First Church Pastor's Journey Adds Up

Ian Holland has moved from the world of math and computers to a more spiritual realm for his life's work.


Ian Holland and found each other last year, and seven weeks ago he was ordained as a United Church of Christ pastor.

But first the pastor had to find his spiritual center after decades happily immersed in math and computers.

At one point, some seven years ago, before Ian took the giant step of attending divinity school fulltime, he was taken aside by an associate minister at a Boston church.

The minister said church people were noticing his spiritual growth.

His immediate response to the suggestion that he was being called to religious service was this: thanks but no thanks.

Holland, 46, grew up in Cork City, Ireland, the son of a university math professor.

He was Catholic and had a spiritual sense of himself but was not particularly devout.

What he was particularly inspired by was math and, later, computers.

He loved to engage his mind in abstract thinking.

At 16 he signed up for a computer contest and beat the machine in chess.

He hasn't beaten one since but he did that day.

The contest sponsor owned a technology company and wanted Ian to work for him.

He went to work.

"I was completely sucked into computer programming," he said.

He stayed late at school working on its Apple computer and came home late and ate reheated dinners.

"I was very excited, very fired up," he said.

 There was a humility and joy in the mysteries of math and computers.

"I think you always have to be willing to think you are wrong," he said.

His chosen path took him to Boston to earn a doctoral degree in computer science at Northeastern University.

In 1987 he met his future wife, Pamela, at Northeastern University and in 1989 they began attending the Old South Church in Boston, he said.

In the early 2000s he was developing spiritually.

He was asked and became a deacon at the Old South Church. 

To be a deacon he needed to become a member, and to become a member he needed to make a series of promises.

Making promises, he thought, would be a formality.

Instead he he felt joy. It took him by surprise.

"That was the beginning of my journey," he said.

It was a journey that brought him beside others on their spiritual journeys.

In 2005 the associate minister took him to the side and said: “You can't ignore what is happening in you and with you that other people are experiencing.”

Later that February evening he realized he was being called, though he hoped the call would fade.

He dipped his toes in the water, enrolling in divinity school.

In the coming years he went from being a part-time divinity student and full time engineer to a full-time divinity student and part-time engineer.

In December, 2009 he graduated and moved from one life to another.

He has filled various roles in churches throughout New England and been a listening ear for those in times of trouble and need.

The First Church Swampscott voted on Oct. 16, to call Ian to serve them as senior minister and he started Nov 21. 

“Thanks be to God, he said.

The congregation is thankful, too.

Fellow scientist and church member Gordon Angel says it’s quite rare to find a scientist so deeply committed to religious belief and abandon a successful career to become a priest or pastor.

“I believe this shows a person truly led by the Spirit to follow an arduous path, one to which he has clearly given considerable thought, since it has taken him on a route away from the faith of his birth,” Gordon said.

Ian believes in God and science are not mutually exclusive. Evolution is part of the beautiful design that is God’s creation.

The task, as a spiritual person, says Ian, is to walk with people through their life's journey.

"To invite them to find the best sense of themselves and to call them into relationship with each other and with God."

First Church member Sue Burgess said that the congregation, after two years without a permanent pastor, is finding a new sense of purpose in their mission.

“Pastor Ian has a deep sense of faith, and also brings joy and laughter into his ministry,’ she said. “As he sets the tone for our worship service, he invites everyone - whether they know what they believe, or are unsure of what they believe.”

For his part, the pastor says he loves and listens to people.

He has seen people loosening up to the possibilities of grace.

“You could feel you've seen people move from a place of darkness to a place of life,” he said.

On April 22, in a laying on of hands ceremony at the Old South Church in Boston, Ian was ordained as a United Church of Christ pastor.


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