Pastor takes a leap of faith

The Rev. Scott McLeod, his wife, Laura, and their children, Ruth and Henry, gather outside their home after a parade of well-wishers drove by. After 25 years as pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elkhorn, McLeod is now serving the UCC in Port Washington. (Heather Ruenz photo)

After 25 years at area church, Scott McLeod decides to make a change

By Heather Ruenz

Staff Writer

Not all decisions to make a change come by way of an epiphany – sometimes it’s nothing more than the quiet ticking of an internal clock.

The Rev. Dr. Scott McLeod, who has spent the past 25 years leading the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elkhorn recently took a leap of faith. He is now serving the UCC in Port Washington.

“The average pastorate is about four years and I was at the Elkhorn church for 25 years. I started thinking if I’m going to make a change, now might be the time to do it,” he said.

McLeod began at the Elkhorn UCC in 1996.

“It’s been very difficult to say goodbye to the Elkhorn church. They’ve been such a big part of my life and my family’s life so it was a difficult choice to make, it really was,” he said.

McLeod attended college in Pennsylvania and then went on to receive a master’s degree from Andover Newton Theological School near Boston, where he met his wife, Laura. She’s from Des Plaines, Illinois, and eventually wanted to move back to the Midwest. Laura is the pastor at the UCC in Brookfield. McLeod later earned a doctor of ministry degree.

He said part of the reason his tenure in Elkhorn lasted so long is because he and the parishioners challenged each other.

“The beginning of my ministry was a lot of healing as the church had gone through a tough time with its two previous pastors,” McLeod said.

The middle part, he explained, was seeing some major projects through – putting a new steeple on the church, installing a lift and getting the sanctuary ready for 21st century technology.

“The last part was more focused on mission. So, I think we kept things interesting while tackling the things that needed to be addressed,” McLeod said.

Giving people hope

One of those mission-focused projects was Hope Now, which got its start when a group of people became connected: McLeod was writing Salvation Army vouchers at the time; Eleanor Montano helps oversee a mission fund at St. Patrick’s Church; Joyce Rich was the pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church at the time; and Mary Ellen Wright, a social worker for the local school district.

“I called St. Pat’s to see if we could work together and in that conversation with Eleanor, we realized we were helping some of the same people… in some ways we were being taken advantage of but in others, we weren’t doing as much as we could,” McLeod explained.

He said they also knew of the 14th Apostle, which met at the Episcopal Church in Delavan and helped cover bills for people in the Delavan community.

“We thought we should do something along those lines and figured there would be others out there interested in helping. After becoming a 501(c)(3) we asked the churches to help with financing. About 15 years ago we started meeting with and helping people,” McLeod explained.

McLeod said helping start Hope Now is something he’s very proud of.

“It’s grown stronger over the years. There are a lot of new people involved in it now and it seems to have a lot of energy, which is great,” he said.

Angela Swinehart, a field representative with The Salvation Army, has worked with McLeod for the past 11 years.

“He organized our kettle campaign in Elkhorn as well as dispersing the funds raised to Elkhorn residents in need. He is a great man who is always wanting to help,” Swinehart said. “I will miss working with him. Blessings for his next chapter.”

Wright said McLeod has been an essential part of Hope Now.

“He and a few other individuals met with representatives of Walworth County Human Services, Housing Authority, Community Action and other organizations to determine what essential assistance to the Elkhorn community Hope Now would best provide,” she said.

Wright said McLeod not only served as board president a number of times, but provided direction and focus to Hope Now and consistently promoted it through his church and other organizations he volunteered with.

“Hope Now is indebted to Scott’s many years of service and his enduring guidance. He will be missed and we wish him all the best,” she said.

‘Who’s on first?’

Bob Burton came to the Elkhorn UCC about a year after McLeod did.

“Right away, I enjoyed the church and Pastor Scott’s sermons and very approachable nature,” Burton said.

He said one of the many things he and McLeod did together was start Barley Ministries, a church beer club.

“I had started homebrewing and Scott was interested in learning. We did a brew together and decided to see how others among our congregation might enjoy it. It’s been a great fellowship activity, with quite a few regulars,” Burton said.

He said the club brews a beer and orders pizza while also sampling beer, whether it’s a previous brew or other interesting beers. The group has also gone on field trips including to Lakefront Brewery, and Old World Wisconsin when they were doing old-time brewing.

