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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the December 22, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Ad Man to Man of the Cloth
When most people think of a church they may think of a white building with a soaring steeple, perhaps picturesquely set on a village green. They may see a building with stained glass windows with brilliant rainbow light pouring in on the wooden pews. They may imagine a cathedral like Notre Dame in Paris, awash with history, or one like St. Patrick’s in New York, which is as much a tourist destination as a house of worship.
Now imagine a new vision of a church, a church without walls, a church that exists through the worship and work of its members. And that is the vision of Montgomery Ministries, a new Presbyterian church being established in the town of Montgomery, one of the fastest growing communities in New Jersey. The man leading the effort is the Reverend Michael Prewitt. “One of the visions of the church is to be the night watchman in Montgomery. Somebody’s lost his job. A teenager’s having a crisis. Somebody’s had a heart attack. We need to help. A church community can hold a town together and make a town stronger through this connection.”
Montgomery Ministries is based on the idea that a bricks and mortar building is not central to the needs or philosophy of the church and is secondary to the spirit that brings people together. “When people hear that I’m establishing a new church the first question they ask is where is the building,” says Prewitt. “We don’t want to be an institution where people come to consume religious product once a week. We want to be a place where everybody comes together to do ministry. A church is about people caring and worshiping and serving the needs of a community. It’s not about a building. You can create a wonderful worship experience in a secular building like a library as opposed to buying a building and saying we have pretty stained glass windows so you should come worship with us.”
The Montgomery High School library is, in fact, where the reverend and about 30 members of the new Montgomery Ministries have been meeting. Worship is held on Sunday mornings at 9:30 although the membership does have room to expand since the library can hold about 100 comfortably. If his membership grows beyond that, Reverend Prewitt has an eye on the “cafetorium” at the Orchard Hill elementary school that can accommodate up to 500. In addition to Sunday service Montgomery Ministries also holds small group meetings including a couples group and Bible study in the church offices housed in a 1960s-era office building on Route 206 next to the Montgomery Shopping Center, the commercial hub of the town. He is also in the process of creating a faith and fitness group. The idea is to hold a small group meeting before or after an exercise session for those who workout at nearby health clubs as a way to connect Christian spirituality to wellness and fitness practices. “There are many new churches in the United States that are vibrant churches that are creating a new vision. Rather than meeting in church buildings they’re partnering with other organizations in a community. The signal you send is that this is about the people,” says Prewitt.
Before he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA this past January, Reverend Prewitt was a hard-charging entrepreneur who owned his own advertising and communications business, Dana Communications, which employed 60 people at its peak at its two locations in Hopewell and in the Empire State Building. “My last day of work in the business world was June 30th,” says Prewitt. “And my first day of work at my new job was July 1st.” The story of how he evolved from businessman to pastor is a story of a life transformation, an inspirational story of a man who dared to follow his dreams and his heart. “A year and a half ago I had one of those ‘is that all there really is’ dreams. I asked myself ‘am I supposed to be an advertising guy all my life?’ I have this passion. Am I ever going to act on it? What if I never realize this dream I have? I talked to my wife, Maureen, about it and she told me I’ve been waiting for this conversation. And then we started to put the pieces together.”
There was nothing in particular in his childhood that foretold his future as a pastor. In fact, he says that if his mother and father were alive today they would certainly be very surprised that he became so involved in the church that he would turn it into his vocation and second career. “I was what you would call a milquetoast Presbyterian,” he says. “Though we went to church I wasn’t passionate and faith was not the center of my family’s lives.”
Prewitt was born in Ohio in 1944. His mother was a homemaker, his father a salesman, who was transferred a lot. Though he lived in many places as a child, including Ohio, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, he considers Pittsburgh his hometown. He has one younger brother, Robert, a resident of Pennington who had become one of his partners at Dana.
Prewitt graduated from Fox Chapel High School. His family had gone to De Pauw University in Indiana for generations so that’s where he went, majoring in history and philosophy. Straight out of college he volunteered for the Peace Corps and went to Ethiopia where he started a magazine. He then followed his globetrotting instincts and moved to Key West, Florida, where he started a newspaper. “I’ve been an entrepreneur most of my life. I’ve held only one 9-to-5 job.” That was with Ketchum Communications in Pittsburgh 30 years ago after his more exotic career stints.
