Millennial reverend revs up La Jolla's oldest congregation

In September, just after learning that he landed the job as the Congregational Church of La Jolla’s new pastor, Reverend Tim Seery took a stroll around the Village of La Jolla to explore his new community and introduce himself. Inside the Norma Kay gift shop, he was immediately summoned to the counter to dispense advice.

It wasn’t about salvation, though. Deborah Khazei, a local personal trainer and pilates teacher, was having trouble with her new iPhone 8. “I was trying to work out this Facebook thing,” Khazei said. “It was driving me nuts. So he walked in and he looked young. So I just said, ‘Hey, you, you look nice and young. Can you help me?’ ”

Seery gets reactions like this a lot. At 25, he looks more like a beer-drinking Public House patron than the spiritual leader of the oldest church in La Jolla. (The building was built in 1915, the congregation established in 1889.) The Montana native relocated not long after finishing divinity school at Harvard. Yes, this is his first pastoring job. And Seery is the youngest anyone can possibly be to lead a Congregationalist church.

“But my age doesn’t come up at all here,” Seery says while giving a tour of his new parish. “It seemed to be more of a discussion point on the East Coast, but here, they really don’t mention it and don’t seem to care. I think people here understand that it is possible to be young in age but also to have had a lot of life experiences and several years of education.” (Seery says he’s visited 37 countries and served as a student pastor for two churches. His education, as credentialed spiritual director, includes seven years of specialty training in psychology, pastoral care and counseling.)

To be fair, though, acceptance from this congregation was pretty much a given. Part of the United Church of Christ, the 1216 Cave St. parish is not only the oldest but the most progressive Christian church in town — the first in the United States to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony, the first to employ a female pastor. So there weren’t going to be many eyelashes batted at Seery’s age when he took over for longtime pastor Sam Greening, who relocated last December to head a church in Huntsville, Alabama. In fact, the church specifically sought a leader who was still in grade school while some of its 112 congregants had already retired.

“The approach to worship has to be millennial,” says church moderator Jackie Ritz. “We’re very excited to have Tim here because we needed someone with energy and enthusiasm and the ability to relate directly with younger people. Because if you’re going to draw in younger people from the university or the military, you’re going to have to have someone who’s younger and more hip and more able to relate to what’s going on in the world.”

Seery, who was raised Congregationalist by a paper wholesaler and a stay-at-home mom, says he got his calling during high school. “Growing up in the post-9/11 age, where religion is a dividing factor for people — particularly in places that don’t have that much exposure to other religions, like Montana — that’s how I decided that I wanted to study religion. I felt like it lent itself to my talents and it was really, really important now.”

By the way, after Seery fixed Khazei’s iPhone 8 problem, she asked why he was strolling around La Jolla at 8:30 p.m. He explained and Khazei refused to believe him. “He didn’t come off like a pastor,” Khazei says. “He was dressed in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, and he was so young with this little baby face.” But she was curious, so Khazei attended Seery’s very first Sunday sermon. And she hasn’t missed a single one since. In fact, on Jan. 7, Khazei will become Seery’s first baptism.

“He is unique,” she says, “very inclusive and very relatable. I get good words from him and, quite frankly, I’m not even a religious person.”

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