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After 17 years, Old South Church’s pioneering pastor steps aside

The Rev. Nancy Taylor, the senior pastor at the Old South Church, is retiring.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Rev. Nancy Taylor sat behind a large, sturdy, wooden desk in her third-floor study at Old South Church and paused. She had been speaking about the challenges of religion amid 21st-century distractions, the nation’s frightening divisions, and the continuing need to fight for social justice.

But now, as she reflected on the imminent end of her 17 years as senior minister at the Back Bay church, her eyes began to well and she stopped, the eloquence of a seasoned pastor stilled for several seconds.

“I’ve been on the edge of tears for months now,” Taylor said.

Taylor will step down Sunday after delivering her final sermon, the capstone to a pioneering legacy that has kept this 353-year-old congregation of the United Church of Christ keenly attuned to the problems of the present.

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Taylor will depart as the first female senior minister since the church’s founding in 1669, but the effects of her ministry will live on in myriad ways — from fostering racial and gender diversity within and outside the pews, to ministering to the injured and traumatized following the Boston Marathon bombings, to securing the physical well-being of a church building that is a National Historic Landmark.

“She’s just truly one of a kind,” said Kristi Geary, chair of the church’s trustees. “She is an amazing preacher, a caring minister and pastor, and a social-justice warrior. But she’s also an amazing CEO of the church.”

It was under Taylor’s watch that the congregation voted in 2012, after a contentious debate, to sell one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book from 1640, the first book printed in what became the United States. The $14.2 million it brought at auction has helped the congregation reinforce the future of its home on Copley Square.

“We now think we can take care of this building in perpetuity,” Taylor said.

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The Rev. Nancy Taylor, the senior pastor at Old South Church, will have her name (covered for now in black paper) inscribed along with other former ministers on this wall at the church.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The physical maintenance of a towering church built with Roxbury puddingstone and furnished with dark cherrywood is one concern. Ministering to the disparate spiritual needs of a congregation of about 650 members does not fit as neatly on a balance sheet.

“It’s hard to be a church in the 21st century. There are a lot of competing claims on people’s lives,” said Taylor, 66. “We’re always trying to overcome people’s perceptions.”

Those perceptions of church-going, particularly among younger people, range from being boring, to old-fashioned, and even homophobic, she said.

Since Taylor became senior minister in 2005, Old South has introduced jazz worship on Thursdays; an early Sunday service for young families; and an annual blessing of the Boston Marathon runners, who finish the race close by.

She also has nurtured a policy of public engagement that keeps Old South one of the few churches in Boston open seven days a week. The effect has been an antidote to exclusivity, said Phil Stern, the congregation’s moderator, who sings in the choir with his wife.

“She has helped us to be extremely open and inviting and welcoming to people who are questioning where they are in their faith journey,” Stern said.

For Taylor, that journey took her from Long Island to Macalester College in Minnesota to Yale Divinity School and then seminary in Chicago. It was during prison ministry while attending seminary, she said, that she felt drawn to the kind of spiritual outreach that connects directly with people.

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Taylor recalled reading a theologian’s sermon to the inmates and thinking, “This is theology of the head and not of their lives.”

Her first pastoral assignment, in 1982, took her to three small churches in western Maine — in East Stoneham, North Waterford, and Albany — where she preached at separate Sunday services in all three sparsely populated towns.

“This was my first experience with rural America. They were the salt of the earth,” said Taylor, who recalled the pleasant surprise of seeing tomatoes and other vegetables left on her doorstep. “I loved it. They taught me to be a pastor. They were patient and long-suffering with this young thing who was preaching to them.”

After a stop in Hartford, Taylor moved to Boise, Idaho, where she helped defeat two ballot initiatives that would have discriminated against gay people. Taylor also fought successfully for a minimum wage for Idaho farm workers, many of whom were Mexicans living in appalling conditions.

Later, while serving as president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ from 2001 to 2005, Taylor helped introduce legislation mandating that clergy report suspected cases of child abuse.

“She’s dedicated to work for justice,” said the Rev. Burns Stanfield, who chairs the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and is pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston. “She has the soul of a prophet, the pen of a poet, and I would add the heart of a pastor.”

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Taylor is the 20th senior minister of a church that moved to its current location in 1875 from the Old South Meeting House, a Freedom Trail landmark on downtown Washington Street, where members included patriot Samuel Adams and Black poet Phillis Wheatley.

The original church, called the Cedar Meeting House, was replaced on that site in 1730. Benjamin Franklin was baptized there in 1706.

Taylor has been the church's senior minister for 17 years.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At Old South, Taylor said, the past is both treasured and transparent. Congregants have long supported progressive causes, including civil rights, desegregation and busing, and AIDS and gender issues. But in the beginning, seven of the original 28 members were slave owners, as were four of the first eight senior ministers.

“We talk about the history a lot,” Taylor said. “We stand on the shoulders of some giants and some sinners, too, but we learn from both.”

Taylor has become an experienced problem-solver, whether helping the church recover from a street-to-roof crack in 2008, caused by an MBTA construction project, or reimagining Old South’s ministry during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This work has a weight,” Taylor said. “I’m ready to pass on the leadership to fresh legs.”

Some families moved out of state during the pandemic to begin anew in less-congested areas, she said. Others have “aged out,” and some who could not attend services when COVID closed the church might never return, Taylor said.

“We haven’t been able to bring in enough new members to make up for the attrition,” she said.

Still, the congregation remains numerous and vibrant, Taylor stressed, with discussions ranging from racism to the climate crisis to “what it means to be a citizen as well as a Christian.”

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“We have people who really put their shoulder to the plow,” she said.

Taylor said she will continue to serve on various boards in her retirement, and that she now will have more time to spend with her 92-year-old mother in Connecticut. Taylor’s husband, the Rev. Peter Southwell-Sander, died in 2006.

It’s been 40 years of hard work — weekends and holidays included — but work that Taylor said she’s been blessed to perform.

“It’s being at the bedside of the dying and being at the baptism of babies,” said Taylor, who smiled before adding, “They pay me to baptize these beautiful babies!”

Taylor then rose from her desk and hustled to the sanctuary, where she bantered with musicians who had gathered for a “micro concert” that Taylor had arranged for 150 guests as a “farewell and thank you.”

“I’ll miss the people. We laugh together. We cheer each other on,” Taylor said. “It’s been a privilege, an absolute pleasure.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.