The Rev. David Smazik admits it was a “bit of a culture shock” coming from Illinois a decade ago to become pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown.
“You know, in the midwest, New Jersey doesn’t have a great reputation,” Smazik said with a laugh.
Ah, but the Lord works in mysterious ways. The minister is bidding goodbye to the congregation this weekend, and says he will return to the heartland with happy memories of the Garden State.
He won’t be forgotten here, either, according to members of the congregation and the community who cited his kindness, energy, and his special gift for fostering collaboration.
They will give Smazik and his wife Ann a sendoff that is Fresh Traditional — a term trademarked to describe the blend of old and new that the pastor encouraged for a church where Gen. George Washington once took communion.
Traditional well wishes will be delivered in a modern way: Drive-throughs, to prevent hugs in a pandemic.
The Smaziks will greet friends who motor into the Parish House parking lot at 65 South St. on Friday, Aug. 21, from 1 pm to 3 pm, and on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, from 11 am-1 pm and 3:30 pm-3 pm. (Registration required.)
‘A HEARTBREAK FOR US’
Expect some tears behind the masks and windshields.
“He took a good place and brought it to a whole new level,” longtime choir member Steve Tooley said of “Pastor Dave,” who oversaw a $5 million campaign to renovate the Parish House and the historic Church on the Green.
Smazik will become interim pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, closer to the Smaziks’ grandchildren.
“I think it’ll be great for them, but it’s a real heartbreak for the rest of us,” said Alexandra Mead, director of Christian education for the Presbyterian Church in Morristown.
“He’s just very genuine. What you see is what you get.”
Smazik’s imminent departure has jolted his friends at the Morristown & Township Library, next door to the Parish House.
Library Director Chad Leinaweaver credits Smazik as a driving force behind the Morristown Cultural District, an association of churches and civic institutions that promote the downtown through charity events.
“The whole idea of the Cultural District really came from Dave and his ability to share a smile, make a phone call and connect a group of us that share a street and could certainly collaborate on much more,” Leinaweaver said.
In an era when many mainline churches are struggling, the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, bolstered by a healthy endowment, has held steady.
A pre-school program has introduced young families to the 900-person congregation. For music aficionados, a Jazz Vespers service was created. The renovated 700-seat sanctuary is a first-class performance space. Improvements to the Parish House include rooms for communal events such as the Morristown Festival of Books.
Early on, Smazik grasped the power of video. When the pandemic closed everything in March, he quickly transitioned to online devotional messages and virtual worship services.
He has an “uncanny ability to speak to each individual watching in their own space, through the camera,” said Bruce Frazier, who produces many of the videos.
Viewership exceeds pre-COVID attendance in the sanctuary, Smazik said.
‘PRETTY GOOD MOMENTUM’
“We’ve got some pretty good momentum,” even with the pandemic, Smazik said of the congregation.
The church’s stability, and his upcoming 65th birthday, convinced the Chicago native it’s the right time to move on. The Smaziks look forward to living closer to their son, daughter-in-law and grandkids, near Chicago; and to their daughter and her husband in Milwaukee.
In Morristown, the Rev. Ed Halldorson, for 29 years senior pastor of the Chatham Township Presbyterian Church, will serve as interim minister during the search for Pastor Dave’s successor.
Smazik said he and his wife have enjoyed Morristown’s proximity to New York, Philadelphia and the Shore. Pleasantly, they were surprised by good hiking nearby and, yes, friendly people who care about each other, and about the Morristown area.
He still marvels at the talent within the church.
“That’s what I’m going to miss. You just have people who could step in, in so many different ways, and contribute in the life of the church. You’re just not going to find that in too many other congregations.”
Many bright people sharing opinions, on the other hand, can cause paralysis by analysis.
“Everything is looked at from every angle. Where I saw the challenge when I first came was, how do we now translate this into action?” Smazik said.
“I think he encouraged everybody to not be afraid to tackle big projects, not to be afraid to try something a little new,” said Jenny Tooley, a PCM member since 1973.
“Our church is very old. We have lots of traditions. Lots. I mean the favorite phrase was, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ And he’s been respectful of those. But I think he’s helped us to let go of the ones that aren’t serving as well anymore, which has been good,” she said.
“He was really a master at getting the right people on the task,” added Tooley’s husband, Steve. “He really knew exactly who is best qualified to really make things happen the way they should.”
At the same time, Smazik encouraged the church to look outward, as well as inward.
He helped members realize that “Morristown is our community, and that we’re not all just separate churches, separate nonprofits. We all are here together and serving the same community,” Mead said.
The congregation spearheaded an annual Diversity Day celebration on the Green, a square once owned by the church. Joint services were held with the Morristown United Methodist Church and Bethel A.M.E. Church.
“Of all the clergy in Morris County, I would consider him my closest ally and colleague,” Bethel Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. said of Smazik.
They came to Morristown at the same time, Williams as leader of a Black congregation with roots stretching to the 19th century, Smazik as head of a predominantly white church that predates the Revolution.
Both were committed to finding common ground on the Morris Area Interfaith Clergy Council, on issues in the public schools, and on a project honoring the memory of a Presbyterian founder of Bethel, Williams said.
In the wake of Eric Garner’s killing by a New York police officer in 2014, Smazik hosted a Black Lives Matter rally outside the Presbyterian Church on the Green. The Rev. Janet Broderick, then rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, was among the speakers on that blustery December afternoon.
Video: ‘Black Lives Matter’ rally at the Presbyterian Church in 2014:
“He was a faithful, loving and true friend and colleague,” Broderick, who moved last year to a church in Beverly Hills, CA, said of Smazik.
St. Peter’s and the Presbyterian Church also worked together, unsuccessfully, against a lawsuit that struck down Morris County historic preservation grants for houses of worship.
When the Mayo Performing Arts Center needed overflow parking, Smazik made the Parish House lot available.
“We are eternally grateful for his unwavering support of MPAC and our mission,” said MPAC President Allison Larena, calling Smazik a “true friend.”
Mead, whose family was comforted by Smazik when her father died, said the pastor set an example that will be his legacy.
“Because he’s so genuine, he was able to bring a lot of people together that hadn’t necessarily been together in the past. He really was able to move things forward because of the person that he is. And I think that comes from his midwestern roots. You know, there’s no guile, there’s nothing false,” she said.
As he heads for Indianapolis, Pastor Dave need not worry about Morristown.
“He’s leaving it definitely better than he found it, as far as I’m concerned,” Mead said.