Lely Presbyterian searches through pandemic to find its pastor-plus

Ed Brandt, new pastor at Lely Presbyterian, started

Lely Presbyterian Church hired a new pastor during this oppressive pandemic year.

There's more. They not only hired him during the pandemic, but the pastor they hired, Ed Brandt, 61, is the recently retired chief of chaplains for the entire U.S. National Guard — and a brigadier general as well.

Wait: Still more. He celebrates his first service in the church at 110 St. Andrews Blvd. this week, Christianity’s most important of the year, when its churches celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (For a complete list of its Holy Week and Easter services, see the information at the end of this story.)

It's the congregational equivalent of a trifecta. 

Cherie Millsom, chair of the pastor nominating committee, would agree to that. She'll be the one with the broadest smile at the Brandt's first services on Maundy Thursday, after she guided it through a yearlong search that had to be conducted nearly entirely with phone calls, Zoom interviews and videos of past sermons.

Two candidates had come close, but neither had worked out.

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"We just felt the timing couldn’t have been worse," she recalled of the pastoral search, which began nearly concurrent with the pandemic shutdown. And at the beginning of this year, after the second finalist was crossed off their list, "everyone was feeling depressed." 

Then, six weeks ago, they learned Brandt had inquired about Lely Presbyterian. He and his wife, Jane, were looking to eventually make a change to a warmer climate.

A congregation that reaches 150 only during the tourist season seemed an unlikely move for a man who had delivered the 2019 Easter sunrise service homily to 2,000 at Arlington National Cemetery. But Brandt has served smaller churches, with memberships as low as 50, as well as 2,200-member megachurches. 

"And it just seemed to click," he said of this congregation. "It just seemed so right."

On Monday, Brandt already had his office off St. Andrews Boulevard embellished with photos, certificates, a framed Beetle Bailey cartoon and a flag in the familiar triangle fold from a major event. His portable tool case sat nearby, ready for last-minute drilling or nailing.

"I feel like I'm home," he said with a smile. Home has often been more tenuous for Brandt, who served a church in Southern California but was a National Guard chaplain who had to fly home to Delaware monthly. He was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and 2009. He came back to serve in Virginia and served as a state chaplain for Delaware before he became the chief of chaplains.  

With that title, he was accepted into the Army War College, which, as Brandt characterized it, served more as an Army peace college, an incubator for strategic thinking among its students.

"We want to use our tools of power to prevent war. We want to maintain the peace by using our military, our economics, our diplomatic corps," Brandt explained.

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He has taken away a philosophy: "If you want to get to a specific goal, don't have a knee-jerk reaction to things that occur. Look at the long game."

Brandt's time serving as chief of chaplains to the guard has also given him to see the same need from all rungs of the military ladder, and it may be harder for those at the top, he said: "The higher you go, the fewer friends you have." It falls to the chaplain to be both a good listener and "an honest broker" to the military brass who will not hear the criticism from their unhappy subordinates. 

Those characteristics work well for a church pastor, too, and "I'm a pastor — there's no way around it. I'm a pastor," said Brandt, who first determined to become a minister at age 12.

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The Brandts had considered moving to Florida at some point, "and this just speeded the timeline up a bit," he said. The people of Lely Presbyterian have welcomed him with open arms he said, "from Day 1."

For Millsom and her committee, Brandt's arrival made it apparent the two earlier candidates were gone for a reason: "Once we made contact with Ed we felt very strongly he's the one God was having us wait for."

Holy Week services at Lely Presbyterian Church: Maundy Thursday — 1 p.m. Thursday, April 1; Easter services, Sunday, April 5 — 7 a.m. sunrise service in the memorial garden followed by light refreshments; 10:15 a.m. worship service in the sanctuary.