BAR HARBOR — After a dozen years ministering to the outer islands as the “Sunbeam Pastor,” Rob Benson has set his feet on dry land at the Congregational church here.
Benson has been at the lectern of the Congregational church for a month, and in that time, he has been impressed with the welcoming attitude of his flock, he said.
“I’m thrilled to be a part of this congregation. They’re incredibly capable people … who are really interested in engaging with the community,” Benson said during an interview in his church office this week. “My aim is to have it be a place that is authentic and caring and loving of one another, and tuned in to understanding a love of God and understanding God’s presence in our lives.”
Benson has been interested in matters of the spirit from a young age although it took him a little while to realize his calling. After several years as a middle school teacher and swim coach, he realized that he was doing a lot of counseling, and that, combined with an strong interest in matters of theology, led him to attend Yale divinity school, from which he graduated in 1995.
Since that time, he has felt rewarded by helping people gain a greater sense of meaning in their lives, he said, while also helping to grow a sense of community among people of disparate faiths.
“There is something wonderful about the intersection of moving from the places where we’re stuck, and walking with people into a greater sense of abundance or connection,” Benson said. “I want to help people embrace a faith that continues to speak and have a dynamic energy in their lives.”
While working on remote islands such as Matinicus, Frenchboro and Isle au Haut as the Sunbeam Pastor with the Maine Sea Coast Mission, Benson said he encountered people from many faiths and theological backgrounds, and building community and common ground among them was a large focus of his work. In that way, the Congregational Church is similar, he said, with members coming from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds.
“I recognize a tremendous variety here in the church of faith and spiritual perspective. It is a commitment here to recognize that diversity,” he said. “It’s kind of counterculture, in the way that what we see a lot of is, ‘If you don’t think the way I do, I’m going to vote you off my island,’ and I think one of the exercises of faith is to find common ground. In Christianity, you call it seeing the face of Christ in each other.”
For some years before serving with the mission, Benson worked as a hospital and hospice chaplain, and it was within this work that he really embraced the idea of meeting people just where they were spiritually. This philosophy has carried over into his work as pastor, both on Sunbeam and now here in Bar Harbor, where he believes that honestly being with people is the first step toward spiritual involvement.
“Part of my hospice background is to try to begin where people are and see what avenues of interest there might be, as opposed to ‘We’ve got a defined end point we all need to get to,’” Benson said. “The world can be tremendously difficult, and having a faith that says that you get what you want when you’re good – many people don’t experience life that way.”
Benson projects an incredibly peaceful and relaxed persona, one which seems to fit his roles as community builder and spiritual coach. He embraces the challenges of a congregation full of people of differing backgrounds and perspectives, and dedicates himself to being fully present with his flock. He is excited for his new role here, and it seems the members of the Congregational Church can rejoice in having a pastor with energy and great dedication to matters of both spirit and practice.
“When people have an experience of being fully known and fully loved, they’re freer to live in a way that is more devoted to matters of the spirit,” Benson said. “I want to lead people to embrace a faith that continues to speak and have a dynamic energy in their lives.”