Dale Sewall has long been the heart of Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. The Islander has led the MIPC congregation for 23 years. He has watched children grow up, marry and have children of their own; all under the roof of MIPC. His congregation is like family to him. And on June 27, he will say goodbye. This summer, Sewall and his wife, Jinny, will both enter retirement.
Sewall grew up near the small farming town of New Wilmington, Pa. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English at Westminster and a Master’s in English literature at Purdue University. Feeling a call to the ministry, Sewall decided to enroll in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He graduated in 1970, magna cum laude, with a Master’s of Divinity. After working in churches throughout the Midwest, Sewall moved to Mercer Island to lead MIPC as pastor in 1987. He and his wife have since called the Island home, raising three girls — Dana, Sara and Katy — and forming lifelong friendships with members of the MIPC congregation and Island community. In 1987, Sewall had no idea that he would be leading the MIPC for so long. Now, it is proving difficult for him to believe that he’s letting go.
You started off as pastor of MIPC in 1987 and then the church transitioned to the co-pastor model in 2002, when you shared the pulpit with Sheri Edwards Dalton. Why did the church decide to adopt a co-pastor model?
There were a couple of reasons, really. At the end of 2001, I was supervising 32 people, which is impossible. We needed help, and at a senior level.
The other thing, and for me the more exciting thing, was the opportunity to try a new model and particularly try it with a man and woman together at the top of the church’s leadership. I loved the idea of the little girls in our church sitting in our pews and seeing a woman at the top. From a theological point of view, it’s a more complete modeling of the image of God. The image of God is male and female together, not just male clergy or female clergy up there. And I think that was extremely valuable for our church.
I think people have liked it. It’s had immeasurable impact on our children — that more complete model of the image of God.
What have your reflections been in recent weeks?
One thing that’s really nice about this job is that it’s so inter-generational. I really have the opportunity to interact with that whole range of people and to stay a long time so that kids who were 12 when I came here are 35 now. Some of them have children. I’ve done some of their weddings. And that’s really nice — to actually watch people grow up and grow old.
How has the church grown since you started in 1987?
I would say it’s become a lot more vital. It’s a lot more alive and there’s a lot more energy than in 1987. We’re doing a lot more in the community and even in the world. In terms of actual numbers of members, it really has not grown that much; there were 900 or 1,000 when I came. It’s gotten as high as almost 1,200, and then right now it’s a little under 1,000. The congregation is about 73 percent on-Island and 27 percent off-Island.
Have you always been Presbyterian?
My parents were members of the Presbyterian church, but never went. I never went to church until I was 20. When I started dating [my wife] Jinny, she told me she wouldn’t date me unless I went to church. She didn’t know what she was getting into. We were actually in a Presbyterian college together at Westminster. I always thought of myself as Presbyterian for some reason. My family had a lot of faith; they just never went to church.
In 1987, you were offered to lead the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church as pastor. What were your expectations?
I’d never been here [to Western Washington]. I’d been to Spokane once. I loved the idea of being on the West Coast, being in a port city and being in a city that was much more racially mixed. I came from Minnesota, where there wasn’t much other than white. I loved the mix of people here.
Did you have any idea that you’d be here so long?
No. I thought it would be a long time, but I didn’t know this long. I thought that this place and this church were worth investing a lot of my ministry and career in. There was so much potential here for impact in the community and the world.
The search committee that interviewed me said they wanted a pastor to come and lead them out of their own congregation and little community and more internationally. They really wanted to go into missions and reach out beyond themselves. I loved that idea. I wanted a church that wasn’t just thinking about itself. One of the things this church has really become good at is loving each other in the church but then spending as much effort trying to love people beyond the congregation.
What draws people to MIPC?
I think there are two things: One is that people want their faith to be expressed through caring for people in the world — all that mission activity and connecting with other people. The other is our children in youth program; our preschool, Pebbles, Logos, and then our teen program, The Rock.
Will you and your wife stay on Mercer Island? Will you still attend MIPC?
We think [we’ll stay on Mercer Island]. We’re not sure yet. Jinny is teaching at the [Pebbles] preschool now — she taught at West Mercer for 10 years — and she’s also retiring.
As for finding a church, we’re actually not permitted to attend the MIPC after my retirement. It’s not the church that says that; it’s the denomination. They want the new leadership to have [precedence]. They don’t want the congregation asking, “Well, what’s Dale thinking?”
Next year, I am going to be the moderator of Seattle Presbyterian, which runs the meetings of the Presbyterians. So Jinny and I are going to go around to something like 50 Presbyterian churches in Seattle. We’re going to visit their worships for a year and see what’s going on. We’re looking forward to that. Then, we may settle into another Presbyterian church. We don’t know what one.
How has the congregation responded to your retirement?
I announced it in January, so we’ve had six months to live with it. I think in some ways, we’re all still in denial. We know that we will really miss the congregation. There are a lot of people in the congregation who will really miss us, too. We’re all kind of still not facing it. When it gets toward the end of June, it will be pretty hard.
Do you have any final words for the Mercer Island community?
Living in a community like this, the challenge is to always remember to not take for granted what we have and to remember that a lot of people don’t have nearly the advantage that we have. I think that’s always a challenge on Mercer Island. This community can be experienced as a little peaceful garden. Sometimes we think of the whole world in that way, but it’s not. So we need to really be thoughtful about who we are, what we’ve got and how we use it.