By Barrett Seaman–
A lanky, 6’4” and 33 years old, Blaine Crawford looks more likely to be at home on a basketball court than in the pulpit of a church. But a pulpit is where the Reverend Crawford will be as of Palm Sunday, March 28th—or whenever Irvington Presbyterian Church, like all local places of worship, physically re-gathers in a post-pandemic world.
It has been nearly three years since the Reverend David Harkness retired after almost 27 years as Pastor of the 168-year-old Irvington Presbyterian Church (IPC), where once Jay Gould, Cyrus Field and Charles Tiffany worshipped. In the past year, a search committee of seven screened a host of candidates to replace him, from which Reverend Crawford emerged.
He is not—yet—even a Presbyterian. Raised in a rural farming community in north central Kansas, Crawford attended Northwestern College, a small (1,100 student) Christian liberal arts school in Iowa before seeking ordination in the Reformed Church of America (RCA). His first calling was to a church of that denomination in suburban Rochester NY, where the congregation was made up largely of retirees, while he and his then-new bride, Brittnee, were in their mid-twenties.
From 2015 until coming to Irvington, he was pastor of another RCA parish, the Church on the Hill in Flushing, Queens. There, he oversaw significant capital improvement projects totaling $1 million as well as a pronounced outreach effort to take the church’s ministry into the surrounding community. The church launched a concert series, a children’s choir and regular yoga classes as well as providing space for various community groups, such as 12-step programs, under their roof. In any given week, more than a thousand souls made use of the church facilities.
“I was the pastor there,” says Reverend Crawford, “but I was clearly more than a pastor”—more like the chief operations officer of a small corporation, he indicated. The motive for change there was twofold: “There was a double impulse,” he recalls, “in doing what’s good for the surrounding community but also hopefully drawing people in.”
It was last August that he learned of the opening in Irvington. Though different denominations, the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches are close enough for comfort theologically. He was attracted by IPC’s tradition and location and what he sensed as “an eagerness for something new.”
“I’m not sure what that is, and I’m not sure they (the congregation) know what it is either,” he says, “but there is a hunger for discipleship.”
His relationship with his new church will evolve. “Each place is planted in different soil,” he observes. “I will be honoring the traditions here—taking the best of what we’ve been but not letting that be all that we are.”
Blaine Crawford was a sophomore in high school when he realized he was destined for a life in the church. That and his height made him stand out, but because he was a gifted athlete in football, basketball and track, he was able to move seamlessly between the jocks and the nerds. At Northwestern, he met Brittnee, though they didn’t date until senior year and tested their relationship living apart variously in Australia and Colorado, where they eventually married in 2011.
Brittnee earned a Masters in Public Administration from SUNY Brockport while her husband tended to his elderly flock in nearby Rochester. She is a non-profit fundraiser and served as the Director of Development and Communications at an affordable housing organization in Brooklyn while they were in Flushing. They have one son, Avery, who is 18 months old, and a nine-year-old dog, Reggie, who will be living with the family in the manse adjacent to the church on North Broadway.
While in seminary in Colorado, Rev. Crawford was invited to join a commission looking into the state of clergy in the RCA. One of the commission’s conclusions was that women were significantly underrepresented in the church’s pulpits. Coming out of seminary, they were more likely to end up in pastoral roles or running youth groups rather than preaching. That discovery set Crawford on a path towards a doctorate degree exploring why that was so and how to fix it. In the process, he designed and launched a summer preaching internship for female seminarians.
“I wanted to create more opportunities for female seminarians to gain experience preaching so that by the time they graduated, they could have a portfolio of sermons they could then give to a search committee—and also that they would feel confident enough that they could step into that role and fulfill it,” he explains.
In May, he will receive his doctorate from Western Theological Seminary, after which he will begin working towards ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA.