Michigan man ends 40-year career as a pastor
Michigan man ends 40-year career as a pastor
By SUSAN BROMLEY
Jan. 15, 2018
BRIGHTON, Mich. (AP) — Richard Alberta went from not believing in God for 10 years to preaching the word of God for 40 years.
On Dec. 31, after 26 years and more than 3,100 sermons as senior pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Alberta stepped down from the pulpit.
"It's unusual to stay this long," he told the Livingston Daily Press & Argus . "I've had the same family for 26 years, I can't keep telling the same story."
His story is one of transformation. Raised in New York in a non-religious, "dysfunctional" family fractured by divorce, he was a decided atheist by the late 1960s while he and his high school sweetheart, Donna, were both attending Rutgers University.
Donna Alberta notes her husband became an intellectual atheist during the tumultuous '60s, "a time of great upheaval and change," particularly with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the start of the war in Vietnam.
"He felt at that time, if there was a God, he was impotent or uncaring," said Donna Alberta, who along with her husband tended to believe there must not be a God in a world that seemed to be going crazy.
The couple married in 1969 and graduated from Rutgers in 1970. They were yuppies, climbing the career success ladder. Richard Alberta was working in banking and financing in New York when he and Donna Alberta welcomed their first child, seven years into their marriage.
It was 1977 and Richard Alberta found himself at a crossroads. He had the successful career, a beautiful home, a happy marriage, a new son, but still, something was missing. That something was someone, he clarifies, and cites a biblical passage — "I stand at the door and knock."
He opened the door to Jesus Christ after his niece took him to church.
Within that next year, his conviction became so strong that not only was he a believer, but he found himself led to strengthen and support the faith of others by devoting himself to ministry.
"I said to God, 'what is your plan with my life?' I immediately eliminated being a belly dancer or in the French Navy, and we ended up moving to Massachusetts for the seminary," Richard Alberta said.
Donna Alberta was resistant at first. Her childhood recollection of a pastor's wife was a woman who was very serious and dressed in black.
"It didn't seem fun — I am very social. I can't play the piano or organ, I can bake a decent chocolate chip cookie," Donna Alberta said. "But when he shared his heart with me, and extraordinary experience, I knew I needed to respect that. The Lord changed my heart and gave me excitement even though we had a brand new baby in our life."
The couple sold their home and most of their possessions and moved to Massachusetts, where Richard attended the "Harvard" of theological schools — the Gordon-Conwell Seminary, earning his master's of divinity in 1982.
The couple did mission work for two years before moving back to New York for ministry. In 1988, they arrived in Michigan and Richard was the pastor at Ward Church in Northville. That position continued until 1991, when he became the first pastor to preach at Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church's new facility.
Since that time, he has preached two or three services each Sunday, and multiple services in the Christmas and Easter seasons. He has presided over hundreds of weddings, which he likes but also says can be a pain because "the bride's mother is always cold," and he does "a mean funeral."
He has seen the church grow as the facility has undergone several building expansions, increasing from 22,000 square feet to more than 100,000 square feet to also include a school up through the eighth grade.
He has watched his congregation age, dedicating babies whose weddings he later officiated.
Since 1991 and the beginning of his leadership at Cornerstone and through the work of the congregation, the church has given $25 million in missions to share the gospel both stateside and around the world.
Richard Alberta's favorite work has been done from the pulpit, difficult as it may sometimes be to keep the messages fresh and different as he works from an unchanging Scripture.
"You can't just mail it in," he said. "If you're supposed to lead Christian people toward a greater life in Christ, you're acting as a shepherd. Sheep need to be led gently and affectionately and creatively. A pastor should understand their role as shepherds. We have to think of how to motivate."
He said he has also enjoyed the intellectual conversations he has shared out of the pulpit — about the integration of faith with science, with politics, with culture.
His former atheism helps him to be more effective, he said, because he is not irritated by unbelief or skepticism because he understands those feelings.
The congregation grew from 350 members to about 2,100 at its peak in about 2006.
The membership has since receded to about 1,600, which Richard Alberta attributes to multiple, sometimes conflicting factors. The housing market led to many members of the congregation leaving the area to find work, but previous and subsequent growth in the county also led to more church options.
And across the country, there has been a decrease in church attendance and other religious activities, a trend he attributes to a technological explosion, a collapse of moral certainty, and a secularized society that has no zeal for accommodating religion.
The one exception to a decline in church attendance, Richard Alberta said, is that true, Bible-believing churches like his own continue to grow. He cites, in particular, a pro-life stance and belief in "biblical marriage."
"We have been committed — this is a very strong, pro-life church," Richard said. "Killing of unborn children is a capital sin in America. Right behind it are things like gay marriage. I am not homophobic or hateful, I have dozens of friends who are gay. This church has maintained fidelity to the teachings of Scripture and that is why God has blessed it."
While he believes those stances are absolutes, he wonders how evangelicalism "squares with its support of Mr. Trump."
The president, he continued, has become a "major issue" in evangelical writing and politics."
"We are going through an incredibly uncomfortable time because evangelicals tend to support the unborn, biblical marriage, and are very concerned with the Supreme Court," Richard Alberta said. "Those values are high on the list, but we are concerned with a president who is careless with his remarks and has a questionable reputation with women. For the first time in my career, in my view, evangelicals are so divided. We like most of his policies but are uneasy with this man. The church is in an odd state right about now. The lines are not clearly drawn. Presidents who wouldn't protect the unborn and biblical marriage are very frustrating to an evangelical. On the other hand, presidents with a reputation of being disrespectful of women and earth, we don't want either."
Regardless of who is leading the country, Richard Alberta said he expects excellent leadership at Cornerstone as he hands over the lead pastor role to Chris Winans, who he said will be supported by the wonderful church staff.
The 37-year-old married father and former New York jazz musician came to Cornerstone four years ago to oversee the Christian education ministry. He is a graduate of the Reform Theological Seminary and has a goal for the church to be a place of connection.
"My role is to be the one to facilitate the connection," Winans said. "In Ephesians, it says the work of a church is to equip people so the Holy Spirit within them can do the work. Richard has been a real mentor to me, a spiritual father. I have tremendous respect for him. He has maintained a virtuous life and I admire him a lot."
Winans was installed as the lead pastor in a service on Sunday, Jan. 7, at the church.
While Richard Alberta will no longer preach from the Cornerstone pulpit, he said he plans to stay in the ministry, doing some writing, speaking, golfing, driving his "hot Mustang" and spending time with his family, which includes four sons and several grandchildren.
Information from: Livingston Daily Press & Argus, http://www.livingstondaily.com