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Pilgrim UCC church in Anacortes changes its name

It’s no lack for Becky and Paul Withington that New Pilgrims Community has no parsonage.  Their dream was to have a boat, so that’s where they live when they are at Anacortes. Photos courtesy of Becky Withington

Like many who spend weekends in Anacortes, Becky and Paul Withington live in a boat.  Since Becky began as the pastor of Pilgrim Congregational UCC there in February 2016, they have been able to fulfill their long-time dream  to live in a boat.

Becky is on a pilgrimage with the congregation to find new ways to reach out to include and serve people in a “super-none-zone” in the “none-zone” of the Pacific Northwest.  That refers to people who check religious preference in surveys checking “none.”

The 140-year-old church decided to sell its almost 100-year-old building in 2014 because of the extensive and expensive repairs required to sustain it, said moderator Nelle Jacobson.

There had been an arson fire in 2013.  While repairs were being made it had more church attendees for the three months it met in different locations while repairs were being made. 

After the repairs, they continued to meet in the old building, but the exterior stucco walls were crumbling, the upstairs concrete floors were slanted and there was no way to make the rest rooms accessible.

The small congregation did not have the funds to demolish the building and build a new one on the same property.

After their minister moved, about 20 members continued to meet for lay-led worship for two years at the United Methodist Church of Anacortes.

Tom and Janet Miller join in weekly "Church Cafe" as an interactive alternative worship.

“They were a church without walls, using space in another church and exploring what being a church without walls meant,” she said.

When the church property sold and they had money in the bank, they decided to call a designated pastor.

Members realized they were re-inventing themselves when they called Becky.

One way they express that they are embarking on a pilgrimage into ministry in the 21st century has been to informally change their name to New Pilgrims Community.

Our new logo is a Pilgrim ship sailing into the future,” Becky said.  “We seek to reflect our commitment to new ways of being church today.

“We are aware that we are on a pilgrimage as a journey, not for conquest,” Becky said.  “The ship represents New Pilgrim’s ongoing adventure, from its treasured past into its exciting new future.”

The official church’s name remains the same to avoid changing bank accounts and other documents, but it is officially “doing business as” New Pilgrims Community.

“Our mission also remains the same: ‘to create a caring community providing a spiritual home that welcomes doubt and inquiry, promotes love of creation and supports abundant life for all,’” she said.

 “Spirited Conversations” meets monthly at a local bar and grill as a time for members and others discuss theology.  Tom and Janet Miller join with Nelle and Dick Jacobson.


Instead of the church having long-term committee commitments, members join in three-month mission, environment and faith formation groups.

They call the three-month commitment groups, “gorilla groups.”

“The idea is that we will take bite-size commitments,” Becky said.

When they join Anacortes’ annual environmental protection education day, Fildalgo Bay Day, on Aug. 12, they will have a scientific activity on water filtration.

“Everyone agrees water is sacred, people of different faiths and traditions,” she said.

For faith formation, they are planning a three-month Bible study, using the Still Speaking study on Acts 1 to 6.

They have begun some alternative worship approaches, which include café-style worship around tables and do-it-yourself sermons.  For the latter, Becky uses a white board to facilitate discussion of the scripture, make an outline, list contemporary examples and explore the heart of the message.

New Pilgrims Community does each of these two styles every six weeks, or four times a year.

They worship in the downstairs fellowship hall on the garden level of the United Methodist church.  Because the church has a new fellowship hall, they don’t use the space, so New Pilgrims Community can worship at their traditional time, 10 a.m., Sunday.

While worship is traditional, those attending can comment and express their views in a talk-back time after the sermon.

Becky previously served as pastor for three years at Everett UCC and substituted at Alki UCC when Diane Darling was on sabbatical for four months.  She graduated from Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry in 2001, entering after working as a librarian for eight years after she and her husband moved to Seattle in 1992.  Then she was coordinator of children and youth ministries at Plymouth UCC.

She earned a master’s degree in library science in 1991 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukie.

Raised Lutheran in Minnesota, she said she and Paul found their church home in the UCC, which is compatible with their theology and progressive politics.

“Pilgrim Congregational UCC had been a classical, historic church building on the main street of Anacortes,” she said.  “Now we are becoming a new style of church.”

Along with traditional and new styles of worship, they are exploring new ways to serve the community, focusing on homelessness.

At the church council’s annual retreat in July 2016, they began talked of changing their name, brainstorming a list of options and then asking the congregation for ideas. 

At their annual congregational meeting in January 2017, they voted to change their name.

“New Pilgrims Community wants to keep the idea of being the Pilgrim church existing since the 19th century, but they are signaling they are open to change, to new currents in mainline churches,” she said.

“We are aware that the original Pilgrims denied the first nations’ sovereignty.  So we clarify that we see ourselves as pilgrims on a journey, not as people coming to conquest.  The idea is that we are on a pilgrimage, so we are a movement. We are moving forward.

“We are using the word, ‘Community,’ because people in Anacortes are free thinkers, the none zone on steroids,” she said.

“We are expressing that we are open to everyone, including seekers and doubters, not just those who subscribe to certain doctrines.

“We share core Christian ideas and identity, but we bring in elements of other faiths,”said Becky.

New Pilgrims Community is embarking on a marketing campaign with fliers, social calendars, local newspaper stories and facebook.

“We are educating ourselves on effective outreach,” Becky said.

One outreach is a coffee hour at a coffee shop.  Becky and some others sit at a table with a sign identifying her as the Rev. Becky Withington of New Pilgrims Community. 

Once a month, the church holds “Spirited Conversations,” which is a public theological group discussion held during the happy hour on third Tuesdays at the Rockfish Bar and Grill.  While mostly six to eight members attend, a few others have joined them, dropping by for a beer and joining in discussions.

They also promote their church at the annual Shipwreck Day citywide garage sale on the downtown streets.  Funds from that will help the church continue to help prepare backpacks for Project Homeless Connect.

They also support the Anacortes Family Center, a homeless shelter where people can stay for 60 days.  In the summer, they may tutor children living there.  Some may also help coach people on life skills such as cooking and finances.

“Our new format for outreach for our small, aging congregation, is to have it be part of three groups: mission, environment and faith formation.

This winter, Becky began a confirmation class for four youth in two families. “We have had no programs for children and youth for several years, so this was a big deal,” she said.

The church has drawn several newcomers from people who retire and move there.

Becky lives in Anacortes half time.  Like when she served Everett, she commutes from their house in Seattle. 

Her husband, who in a pension actuary, can tele-commute, so he comes to Anacortes where they live on a trawler, the Ocra Strait.

For information, call 360-722-0815, email or visit


Pacific Northwest Conference UCC News © Summer 2017


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