Burton said he and McLeod also had fun when they entered a talent show at Elkhorn Area High School.

“Most of the show was singing or playing musical instruments. Not us. We did the old Abbott and Costello ‘Who’s on first?’ routine. Leading up to that night, and even in our practice right before the show, we just couldn’t get it right. When we went on stage, though, we really nailed it! It was so much fun,” Burton said.

Thoughtful, inspiring

Dave and Alice Hill met McLeod in 2013 when they first visited the church.

“We were immediately drawn to his warm and welcoming personality and deeply meaningful and personal approach to preaching,” Alice said.

“Scott is a thoughtful and inspiring pastor who really understood the needs and strengths of the church family. Perhaps one of his best talents is the ability to encourage and utilize the diverse knowledge and life skills of the members to make the Elkhorn UCC a better place and a more meaningful faith experience,” Dave added.

In 2016, McLeod approached Alice, who is Jewish, to share a Passover Seder meal with the congregation. The following year, a Seder meal would become a part of the church’s Maundy Thursday service, the Hills said.

“During his tenure, Pastor Scott shared his faith, love and commitment with us all. Port Washington will soon come to know what an amazing individual Pastor Scott McLeod is and how fortunate they are to have him. We will miss him dearly.”

Going the extra mile

Jennifer Neis was on the search team at the church that brought McLeod to Elkhorn from Connecticut.

In addition to his youth, enthusiasm and the fact that he seemed very honest about himself, Neis said she was impressed by his compassion.

“He hardly knew me and yet he traveled an hour away to attend my father-in-law’s funeral in the first two months he was with us. A couple of years later, he performed the marriage ceremony for my daughter in Elkhorn and then traveled to Lafayette, Indiana, seven weeks later to perform my other daughter’s wedding,” Neis said.

She said she and McLeod led a youth group at the church for several years.

“The kids loved him. We had so many wonderful experiences with games, stories and field trips,” she said.

McLeod taught the congregation a great deal of church history, Neis said.

“We always laughed because at times it was like being back in school. As a history major in college, I loved it. It was Scott’s thing,” she said.

McLeod, she said, has a great sense of humor and the ability to laugh at himself and will be missed terribly.

“He was a member of our family. We watched his children grow to young adulthood, cheering for them as we would our own children or grandchildren,” Neis said. “However, we are very happy and excited for him as he pursues a calling at another church. We wish him much success.”

Not an easy decision

The United Church of Christ hires and fires, and calls and dismisses pastors, McLeod said, “so us pastors, we can kind of stay as long as we want as long as they want us. Elkhorn is a great community, and the church was very gracious and generous to me and my family.”

He said if he hadn’t felt a calling to the UCC in Port Washington, he very easily could have remained at the church in Elkhorn.

“I didn’t feel as if I had to go but I did feel a calling,” he said. “In a lot of ways, they reminded me of the Elkhorn church and the timing is right to make a change.”

McLeod said there’s an associate conference minister who will help the Elkhorn UCC in this process.

“While the Elkhorn church has a lot of affection for me and me for them, the next person that comes in could be better and honestly, I hope that happens. And I hope that they move in the direction God wants them to go.”

Hard to say goodbye

The pandemic made a proper sendoff challenging but McLeod’s family and friends came up with some creative ways to do so.

There was a socially distanced, drive-up goodbye event outside the church at which people drove up to spend 10 minutes talking with McLeod.

The following week, a parade led by an Elkhorn police squad made its way past the McLeod residence. It featured a long line of vehicles honking horns and people yelling good wishes while displaying balloons and homemade signs. There were also some tears shed.

McLeod was recently presented a special quilt featuring traced handprints of more than 100 people, which Barb Townsend put together.

“I feel blessed that I was able to take this project on and complete it for someone who has been so much a part of our lives for quite a few years now,” she said.

“It’s so appropriate. Our church has an expression that comes out quite often: Many hands make light work. And it was 105 of those hands that helped to make this keepsake for him.”

“We are sad to see him go but are very thankful for his years of service to us,” Townsend said. “Needless to say, he will be missed by us, but also by the entire community.”

One Comment

  1. John Boerner-Mercier

    What a great tribute to a wonderful pastor, a kind & caring person, and a special friend. I had the pleasure of working with Scott when he was in Connecticut. We wish him and his family only the best.