Then in 1973 he moved to Princeton to work for Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Small World Enterprises, a company affiliated with the television show, had the job of producing books, records, and toys that supported the parenting and child development philosophy of Mister Rogers. He did that for about year or two, then used his writing and graphic design talents to freelance for magazines. “One thing led to another and eventually a company grew around me.”
He called it Dana Communications, based on his middle name. It evolved into a sophisticated marketing and communications company that specialized in interactive media and website work, as well as traditional advertising and direct mail. His partners — brother Robert, Thomas Paine, and Gene Underwood have bought him out; it is now a $30 million agency, has 34 employees, and focuses on hospitality and travel.
Prewitt’s clients included corporate giants like Johnson and Johnson and Bristol-Myers Squibb as well as companies like US West and Pacific Bell. Prewitt become very involved in social issues marketing, for example, leading a national campaign for the American Lung Association. His company designed New Jersey’s Safe Haven campaign encouraging young mothers not to abandon their babies. He also helped the Department of Human Services promote adoption and foster care. Other issues close to his heart were the state’s recycling program and New Jersey Best, the college savings program.
“So in the process of all of this I learned how to reach people and persuade people around products and services and issues,” says the reverend, crediting his marketing and entrepreneurial background for giving him a strong foundation to build a new ministry from the ground up. His marketing work also led to the most important partnership of his life, his marriage to his wife, Maureen. “In 1980 I was doing marketing work for the Pennsylvania Ballet. She was their marketing director. I married my client, how about that,” he laughs. “Our marriage has been the center of my life. It’s been the stable thing that has allowed all of my integrated life to happen.”
As his business grew so did Prewitt’s family and his involvement in church and community life. His wife is a homemaker who went back to school and is now a labor and delivery nurse working in high-risk labor and delivery at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Center City in Philadelphia. Prewitt says it’s an intense job, in a sense her mission work, one she loves. They have three children. Their eldest, a son, is in New York. Prewitt notes that when U.S. 1 was two years old Joe was also two years old and was featured on the cover as the “poster child” for the paper’s second anniversary edition.
He is now 20 years old, has studied audio engineering, and is immersed in New York’s artistic and musical community. Catherine, 17, is a senior at Hopewell Valley High School and has been accepted at the University of Pennsylvania. Christopher, 14, is an eighth grader, a boarder at the American Boychoir School in Princeton. He sings and travels around the world with his group. He aspires to be a moviemaker and is currently making a movie about policemen and donuts.
Prewitt had moved to Hopewell in 1982 and bought a building in town so he could have a wonderfully short quarter-of-a-mile commute to work. “I had this life where my business, my children’s schools, my family and community life were all centered around the town of Hopewell.”
A piece of that which became more and more important to him was the Hopewell Presbyterian Church on Broad Street, considered a medium-sized church with about 350 to 400 members. Prewitt says it’s the model of what a church can be in peoples’ lives in good times and bad. “It’s about reaching out to people, caring for each other, worshiping, teaching kids to be people of faith, taking care of older people. I’ve also been involved in the church through the tragic events of some of our members, a suicide and the accidental shooting death of a 14-year-old. I’ve experienced 20 years of watching kids grow up in our church and in our town. I got involved as a scoutmaster, in activities like the planning board. It was the picture of involvement in a local community.”
In 1990 the Hopewell church asked him to become involved in the search for a new pastor. “It became clear over that year that God was calling me to do this kind of work, to become a pastor myself. I was meeting with a lot of people. I felt this tremendous vision of what it could be to be the leader of a church, but it was a special vocation that required knowledge and training. Here I was only seven miles from one of the finest seminaries in the world and I was encouraged by people in the church to do it. When I started I didn’t know what the end would be.”
