Retired minister steps up to lead small Maltby church

MALTBY — The Rev. Dianne O’Connell figured she could sneak in the back unnoticed.

She was wrong.

Before she knew it, the Edmonds woman was being whisked to the front pews of the historic First Congregational Church of Maltby, a rustic landmark sandwiched between an ice cream shop and the popular Maltby Cafe.

O’Connell, a retired Presbyterian minister, wanted to see if she might be a good fit as an interim pastor for the independent community church.

From the outside, O’Connell took in the white church and steeple and the tall, skinny windows.

Once inside, O’Connell tried to slide into a back row to observe the service beneath a ceiling that conceals old growth timber beams hewn by settlers more than 110 years ago.

The problem was she was a new face in a small church “and they are a very friendly group,” she said. “I wanted to be invisible, but I wasn’t very stealthy.”

The congregation was looking for a transitional minister at the time. O’Connell, 67, got a call on New Year’s Eve from someone outside the church who asked if she might be interested in the post.

She was happily retired. She had moved from Alaska to Edmonds to be closer to two of her children and grandchildren. She’d even taken up sailing the year before.

As it turned out, she was drawn into the intimacy of the church where the harmonica, penny whistle, violin and a string bass dubbed “Gertrude” join guitars, a piano and human voices during hymns. She also was impressed by the congregation’s desire to help others through volunteering at a nearby food bank and hosting a twice-monthly soup kitchen during the cold months.

The congregation later asked if she would preach to them one Sunday.

Eventually, she was hired to fill the opening. She began delivering sermons about a month ago.

“It just seemed like a good match,” she said. “I really truly did feel called.”

O’Connell spent 45 years in Alaska where she was a journalist, before stints working for the state teachers and nursing unions.

The Chicago-area transplant was a mother of five children and step-children. She grew to appreciate the state nicknamed the “Last Frontier” and her rural home where the dog food had to be protected from bears and five moose that showed up in her yard one year became her Christmas card photo.

In the 1980s, she became concerned that the Moral Majority was taking religious stands she didn’t agree with. The movement, along with the death of her 16-year-old daughter, caused her to reflect deeply.

With her husband’s blessing, she took the two youngest children to California where she enrolled in the San Francisco Theological Seminary. She was ordained in the Presbyterian church in 1987.

“I just wanted to spend time with my little ones and with God,” she said.

She worked for many years as a hospital chaplain, providing comfort to the worried and solace to the grieving. Her chaplaincy took her to emergency rooms, prisons and mental health units. She also led joyous celebrations at weddings and baptisms and had guest preaching appearances in churches representing many denominations.

In recent years, she has taken temporary assignments similar to the one she is filling now in Maltby.

She served as interim senior minister at a Congregational church in Anchorage in 2010 and 2011.

The Maltby congregation had been without a pastor for a lengthy stretch with members taking turns leading services.

That commitment impressed O’Connell.

“My job as I see it is to encourage these folks to do what they are already doing quite well. It’s letting the core people know how much they are already doing right,” she said.

Kristen Forster, moderator of the church’s administrative council and its music director, said the church continues its quest to find a permanent pastor. It could take a year or two.

The congregation is grateful to have someone of O’Connell’s background step in and prepare them for a permanent pastor, she said.

“She brings special skills and ability to the job,” she said. “We actually think the Lord has a lot to do with this.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

A small church in Maltby will get to stage a big event next week.

The First Congregational Church of Maltby is hosting the Pacific Northwest Association of Congregational Christian Churches on May 17 and 18.

The conference is to include a free public performance by the Fishnet Theatre production company of “The Trial of Derwood Divinhoff” at 7 p.m. Friday.

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