Longtime Community Church ministers to retire

Bob and Casey Baggott are set to retire in January from Community Church in Vero Beach. [Photo: Kaila Jones]

Nearly a century after the founding of Community Church, two of the most dynamic ministers who have served and led the congregation, Bob and Casey Baggott, will step down in January and move back to Minneapolis where their large family awaits and, the couple hopes, volunteer opportunities abound.

The Baggotts leave a congregation of well over a thousand shaped by cultural change they have nudged along. Their leadership and co-conceived sermons have advanced the rights of women to be ordained; gay couples to marry; and faiths to co-exist.

Those ideas resulted in waves of worshipers leaving, and new waves arriving, as some members of more conservative churches in town left those congregations to join the traditionally tolerant Community Church.

And the storms they endured went well beyond social shifts. Buffeted by the winds of twin hurricanes that battered Vero Beach just months after the Baggotts’ arrival in 2004 and strained by the national economic collapse that began four years later, the church and its mission not only survived but got stronger, the couple said.

The Baggotts joke that it’s time to let someone else share a message, and that theirs has become repetitive. “All we ever talk about is love,” said Casey Baggott – as if the topic could get old.

Love is an appropriate theme for the couple, whose marriage began shortly before their arrival in Florida. Sharing the pulpit – as well as weekly space in their Vero Beach 32963 column, “On Faith” – their ideas, debates and decisions forged a hand-in-glove alliance that has been an inspiration to their congregation.

The personable pair quickly fell into an intensive schedule of social engagements. On Saturday mornings, Bob Baggott, an avid golfer, found no shortage of invitations to the county’s top courses. That left Casey with hours of solitude not to relax but to write the popular weekly column under the couple’s byline that has run in the barrier island paper for many years.

“I research, she writes,” said Bob Baggott.

To a large extent, the same holds true for their sermons, though depending on who is delivering them, congregants take away what they will. “If Bob gives the sermon, they tell him it’s powerful. If I give the same sermon, they tell me it’s sweet,” said Casey Baggott with a laugh.

The couple’s shared voice led the congregation through high and low points, beginning just months after their arrival, when Hurricane Frances, followed by Jeanne, tore through the town.

Overnight, Community Church became a Red Cross shelter, with the Baggotts living on premises along with 140 volunteers. The two became touchstones for faraway families calling them, desperate to find out if their elderly parents or children and grandchildren were OK.

“It jump-started our ministries,” said Bob Baggott. “It was a time for really authentic street-level ministry, which is what all of us ministers initially want to do. It helped us get integrated very quickly.”

After the town recovered from the storms’ devastation, Community Church moved ahead with an ambitious expansion and renovation plan. The Baggotts oversaw a $13 million building campaign that added the massive, $1.7 million, 4,083-pipe Lively-Fulcher organ, among many other improvements. But the timing was challenging with the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

The congregation had raised half of that $13 million when the bottom fell out of the stock market. “On the day the market hit 6,000, our trustees voted to go ahead and take out a $6 million line of credit,” Bob Baggott recalled.

“At the same time, they also voted to up the mission giving to make sure we gave away more money during the recession.” The budget increase was small, from 10 percent of what the church took in, to 11 percent, but it made a big statement in terms of where priorities lay.

And the largesse didn’t stop there. Soon after, the congregation raised $88,000 for the homeless. “We ran in the red for three years as a church so we could give more to the community,” said Bob Baggott.

While helping the poor came naturally to the philanthropic congregation, other issues stirred controversy. Soon after the Baggotts’ arrival, there was an exodus owing to the couples’ refusal to condemn same-sex marriage. But the same debate at conservative churches drove liberal congregants to Community. “We lost well over 250 members, but we gained more than that,” said Bob Baggott.

Interestingly, a somewhat similar fight over denominational identity had split the congregation dramatically along gender lines. In 1956, there was an effort to establish a Presbyterian church in Vero, and regional Presbyterian leaders approached Waldo Sexton about taking over Community Church.

Sexton, one of the founders of Community Church, told the newcomers, “There are two things my wife would die for. One is her children, and the other is her church.”