So he applied to the Princeton Theological Seminary. When he was accepted he decided to keep his day job so it took him seven years to get through the seminary instead of the usual three. “I had to do it in a slow enough fashion that it really stuck.” Prewitt explains that “tentmaker” is a term used to describe the apostle Paul who supported himself in doing his ministry by doing leatherwork. Today it’s a term used for people who keep their day job while they do something else.
“That’s what I thought I would do. I thought I would keep my company and my advertising job and be a tentmaker like Paul and then it became clear to me that this was a vocation that required my full attention.” Prewitt graduated from the seminary in 1999 and began preaching occasionally at the Hopewell Presbyterian Church. “I knew I wanted to do this kind of work. Preaching is something I feel I’m called to do. I want to be able to be involved in the joyous times and the most difficult times in the lives of my members.”
The Hopewell Presbyterian Church is connected to a group of churches in the area called the Presbytery, made up of 42 churches in Mercer, Middlesex, and Hunterdon Counties. Ten years ago they initiated a study to figure out where they would want to grow a church next. They discovered that Montgomery did not have a Presbyterian church. It was a perfect opportunity to try a new vision of a church.
So they called upon Prewitt to use his experiences in a vibrant church in Hopewell to try a new model of a church in Montgomery. “My church and my senior pastor there, the Reverend Doctor Virginia Smith, were supportive in having this church sponsor me as its pastor.” While he is still an associate pastor of the Hopewell Presbyterian Church his mandate is to create a new faith community . “It’s a ripe mission field. We asked ourselves what could a church be if it could start over. The last thing we want to do is to grab people from other churches, to take their membership.”
While he leads the ministry he has help from four people from the Princeton Theological Seminary and three retired from their secular professions. “You might say our church has the best ‘faculty-student’ ratio of any church in America,” says Prewitt.
The focus of Montgomery Ministries is to find a membership of people who see their lives as ministry, who would grow in their discipleship through worship and service to others in the immediate community and around the world.
“It’s not missionary work in the traditional sense, which is that there are people in the world like Africa and Asia who need to be converted,” says Prewitt. “We turn that idea around and say that America has become a mission field, that there are many people in Montgomery who don’t have a church home. We’re building what we call a missional church. In an affluent community like Montgomery that means helping people move away from the narrow vision of their own lives to addressing the needs of the greater world through mission work.”
For example, Prewitt is in conversation with an orphanage in Morocco for church members to help care for children there. He is also exploring a school building project in Guatemala. Locally, the church is involved in the Communities of Light project through Womanspace in Mercer County and the Resource Center for Women and Their Families in Somerset County. The church has also partnered with the area schools to offer a parenting class.
“The beauty of a new church is that we don’t have a lot of people who have their hands on their hips saying we’ve always done it this way. We have the freedom to try it the way we want and if it doesn’t work we can move on and try something else,” says Prewitt. “This is hard work, not a one-year or six-month project like the kind you get in advertising that has a beginning and an end. Ultimately it’s about people spreading the news by word of mouth and building relationships. And that takes time.”
Not only time but also strength for the vast work ahead of him and patience for the 180-degree turn he has taken with his life with his family along for the ride. “It was obviously a big decision. I couldn’t have done it without their support.” Prewitt is also grateful to his brother and business partners for their help in easing his transformation from corporate man to church leader.
Prewitt says he sometimes finds himself a little amused by the contrast between his life now as a pastor and his life as a businessman. “I’m aware of that contrast every day. As an ad person you’re paid to have opinions and speak up. Now I have to know when to shut up.” He says he comes into people’s lives at the most difficult times they face, when they’re having trouble with a spouse or child, if they’ve lost their job, or if they’ve lost a family member. “If I have opinions all the time and I’m telling them how to fix it that’s not being a pastor. I have to be with people in a compassionate way. When you’re a pastor the first thing you need to do is to listen, to focus on the needs of other people. And that means I sometimes have to bite my tongue. The change is difficult but it’s a good change. It’s what I know I need to do.”
Montgomery Ministries, 1377 Route 206, Princeton 08540. 609-921-0006; fax, 609-921-1117. www.montgomery-ministries.org
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