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Cornelius News

Pastor Judge: A new leader takes on the challenge of religion in a new century



By David Yochum. There are lots of different kinds of clergy, not just from a denominational perspective, but gender, age, liberal or conservative. Some are outstanding preachers, others wonderful counselors. Others dive into the communities around them, others are more inclined, like their denomination, to stay close to home.

And then there’s David Judge, the new permanent interim pastor at First Baptist Church of Cornelius on Catawba Avenue, just east of Smithville and Victoria Bay. The church has been there for more than 100 years; Judge has been there four months.

“Permanent interim” sounds, well, more interim than permanent, but it’s not. Judge would like to be the full-time pastor, but, as far as membership goes, the church has seen better days. Back in the 1990s, attendance was around 300 on any given Sunday.

Nowadays, it’s more like 60, Judge says. Supporting a pastor long-term is a tall order, financially speaking.

“I bring stability to the church,” he explains. Judge’s job, in addition to ministering to the flock, is to help the church find “its identity and purpose for which God has put us here.”

He is striving to turn the focus of the church outward into the community. Judge, 51, has already met with community leaders, and reached out to a neighbor, Cornelius Elementary School.

His is a job of biblical proportions.

Church, in context

Mainstream churches have struggled nationwide with shrinking membership rolls for years. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study says only 14.7 percent of U.S. adults are part of the mainline Protestant tradition – a sizable decline from 2007, when the last such study was conducted.

The number of mainline church-going Protestants has declined at a faster rate than any other major Christian group, including Catholics and evangelical Protestants. According to Pew, mainline U.S. churchgoers decreased from about 41 million in 2007 to 36 million in 2014. Meanwhile, younger people are less likely to identify with mainline denominations. Among Millennial adults, only 11 percent are mainline Protestants, 16 percent are Catholics, 21 percent are evangelical Protestants and 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated.

It means change for the Cornelius faith community, as retention rates across the board suffer. On the flip side, Elevation Church, which is also Southern Baptist, draws enormous crowds via a televised ministry to more than a dozen locations, including one in Kenton Place on the western edge of Cornelius. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-based Elevation regularly attracts 15,000 worshippers.

Enter into this mix one interesting fellow. Raised as a Catholic on Long Island, Judge married a Roman Catholic. He had a born-again experience in a Pentecostal church, went on to the United Church of Christ, where he was asked to preach a sermon after there was a split over same-sex marriage.

Of course, Judge did preach, and his sermon was a big hit. So in 2006, he enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, but by then he was attending a United Methodist church.

He was called to the Southern Baptist faith, which has a traditional approach to Scripture and a decentralized, locally-driven structure. Forgiveness is one of the major tenets of the church—you don’t have to earn it.

Forgiveness needed

Judge is highly qualified for forgiveness: Married at 23 to a Catholic girl, their marriage failed after six years. Judge soon remarried—you might say it was a bounce back—and that union lasted seven years, until 2000. Judge married a third time 10 years ago. He and Christy have four children.

All told, Judge has six children, aged three months to 20 years.

His life experience helps him immediately relate to people: He has children of all ages, he’s been divorced. “Knowing that the pastor has gone through the same thing…it’s helpful,” Judge says.

“Now, as a believer, my commitment to my wife is so much stronger now that I have understood my sin,” Judge says. “Divorce is not an unforgivable sin.”

He looks the part of a successful businessman in a sharp blazer, slacks and Polo button down shirt, because he is. Weekdays, Judge lives in South Charlotte, and works as an insurance executive. With an undergraduate degree from Hofstra University and an MBA from the University of Houston, he’s had a high-profile career with companies like The Equitable, health maintenance organizations and Optum Insurance. Indeed, he’s so good at what he does, he sells something called “stop insurance” to self-funded employers.

A hire calling

He also is used to hard work. When he was 16 years old his father came to him and said, “Do you have a job?”

Judge said he told his dad he didn’t, to which his father replied: “You have one week to find one.” One week later his dad asked if he had a job…and “I said no. He said ‘yes, you do…be at the hardware store at 8 a.m.”

His first job after college was as a sales rep. His territory was Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

Judge will keep his job in the insurance business, hoping that First Baptist’s growth will help turn his calling into what will amount to a new life for him and his wife and children.

Judge routinely visits church members who are ill or in the hospital and attends Wednesday night fellowship dinner as well as the young adults meeting.

A higher calling

“We knew the end game was to quit my job and become a full-time pastor…that we would have to rearrange our finances,” Judge said. The couple has virtually no debt and their house in Raintree is nearly paid for, which means they’ll “be able to sell the house and buy a smaller house for cash.”

“I have done all the preparation work to make this move possible…it will be a change in lifestyle, I’ll be downsizing my life, but I’m looking forward to it,” Judge says, who graduated from seminary in May. He’s a case study in time management, what with school, a full-time job and a young family, not to mention serving the church.

Judge’s mission is to right-size First Baptist—something like 200 or 300 members. Today’s mega-churches, he thinks, can provide refuge to those who are not fully committed. Members can be somewhat less involved, somewhat anonymous, he says.

“The attractiveness is the lack of accountability. From the pastoral perspective, how can I pastor a church of 5,000 people? You can’t, you have to have a personal connection. If let’s say ‘Mary’ doesn’t come to church one Sunday, I’m probably going to call her…there’s going to be that exposure…how do you know somebody cares if they don’t know who you are? How many people live in Cornelius, 27,000? If I could get 1 percent to attend…”