Getting to know: Martell Spagnolo, new minister of First Reformed Church of Schenectady

Martell Spagnolo, who was recently named minister of the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, stands in the church's courtyard recently.

Martell Spagnolo, who was recently named minister of the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, stands in the church's courtyard recently.

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GETTING TO KNOW – Though he only recently became minister of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady after a move from halfway across the country, Martell Spagnolo already feels at home.

“It’s the first time in a long time I’m feeling like I’m at home and for a man who has spent his entire life hopping from a six-year call to a six-year call, to actually get to a place where I don’t want to be called someplace else, where I sit in my office and feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be … it’s really quite remarkable,” Spagnolo said.

Outside of the church itself, the Stockade neighborhood, with its historic homes lining the streets, reminds him of his New Castle, Delaware roots. Growing up, Spagnolo attended Catholic church, where his family was involved in the music program. He went on to study philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., scripture and divinity at Saint Charles in Philadelphia and medieval studies of liturgy at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago. He received his doctorate of ministry at Andover Newton Theological School, which is now part of Yale University.

He previously served as a Roman Catholic priest before leaving the priesthood in 2008 and becoming a minister under the United Church of Christ. Most recently he served as the senior pastor at First Congregational Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The Gazette caught up with Spagnolo at First Reformed just a few days after he moved to the Electric City.

Q: What made you want to go into ministry work?
A: I was always intrigued by theology and philosophy. I was always touched by liturgy and the transcendentalness of church. I was raised in a very service-oriented home. So we saw the need to serve. I come from a family that has been very gifted. I’m privileged and with privilege comes responsibility and that responsibility is to follow the Beatitudes: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc.
So ministry was just a natural fit. I have a background also in the arts. I’ve been singing professionally since I was 5. Art and music, it was all so church oriented for centuries and my first experience of both art and music was in the church.

Q: What led you to the Reformed Church in America?
A: The Reformed Church in America has a 400-year history in the United States of America that has a polity that I find attractive. It’s grassrootish, not hierarchical. I find church is much more healthy when it is grass rooted.
The Reformed Church in America has a much more open understanding of people than I would say Romans do. So that was part of it. It’s almost like this halfway place between the high liturgy of the Romans and Episcopals and a fluidness of say, UCC [United Church of Christ]. It seems to be a healthy balance.

Q: Since you’d previously lived and served at a church in South Dakota, how did you hear about First Reformed Church in Schenectady?
A: I was looking for a placement to come back East and I was looking mostly in New England. A buddy of mine from New Hampshire said you should check out New York State. So that’s the only reason I looked in upper New York State because a friend of mine suggested it, and then I saw the profile for this church.
I love the fact that Schenectady is surrounded by natural beauty but in the city, there’s still a bit of grit; there’s still a need. I come from a very historic area, so the Stockade felt like home.
The people here were, I would say, the healthiest and the most balanced of all the churches that I was I was looking at. I really loved them. I keep pinching myself because I’ve not been this excited about a call since 1998.

Q: Are there any challenges that you feel First Reformed is facing?
A: I think their biggest issue is promulgating who they are in this community. The first time I came for an interview here, I actually got a hotel room a couple of days beforehand and started going into restaurants and bars and talking to people. And there is this notion that people in the Stockade are snobs and that there is an elitism. Once you walk in the doors here, you don’t get that. It’s just a real comfortable [environment].
I think that the first thing that I really need to address as pastor is allowing the people here to know that they have it all and they just need to let people outside the walls know. I think that’s going to be the first challenge to let the community know that although you may perceive churches are dying, this one isn’t dying and it’s got a lot to offer, specifically about communion and community and belonging and acceptance.

Q: It’s only been a few days since you settled in but how has the community reception been?
A: The excitement in the church has been overwhelming, to be honest. The excitement of the community’s actually been intriguing too. It’s been positive and it has been fairly effusive. [I got a] a letter from a politician inviting me to dinner, business owners already have reached out. Word has gotten out that I’m a foodie. So I have been invited to some really nice places to meet managers and staff of specific places. It’s been an incredibly inviting community and I just got here.

Q: Is there anything else you want people to understand about you or the church?
A: There’s a UCC saying that I think really fits who I am and it’s ‘Whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s journey, you’re welcome here.’ My game is not ever to judge somebody. It’s to allow them space and time to get a close relationship with themselves and with God.
I will say that for the church, they are well aware that my ministry to them is balanced with their ministry to me, which is stunning because I just don’t come to a place to help. I come to a place to be healed too and this pas de deux that I’ve been doing with this congregation has been really clear about that. I need this place just as much as it needs me.

“Getting To Know …” is a weekly feature spotlighting people making a difference in the lives of others. If there’s someone you think we should feature, let us know by emailing us at [email protected].

Categories: -News-, Getting To Know, News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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