On June 30, COVID-19 restrictions across Washington state were lifted. The next day, Rev. Zachary Taylor officially became the pastor of Chehalis United Methodist Church.
When asked to describe leading a congregation as it emerges from more than a year of pandemic-related restrictions and navigates the continuing threat of COVID-19, Taylor called it “scare-citing,” a mixture of scary and exciting.
He noted that in recent recorded human history, there has been no other time when church buildings were completely closed for so long.
“It’s scary because there’s no road map but it’s exciting because there’s no road map,” Taylor said of the challenges ahead. “It’s going to be up to each individual faith group to get creative. How do we do worship? How do we reach people?”
Though he grew up attending a Methodist church in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, Taylor said the ministry was never something he pictured for himself. He received a bachelor’s degree in education in 2002 from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in special education from Columbus State University in 2007. He taught high school special education for several years and said he loved the work and had intended to continue in it.
“I’d actually still be doing that if I wasn’t a pastor,” Taylor said.
He felt called to become a pastor at the age of 29. It was a strange experience, Taylor said, because he said after being forced to go to church his entire childhood, at age 18 he decided he wanted nothing to do with religion. He even had an uncle who was a Methodist minister who actually discouraged Taylor from going into the ministry.
“I was done with organized religion. I didn’t want it,” Taylor said of feeling the call to the ministry. “I had just finished a special education specialist in administration degree. I was going to do special education administration. I wanted to play golf and drive a Lexus and drink martinis. I didn’t get to do any of that.”
But he could not deny that he had felt what those in the United Methodist Church refer to through the John Wesley quote that “my heart was strangely moved.” He began seeing a therapist who was an agnostic Buddhist and eventually was able to find a peace with religion and capacity for the call.
“It took many years, a lot of anger, a lot of therapy and special direction that allowed me to understand that some of the anger issues I had toward God were really anger toward myself,” Taylor said. “(Following a spiritual call) calls us to be better versions of ourselves and it’s hard. That’s why a lot of people don’t do it.”
In 2010, Taylor quit his job, sold many of his belongings, gave away the rest and moved to New York City, where he attended Union Theological Seminary. He spent three years as a full-time seminarian, taking Greek and Hebrew classes during the summer, which were not a requirement of the program but something Taylor felt necessary for his own education.
After seminary, Taylor was invited to Washington by a fellow alumnus of Union Theological Seminary who he had gotten to know. He said he considered staying in Georgia, where his family has lived since the end of the Revolutionary War, but decided along with the convention in the area, that his personal pastoral style would fit better in the Pacific Northwest.
“It really has to do with views of the role of the clergy,” Taylor explained. “In the Northwest, clergy and pastors have more of an obligation to go out of the building and be involved in the community and establish relationships with the community.”
Taylor worked first at Puyallup United Methodist Church as pastor of discipleship. He then moved to Walla Walla for six years where he served at Grace United Methodist, which closed, and then helped create a new church in that area.
Recently, the local convention suggested that Taylor might be a good fit for the opening at Chehalis United Methodist Church. Taylor said he was attracted to the church, which was founded in 1929, for its strong leadership structure and staff with a history with the church.
“Honestly, I was kind of floored with the potential it had,” Taylor said of the local church. “It’s a really great foundation to leap from.”
Officially beginning on July 1, Taylor said that a large part of his role so far has been helping his congregation reimagine life together. He said their goal was to return to in-person worship with a heavy emphasis on the church’s tenant of “do no harm.” For this reason, members are still masking and socially distancing inside the church building.
“The challenge is how do we return to the way we were without hurting anyone?” Taylor said. “How do we return to financial stability? How does hybrid worship work from here on out?”
Taylor said one of his biggest goals for himself in his new role is to get to know the community and find ways to become part of it. He said he pictures there being life inside the church walls every day of the week. He would like to see the church not only serve the congregation but perhaps offer space for coworking, nonprofit organizations or other community organizations. He said the exact activities of the church will become clearer once he works to figure out the needs within the community.
“Post-colonial church planting says ‘what do you need and how do we get it to you?’” Taylor said.
Taylor’s wife, Hanna, was able to move to Chehalis with him and continue her work as a digital administrator for Walla Walla Orthodontics. They have a daughter, Gigi, 4. Taylor said in his free time he enjoys playing video games and is among the top players in Washington state on Xbox. But spending time with his family is the most important thing in his life. He said being a pastor, husband and father can be a challenge and he is always striving to achieve the right balance of life.
“I think it’s about finding space for both and honoring both,” Taylor said.