Reverend Tisha Williams is the kind of pastor who uses physical objects as visual symbols to go with her sermons. She’s the kind of pastor who encourages discussion among her congregation, even when people disagree with her. She’s the kind of pastor who gets a tear in her eye when thinking about a favorite spiritual song that guides her through the tough days.
She’s the kind of pastor who has breathed new life into a church, in this case the First Baptist Church of Bridgehampton, where she is the first woman to hold the position of senior pastor in the church’s 94-year history.
“She’s truly a woman sent by God,” Deacon Kent Brown, a congregant for about 30 years, said this week. “At a time when we truly needed someone to uplift us in a spiritual fashion, she brought that to the table — her spiritual awareness, her spiritual preparedness and her spiritual vision. Her vision has come to pass by reawakening many things in our church that had kind of gone dormant.”
Since Rev. Williams arrived last April, the church — then a congregation of about 50 — has attracted 31 new members. She has broadcast sermons through Facebook Live for those who can’t come in person. The membership is more diverse than ever, Deacon Brown said. The youth ministry has been revived and a new men’s group called “The Garage” has been established. Rev. Williams also brought to the congregation her international women’s Bible study group — a collective called “Who’s That Lady?” that studies the lesser-known women of the Bible.
“A tree is proven by the fruit that it bears,” Deacon Kent said. “This is only the beginning. I think there is a lot more fruit on that tree.”
Rev. Williams may be a relative newcomer to the church, but she is no stranger to the area. Her husband, Deacon Lawrence Williams, graduated from Pierson High School, and the couple has had a house in Sag Harbor Hills, which they bought from his mother, Thelma Williams, for the last 13 years. They currently split their time between Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton and Brooklyn.
“We had been sort of developing an affection for this area, which is not hard to do, because who doesn’t love it out here?” Rev. Williams said. “You never had to twist my arm.”
Starting in 2016, Rev. Williams preached off-and-on at the church for about a year while it lacked a permanent pastor. When a formal search began for one, she put her name in the running. She said she was happy to receive the appointment — and a little nervous, too, because of her status as the church’s first woman pastor.
“It comes with its own set of pressures because you feel like you don’t want to fail,” she said. “That’s the pressure that comes with pastoring in general, but you wonder, ‘Will they attribute it to my being a woman?’ It also makes me excited. I think it speaks volumes about where the church is and where it wants to go. I know a great deal of nurturing male pastors, but there’s a certain amount of nurturing and warmth that women pastors bring to the table.”
These days, it’s not easy to be a small church community. The Atlanticreported in November 2018 that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches close each year as many denominations face declining participation in the United States; it has even happened here in Sag Harbor. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found as many as 36 percent of people born in 1980 or later are religiously unaffiliated, or about 55.8 million people.
“A lot of our churches are dying,” Rev. Williams said. “It’s sad. The question that is constantly coming up in clergy circles is, ‘Is the church still relevant?’ I say it is still relevant, but I believe we have to find new ways to connect with people.”
When she arrived, one of the first things she did was outline a vision statement: “Connecting, directing, protecting.”
“It was sort of a play on the idea of the ‘bridge’ in Bridgehampton,” Rev. Williams said. “That’s what bridges do. They connect one point to another, they direct you from one point to another and they protect. In a storm, you can seek shelter under a bridge.”
The congregation has embraced it so far, she said.
“It provides us focus as we look at all of our initiatives, ministries and what we are doing,” she said. “We’ve been mindful of what we are putting together.”
Rev. Williams holds a certificate in theology and ministry from the Princeton Theological Seminary and is working on a degree in Christian studies. She describes herself as “a bit of an adventurist,” having sky-dived, bungee-jumped and mountain-climbed.
Like everyone, she has a bad day once in a while, but draws on her faith to keep her going — that, and a song by Hezekiah Walker called “Souled Out,” with these lyrics: “My heart is fixed, my mind’s made up, no room, no vacancies, I’m all filled up. His spirit lives in me and that’s the reason I’m souled out.”
“I have plenty of days where I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Am I getting this thing right? Is God pleased?” Rev. Williams said. “Pastoring is very humbling. It’s the complete opposite of what I think people sometimes think a pastor is. They see us in robes and in the pulpit, but it’s probably the most humbling experience in your life. But I love God’s people. I really do. It’s the one thing I have in buckets.”