WELLFLEET — When Chip Hurd, the pastor of the Roslindale Congregational Church in Boston, heard about the Wellfleet Congregational Church’s search for a new pastor, his friend Jon Elsensohn came immediately to mind. “This was made for you,” he said to Elsensohn about the job.
Elsensohn, who delivered his first sermon in Wellfleet on Feb. 19, first got to know the Outer Cape in the pages of Robert Finch’s Outlands, which he found in a second-hand bookshop in Memphis, Tenn. At the time, he was working in a psychiatric ward at a Veterans Administration hospital — his first job after getting a master’s degree in theology.
Back then, he recalls, he was taken with Finch’s notion of people having a “tactile relationship to the landscape.” In one of his first sermons here, he borrowed from Finch, referring to “our tactile relationship to faith.”
Elsensohn grew up in Bozrah, Conn., a town of fewer than 2,500 residents in the eastern part of that state. So, he says, “Serving a small church in a small town feels a bit like a homecoming.”
Even before his friend told him about Wellfleet’s profile, he had been wanting to serve a church that is dedicated to being “involved in the life of the town,” he says.
As a young man, Elsensohn worked in construction and as a sailing teacher in Mystic, Conn., a town that had a working fishing fleet, an annual surge of summer residents and visitors, and a growing number of retirees, he says. The challenge there, he adds, is in bringing those groups together. He looks forward to encountering a similar opportunity in Wellfleet.
The road he traveled to Wellfleet was neither straight nor narrow. His father was a pastor; he died when Elsensohn was 18. The following year, Elsensohn took a job as a merchant marine with a small cruise company in Haddam, Conn. He “bootstrapped,” he says, as a crew member until he was 23.
After his merchant marine service, Jon attended Marlboro College in Vermont, where he majored in religion and political theory with an emphasis on both Eastern and Western monastic traditions. “I was interested in belief and action, and I wanted to understand how belief can change how one lives,” he says.
The next step in Elsensohn’s pursuit of that inquiry was the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge (now a part of Union Theological Seminary in New York), where he earned a master’s in theology.
It was after that that Elsensohn took the job in Memphis, where he worked with veterans suffering from PTSD and substance abuse disorders. The experience, he says, offered useful learning for the ministry, “because I saw how often the patients’ issues were nested. It was never just one thing.”
“The V.A. did not pay very well,” Elsensohn says, so he took a second job working as a bouncer in a bar called the Flying Saucer.
After two years in Memphis, Elsensohn took a job as director of Christian education at the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Leominster, where he oversaw the Sunday school and adult education programs. The curriculum he developed there emphasized “how Christianity exists in a polyglot world,” he says. The idea was to place Christianity in the context of comparative religion, seeking common ground rather than claiming exclusivity.
Three years into his term at Leominster, and after he was ordained in the American Baptist Church, Jon became the senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Freehold, N.J. In his six years there, he says, he learned to listen better to people’s needs. During the pandemic, he worked on locating those who needed vaccines most. Another focus was addressing food insecurity among undocumented workers, who he says make up about 25 percent of the workforce in that community.
As for Elsensohn’s Baptist ordination, he is in the process of gaining dual clergy standing within the United Church of Christ. He says he’s pleased that the church in Wellfleet has embraced two classifications within the U.C.C. tradition: it is “Open and Affirming,” that is, welcoming to all, and it is a “Just Peace” church, embracing the ideals of divine peace and nonviolence.
In his new post, Elsensohn says he’s interested in learning about the needs of younger families. “Kids,” he says, “are the least churched group these days.” And yet, he adds, “Young people tend to be mission oriented; they act out of idealism.”
Given the dearth of gathering places for teenagers on the Outer Cape, he wonders if the church’s Fellowship Hall could become a teen gathering area, where community service projects might be created by the teenagers themselves.
Since 2019, the Wellfleet Congregational Church had been led by interim pastor Sheila Rubdi. Normally, an interim serves for less than two years, but because of the pandemic, the search process took four years, says Elsehnsohn.
Elsensohn starts his job just in time for some anniversary celebrations. The Congregational Church here installed its first pastor three hundred years ago, in 1723, two years after the church separated from Eastham’s and was incorporated in Wellfleet.