Seeking a stable home congregation in a good community, The Rev. Derek Hickman found The Church in Aurora.

The Church in Aurora offers Hickman two forms of stability, both of which he said are important.

Hickman said he’s been a minister in the United Methodist Church for many years and is seeking more stability for his young family than the Methodist church offers. Since The Church in Aurora does not participate in an itinerant system as the Methodist church does, he said he hopes to stay with the Aurora church for a long time.

"In the itinerant system, the bishop has the authority to move pastors, much like the Catholic Church," he said. "Before we had children, that all sounded all well and good."

He is leaving First United Methodist Church of Ravenna after serving there about two years, he said. 

Zelma Riddle, the office manager at the Ravenna church, said The Rev. Norma Bates will serve as an interim pastor until next July when she believes the United Methodist Church will appoint permanent pastor.

The second brand of stability is represented by the non-denominational identity of The Church in Aurora. He said it is "very appealing" that the church permits members to "follow the Word of God, according to the dictates of their own consciences," according to church’s website.

"I was really drawn to that, that we were not willing to break up the community over specific theological positions," said Hickman. "That was very appealing that we could have grace and are not going to divorce over hot button or socially polarizing issues."

The United Methodist Church provides a counter-example of a church experiencing a "schism because of a particular theological issue," explained Hickman.

"In the United Methodist Church, we just had a large worldwide conference — it’s called the General Conference — in the beginning of the year where the agenda was settling our position on same sex marriage and homosexual clergy."

He said his first ambition in Aurora is to get to know the community, the congregation and the city’s leaders better.

"I’m going around to different groups and getting to know them and their perspectives on the church," he said. "I would also like to meet with community leaders, school leaders and other clergy."

Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin, who chaired the search committee, said church received many strong applications, but not quite as many as it did last time the church searched for a senior pastor and found The Rev. Bill Schell, who Hickman replaces as senior pastor.

"The last time that the church did a search for senior pastor was, I think, 24 years ago," said Womer Benjamin. "The marketplace has changed a lot since then. I think we all observed it. We started meeting January of 2018 and finally took a candidate to the congregation on Oct. 20, 2019."

She said the church received nearly 80 applications for the position.

"Derek definitely had the education and experience we were looking for," said Womer Benjamin. "He showed a real passion for church ministry, and as we spoke further with him and got to know him, he impressed us with his intelligence and authenticity. He was just a wonderful, wonderful person to get to know, and it was obvious that he truly enjoyed what he was doing in his ministry. He also wanted to grow his ministry and was looking for new challenges and new experiences."

In addition to his "genuineness," she said Hickman seems to be a good match for the non-denominational congregation. Some "denominationally-oriented" clergy have a difficult time adjusting to a non-denomination congregation.

"He appears to align very well with our central beliefs … and the fact we are a non-denominational Christian church," she said.

Having grown up with few advantages in Newcomerstown in rural Tuscarawas County, Hickman said his perspective on the challenges facing the needy is likely unique among clergy.

"I was not necessarily raised in the church," he said. "I started going to church in high school. Some of the experiences of growing up in poverty and my parents splitting up early on, I think that brings a different perspective to the pulpit, a different perspective in my leadership than pastors who’ve been raised in the church or had different childhoods."

Many of his years were spent at his first church, Christ United Methodist Church in Newcomerstown, where he started as a youth leader during college. He then spent nine years there as an assistant pastor.

"I finished my undergraduate and master degree while working at the Newcomerstown church," he said.

After that, he said he served four years at Faith United Methodist Church, which he said is located between Ashland and Mansfield before coming to Ravenna United Methodist Church.

His wife, Jenna, a teacher at Miller Elementary School in Aurora, was his high school sweetheart in Newcomerstown, and, although still residing in Ravenna, the couple hopes to move soon to Aurora with their children, Wesley, 6, and Hallie, 2.

"I’d love to be here to get them all the way through school and beyond if God and the church will have me," said Hickman. "That is the primary reason we chose to leave ministry in the Methodist church and came here — stability. We want to be in a community where we can develop roots."

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, or @bobgaetjens_rpc.