GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The Rev. Jeff Mansfield is the new minister of the Glen Ridge Congregational Church. He began his tenure Monday, July 8.
Mansfield, 41, grew up in Warwick, RI. He did his undergraduate work at Boston University studying English literature and religion and entered the seminary at Union Theology in NYC with a focus on interfaith studies. In an interview earlier this week, he said he and Glen Ridge Congregational were “on the same page” for what to accomplish next.
They are at a phase, he said, where they want to welcome in a wider community; that their mission was to be a church for the whole community. He explained as best as anyone could why he decided to serve God.
“When I was 14, I broke my back,” he said. “I have a bone disease that severely weakened a vertebra and one collapsed.”
He said there was a moment on the operating table when he saw his past and future flash before him and he imagined all the things he could be. And he prayed to God that if he came through the operation, he would be the best person he could be.
“For me, it turned out to be serving God,” he said. “I got the calling when I was 16.”
At that time, for Mansfield, a big influence on him was the faith based Camp Wilmot in Wilmot, NH.
“I was there walking the beautiful hills and thinking about the people that had an influence on my life,” he said.
One person in particular was a young seminarian. Thinking about him made Mansfield realize that ministers do not just happen. They are people who make a conscious decision and work toward it. He thought maybe this was the path he should take. The thought was unsettling.
“It wasn’t a pleasant realization,” he said. “None of my friends were going to be ministers. It wasn’t a hot career. I struggled with that.”
While attending BU, he thought by studying religion he could study the desire out of him and be done with it. But he only became more intrigued by the subject. To get away from the thought of becoming a minister he went to Florida and worked for Habitat for Humanity. Then he went to San Francisco and worked in theater. But the feeling persisted and so did the fear of someone failing at their life’s calling and then having nothing left.
“I realized I had to be what I was afraid to be and applied for the seminar,” he said. “But first I took six months off and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, 2,220 miles. The entire length.”
He was at Union Theology from 2004-2007. In 2006, he met his future wife, Bonnie Mohan. He admits there was not a whole lot of chemistry at first.
“I had started a ministry for restaurant workers in New York,” he said.
The workers were protesting their working conditions but they were in a union. The attorney for the restaurant owner warned them that it was against their contract to strike. But one of the organizers of the protest had an idea. He came to Union Theology and asked if anyone would hold prayer vigils outside a midtown restaurant. In this way, the protests would continue under the guise of a religious service. Manfield’s future wife was one of the protesting workers.
“I was wearing a Roman collar and she thought I was Roman Catholic and celebate,” he said.
The vigils continued for two years. In the end, the workers had their grievances satisfied and Bonnie learned that the seminarian leading the prayers was not a Roman Catholic. They married in 2016.
“It was a long road interrupted by Bonnie’s Peace Corps assignment in Ethiopia for a couple years,” Mansfield said.
Before coming to Glen Ridge, he worked as an interim pastor at the Broadway United Church of Christ, on the Upper West Side, and previous to this as associate pastor the First Church of Somerville, in the Boston area.
Lately Mansfield has been thinking about how to draw more people toward the Glen Ridge Congregational Church. They do not have to join the church, he said, but the church has the attributes of a great music program and is strongly family oriented.
“I have been thinking about an extravagant welcome,” he said. “That’s a way to think about hospitality. Hospitality is a very important cultural activity in the Bible. It meant putting a roof over someone’s head, feeding them, going out and meeting them, giving them the best you have to offer.
“I think that’s the way God welcomes people into the church,” he continued. “I would like us to do our very best to live up to that.”
Mansfield said he and Bonnie are expecting their first child Sept. 7. They are waiting until that time to find out if it is a girl or a boy.