support group for widows and widowers, called “Walking Together,” has about 13 to 14 regular members. They meet every first and third Tuesday of the month at the church at 126 Pillsbury Road at 7 p.m. Another group for those grieving lost loved ones who are not spouses, called “Walk With Me,” meets every second and fourth Tuesday at 7 p.m.
One does not need to be a church member to join the support groups.