When a group from Community Church founded First Presbyterian, they took “the greater balance of our church,” said Bob Baggott. Of those that remained at Community, 80 percent were women. “We were left with this population of strong women who believed in the Community Church as being non-denominational, a place that was open to everybody. This church was going to keep its DNA, and it became the largest Protestant church in town.”

Community Church remains open to all, and it occasionally holds interfaith services, including each Thanksgiving. It also held one extraordinary service following the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, when rabbis, imams and priests – both Roman Catholic and Hindu – spoke to a diverse, and weeping, congregation.

The Baggotts followed two equally long-serving ministers, Julius Rice and Bill Nigh. Rice retired in 1994 after 18 years of service; he died three years later of cancer. His replacement, William Nigh, died of cancer at age 52 in 2001. It took three years for the congregation to find his replacement in the Baggotts.

Bob Baggott came to Vero from the 3,200-member Wayzata Community Church in Minnesota. The son of a Southern Baptist minister, he graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, renowned for its training in preaching. He eventually earned a Master of Divinity Degree in 1984 and a Doctor of Ministry Degree from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

After starting out at Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta, Bob Baggott moved to Miami where he became associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Coconut Grove. It was the 1980s, and Miami was evolving into an international scene.

“The ’Canes were huge, ‘Scarface’ was out, Miami was humming. I was there five years and I just loved it.”

From there he moved to Naperville, Illinois serving as senior minister at a church there before moving on to Wayzata, where he was senior minister for 10 years.

As for Casey Baggott, her interest in theology was piqued at age 7, not by her parents, who were not religious, but by a distant cousin of her father’s. A teaching missionary in Colombia, she invited herself to spend a months-long sabbatical with Casey’s family in Minnesota. “I’m not going to be able to have a martini for a year,” groaned Casey’s dad, an executive with 3M, directing his complaint to a higher power.

Casey, as the youngest of two daughters, was the designee to go to church with Aunt Irene, as they knew her. “No one else wanted to go to church,” recalls Casey. But it turned out to be a pleasant time. Aunt Irene, conservative as she was, was also “loving, sweet and very funny,” recalls Casey.

Over time, Casey visited other churches when she spent Saturday night at friends’ houses and went to church with their families on Sunday morning. “I discovered that my friends’ families had really committed to things of religious significance. I thought, this is really cool. They’re kind to each other and looking for deeper meaning. I really liked that.”

In college, she was given a vocational interests test. “The top match was clergy. And I thought, nah, I’m not doing that.”

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Minnesota with a degree in psychology, she got a job with General Mills in marketing. One of her first assignments was a presentation in the Gold Medal flour division. Crunching the numbers by hand – no computers, then – she began her presentation market by market, bag size by bag size.

“We got to Charlotte, North Carolina, and I remember, Martha White flour had surpassed Gold Medal flour in the two-pound bag category. And it shut down the whole meeting, talking about what they should do. And I thought, ‘They care about flour; I don’t care.’ It was like a revelation – you gotta care, and I don’t.”

It would be years before she returned to that vocational test’s recommendation. She took other jobs, instead, and eventually started a family. But the day she sent her youngest off to kindergarten, she began her studies at United Seminary of the Twin Cities, where she earned a Master of Divinity degree. Next came a Doctorate of Ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

Equipped with two degrees and a natural inclination for ministry, she worked as a chaplain, a consultant in bioethics and served as a parish minister.

When the couple came to Vero, Casey was first named Minister of Faith Formation and then executive minister.

“We’re basically co-pastors,” said Bob Baggott, whose title is senior minister. “It’s a celebration of women in ministry. They have the right to stand in the limelight and they have a right to lead.”

The Baggotts notified the staff and Church Council in September of their decision to retire, and leadership began organizing for a search for a new minister. The couples’ last service will be Jan. 19.

“Church as we practice ministry has been absolutely all-engrossing, and I don’t resent that one minute. It’s been wonderful,” said Casey Baggott. “But we do recognize that we don’t see our family as often as we would like to, and they live halfway across the country. We’re missing them.”

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