During his tenure at the Presbyterian Church of Mays Landing, the Rev. Dr. John T. Ash III estimates he has performed 250 marriages, 450 funerals, and a few hundred baptisms.
It's not that the church, located in the heart of Hamilton Township at 6001 Main St., has such a massive congregation, but rather that Ash has stood at the helm of this historic church for the past 50 years.
On Oct. 6, 1963, Ash delivered his first sermon as senior pastor, and he has continued each Sunday since.
The milestone will not go unnoticed by his proud congregation. A reception to honor Ash for his years of service is planned from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, exactly half a century since he began. The event, to be held in the church's Fellowship Hall, includes a brief ceremony at 3 p.m. and all members of the congregation as well as members of the community are invited.
"To say '50 years' sounds much longer than it feels," said Ash, 75. "The ministry continues to be very fresh and alive for me. I look forward to coming to work everyday."
Deacon Daria Christie helped coordinate the anniversary celebration.
"We believe that serving as pastor of the same church for 50 years is a very rare and noteworthy milestone," said Christie, who has been a member of the church since 1986 and is a local resident.
"Despite his being extremely intelligent and knowledgeable about so many things, he is a 'regular' guy, compassionate, thoughtful and very humble," she added.
Ash has always preferred that the congregation call him by his first name. "I don't stand on formality; we're a pretty close knit group here," he said.
Ash and his wife, Roxie, have lived across the street from the church in the pastor's residence, which was built in 1892.
Helen Freney, who was elected as the first female elder of the church a few years after Ash's arrival, said Ash has always been "very progressive" in including all members of the congregation.
At 81, Freney, a longtime Mays Landing resident, is one of the few members who have been with the church as long as Ash. She said that as pastor, Ash has kept the church in good shape and has come up with many innovative ideas over the years that have kept the church vital not only in the lives of its members, but also in the community.
"Getting people involved is his basic quality," said Freney. "He keeps the church current."
Ash is a South Jersey native, growing up in Haddon Heights with his two siblings. He graduated from Cornell University in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and chemistry. In his junior year, he decided to enter the ministry and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1962. For nine months after graduation, he performed in a clinical pastoral at Larned State Hospital in Larned, Kansas, working with the mentally ill. While involved in the candidacy process of seeking a church of which to become pastor, he learned of the opening here and applied for and was awarded the position. In 1967, he took a part-time position as a social worker at the Atlantic County Jail, moving to a full-time position in 1973 when the pastor position was reduced to part time. He earned his master's degree in social work from Rutgers University in 1978, and over the next 20 years held a variety of positions in the state Department of Human Services, retiring in 1993. Next came a PhD in social work administration from Rutgers in 1994.
He shows no sign of slowing down. Ash is president of the Township of Hamilton Historical Society, vice-president of the Mays Landing Merchants Association, coordinator of the annual Hamilton Township Remembers 9-11 committee, a member of the Human Rights Committee of the Arc of Atlantic County, and coordinator of the Churches of Mays Landing Blood Drive.
Ash described his congregation as "small but dedicated," with about 40 worshippers in the pews on Sundays, and 110 total members registered.
Ash said that he is most proud that the church continues to be a strong congregation and involved in the community. He worked to establish a strong Sunday school for youth and created youth mission programs to involve young people in the church.
"Over the years I have seen young people grow up, marry, and have families of their own. It doesn't make me feel old, though. This is a very alive community and there's always a freshness about the job that is extremely rewarding," Ash said.
Although he didn't set out to remain in one church for such a long duration, Ash said "things just kind of worked out" and he never sought to move.
"One of the nice things about Mays Landing is all the roads converge in the center of town, and that's how I view the church, it is the center of the community," he said.
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