Upstate pastor planting church in Maine with support of Broad River Association
By Scott Vaughan
Sean (pronounced Shane) McElrath met his wife, Stacy, while the two were students at Limestone College in Gaffney, and after a college mission trip to Brazil, both thought they were being called to missions service in Brazil.
God did not open the door to Brazil, but He did ultimately open the door to Maine, where Sean is organizing Bible study groups that “when God says it’s time” may come together to form a church, Common Ground Church.
The McElrath’s ministry story picks up after that trip to Brazil. Sean served five years in Upstate student ministry, making a few moves from Gaffney – his hometown – to Clemson, near Stacy’s hometown of Pendleton. Stirred by a need for more education, Sean applied to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, moved there, and 18 months later came back to South Carolina to serve as a youth pastor in Gaffney.
In 2014, Roger Ferrell moved back to South Carolina to become director of missions for the Broad River Association in the Upstate, including the Gaffney area. Ferrell was coming from Maine, where he had served as a church planter.
Sean says, “I was at a pastor’s breakfast; I met Roger, and we hit it off. We had a lot in common, including organic agriculture. Stacy and I have raised bees and chickens and try to grow as much as we can. We enjoy an agrarian lifestyle, and Roger had an interest in that, too.
“Roger and I were also like-minded in doctrine and realized we were on the same page regarding missions,” Sean says. “Our families became friends, we went to their house for Bible Study, and we really started praying for one another.”
Sean says that as his relationship with Roger deepened, Roger one day asked him about missions and began telling Sean about opportunities in Maine.
“He told me that he thought we would be a great fit in Maine, but Stacy and I didn’t know,” Sean says. “We took a trip up there that summer with the association and had a nice feeling about it; Maine is beautiful, and there’s a lot to do outside.
“We came home confused, asking God, ‘What does this mean?’ We prayed more and took another trip in October 2015 to a place called Blue Hill,” Sean says. “Blue Hill is a lot like Asheville – there are a lot of farmers, artists – it’s a Granola community.”
Sean says he and Stacy found “their people” in Blue Hill and that “it’s not weird there to make your own soap and have chickens.”
Mostly, Sean says he was struck by the lack of gospel-centered churches and that the area was in need of gospel-centered churches. That’s when he received an answer to his prayers.
“God said, ‘Yes, this is what I have for you,’” Sean says. “We began selling off what we owned and moved to Blue Hill just after Christmas last year. We were living in a mission house temporarily, started looking around for a place to live and couldn’t find one that we could afford. We were getting nervous when we went to Craigslist and found a farm to rent. When we visited, we found the owners are Christians and were very supportive of our missional efforts. God opened the door for us to rent that farm, and we are getting to meet people and build relationships.”
It was Broad River’s Roger Ferrell who introduced the McElrath’s to Maine and organized the initial mission trip for them to go to Blue Hill.
“Our association wanted to adopt a region of Maine,” Roger says. “I didn’t want to take Portland, because I knew it too well, and there is a lot of church planting activity there. I wanted to go to Midcoastal Maine, about a 150-mile stretch with about 200,000 people. Blue Hill was one of the cities.”
It’s been two years, Roger says, since the association adopted the Maine partnership to teach Upstate Baptists about church planting, multiplication, relational evangelism and do so in the mission field. So, far the association has taken groups to Maine for four seasons, and Sean was a part of that summer group that tweaked his interest.
“Sean has told me that on the way home from that first trip, he quietly cried most of the way – heartbroken at the lostness and convicted by it,” Roger says. “God touched his heart for Maine.” He’s not the only one. Others from the association have gone back to Maine for service. In fact, there is ongoing church planter training at Roger’s house.
Roger says, “We wanted Sean and Stacy to be in an area that really matched them well, where they could become indigenous to the people. Blue Hill is their kind of people, and when they saw it, they just knew it was home.”
Sean says work in the area is “at the very, very beginning” of relationship building. The McElraths are working toward a simple, missional church that is about building the Kingdom. To start the work, they have a goal to start with several different Bible studies, searching for and finding believers interested in coming together with a need for community. One group is close to Blue Hill, another is in Castine.
“God opened the door for me to work in a funeral home, and that’s given me opportunity to share the gospel with workers and grieving families,” Sean says. “The funeral home opened a facility in Deer Isle, where there are no churches. The director told me that I could use the facility there for a possible group. I’m praying about that.
“We start with Bible studies that meet throughout the week, do life together, spend time together, eat together, invest in lives together, and worship together,” Sean says. “When God says it’s time, we’ll bring those groups together on some kind of schedule for a gathered worship service. That’s what God is calling us to do.”
He says the goal, too, is stay “lean” organizationally and financially so “we can put money toward missions and doing real ministry. We may never own a building; we want to be good stewards of what He gives us.” The name of the church will be Common Ground Church because “we all have common ground together as sinners in need of grace and forgiveness.” The Common Ground Fair is the largest in Maine, and that opens door for Sean to talk about the church.
The biggest challenge or culture shock between South Carolina and Maine has been the atmosphere, Sean says. “We’ve struggled some because it’s so different. We grew up in the Bible Belt, in Southern Baptist churches, and here we are in a place that is totally unchurched. People don’t understand it. This truly is an unchurched, post-Christian culture. That’s been a big struggle, and being away from family has been tough. We praise God for Skype and FaceTime.
The biggest surprise in the move is “just the favor that God has given us,” Sean says. “You read about it in Scripture, but we get to see God work and open doors. It’s mind blowing. He still shows up to do powerful things and answer prayers.”
Sean grew up in East Gaffney Baptist Church while Stacy grew up in Pendleton’s Refuge Baptist Church. They have two daughters, Sara and Madelyn.
The association’s Roger Ferrell says, “Our churches have stepped up to support Sean. We have painted a grain building in the community as a way to build relationship with community leaders. We have four groups going up this summer – three in June and one in July – and we are getting calls from other places that like the idea of going and serving where there is great need. Our teams will be going to scout towns and write reports on communities where we might start churches or Bible groups.”
To join the McElrath’s church partner network, please contact Sean at [email protected].