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Putting the flock in new hands

“I’m in my sixty-fourth year, and by the time April comes, I will have been here 19 years. I think it’s time for them to have fresh vision,” said Rev. Linda Bell, the minister at Elmira’s Gale Presbyterian Church. Come April, the church’s longtime leader will deliver her last sermon, and as she looks back on years of service, she knows what she’ll miss the most.

“You leave behind a lot of relationships,” said Bell. “People joke about it being a one-day-a-week job, but it’s really a bit more time consuming than that, and because it’s so time consuming, you don’t have the time or energy for a lot of relationships outside the congregation.”

Linda Bell has been minister of the Gale Presbyterian Church for 19 years, and first felt the call to service at age 14. [WILL SLOAN  / observer]
Linda Bell has been minister of the Gale Presbyterian Church for 19 years, and first felt the call to service at age 14. [WILL SLOAN / observer]
It’s not everybody who feels compelled to a lifetime of a religious service. For Bell, the call came when she was 14. “I felt like somehow God was nudging me to the ministry, and I didn’t really want any part of it, so I spent a lot of time and energy thinking I might convince God otherwise.”

But the nudging didn’t stop, and Bell embraced her faith. She did her seminary training, picked up a Master of Divinity degree at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York State, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. Returning to Canada after seven years in the United States, she spent 18 years ministering at a number of small charges across the province, before settling to a more permanent residence at Gale Presbyterian in 1994.

In her years at Gale, Bell has seen the church undergo numerous changes. Chief among them was the church’s move from 2 Cross St. to a new structure at 10 Barnswallow Dr. The ambitious move went through a decade of planning, and was sparked when the church began outgrowing its space.

Bell remembered, “There was a funeral where a couple had come in a bit late, which is no big deal, except that they said they had arrived in Elmira half an hour before the funeral was to start, and they had looked all over Elmira trying to find the Presbyterian church. They had even asked a few places and people didn’t seem to know where we were, because we were tucked in beside the garage. And when they did find it, then they went looking for parking, and they had to park about four blocks away.”

She continued, “All I could think of is that when people are coming to a funeral, feelings are tender. They’re there for the family, but they’re also there for themselves, and to go through that amount of frustration … It was starting to feel very, very cramped.”

The land was purchased with a gift of one million dollars, and the church was built with donations large and small from around the community. Its official opening was April 22 of last year – and Bell saw the one-year anniversary as a comfortable date to depart.

Over the years, Bell has observed an evolution in her own spiritual life, and discovered that a veteran of the ministry has a much different perspective on faith than a 14-year-old child.

“In the church I grew up in, it was a fairly literalistic understanding of scripture,” she remembered. “And when I went to seminary, the first semester was really difficult, because things I had not really questioned suddenly were pointed out, and so there was a lot of wrestling, a lot of angst. … I think the struggle and the tension through all of that was God’s way of helping me find the purpose that He had in mind for my life.”

She continued, “And also, He was preparing me for the day when people would come up to me and say, ‘Women have no right to be ministers, women are not allowed to teach in church,’ yadda yadda yadda. My mental answer – I didn’t always say it out loud – was, ‘I’m OK with that, but tell God!’”

Following her departure, Bell might do some occasional supply preaching, but she stressed that a smooth transition means keeping out of the limelight.

“When you’re a minister, you walk closely with people, particularly during their times of struggle or tragedy – or great celebrations. In order for a new minister to make his or her place here eventually, I need to be gone.”


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