PUNXSUTAWNEY — As the old saying goes, "You're not in Texas anymore" — a saying that certainly applies to Greg Smith, the new senior pastor at the First Church of God in Punxsutawney who, until recently, was a resident of the Houston, Texas, area.
"I grew up in the small town of Albion — not the one in Punxsy, the one in western Pennsylvania — and it is small like here and is about 25 miles southwest of Erie," Smith said, adding that he lived there until he was 21 years of age.
"So, becoming the senior pastor at the First Church of God in Punxsy is like coming home again," he said.
Smith said he began his ministry at a church in Atlanta, Ga., and also served in Clarion and in Butler.
"While at Butler, I was the senior associate pastor of a church of 2,400 people at the time," he said. "I led the staff and did a lot of the preaching, evangelism and Christian education."
Additionally, Smith was on the board of Penn Christian Academy.
"It started that they already had a preschool, so it was a natural extension from that," Smith said.
He said the academy added one grade per year.
After serving in Butler, Smith pastored a church in Birmingham, Ala., to where he followed Wayne Anderson, who has been the interim pastor at the First Church of God in Punxsy.
Smith also served as the pastor in Findlay, Ohio, for four years.
Smith said after he moved to Texas, he went to work for the Houston Department of Health and Human Services.
"I worked for a year in Houston at the Office of Surveillance and Public Health Preparedness, where I began to get my teeth into a bit of emergency management," he said.
"Initially, I was supposed to be a liaison between the department and the faith community — how to engage the faith community with the city in times of a significant emergency.”
In that position, Smith was 42 miles from his house and drove past the old Astrodome during his daily commute to work.
"It's not being used for anything and has fallen into disrepair, and the city of Houston is trying to decide what to do with it," he said.
Dec. 27, 2010, Smith went to work for the Montgomery County Hospital District and developed, along with two other team members, the Catastrophic Preparedness Initiative Plan for the 6.2 million people living in the Houston-Galveston area region.
Smith said the plan’s primary mission is to provide emergency medical service for 500,000 people and provide all of the indigent care as well.
"I went to work on a Homeland Security grant that put together a plan of operations as to how the greater Houston area would respond to a mass fatality incident and what happens when an incident takes place and a local community's resources are overwhelmed," he said.
Smith’s primary job was to design plans for family assistance centers for the victims of a mass fatality incident. Those plans have become both a regional and state model.
The plan was supposed to accomplish two things: Care for family members whose relatives are victims of the incident and obtain from them all types of forensic information that could be used for a DNA match; and assume responsibility for public messaging and the call center, he said.
When there's a mass fatality incident, for every victim, 10 people will walk through the door of a family assistance center and 100 people will call, Smith said, adding those statistics do not count the deluge of information requests received from the general public.
"Our plan received nationwide recognition," Smith said, adding that spiritual care is a major component because pastors have to care and comfort people during times of crisis.
"That was an interesting job, and it was last August when I had my first contact with First Church of God in Punxsy, and we came up here in October to meet with the search committee,” Smith said. “In November, I was a candidate for the position, and we arrived back here from Texas just in time for the arrival of the snow.”
To Smith, his past experience prepared him well for his new position.
"I learned from working in a secular position what it was like to be a lay volunteer and come away with a true appreciation of the lay leader point of view," he said, adding that it's a lot harder to serve the Lord when one has a regular job to go to every day.
"I learned that I need to treat those people with extraordinary kindness," he said. "We were gone from western Pennsylvania for 17 years, and I always knew that I would return to serve in ministry once again," he said.
Smith said while he worked in emergency management, he had a tremendous opportunity to share his faith in the work place.
"I have a keen sensitivity for people who are broken," he said.
From 1986 through 2009, Smith was in full-time ministry. He is also looking forward to his full-time position pastoring at First
Church of God.
"We have a sleeping giant and tremendous giftedness, and I can't wait to see where God is leading us and how do we carry that out," Smith said.
And while he has ideas he’d like to introduce, he also wants to hear from as many people as possible.
"My goal is to articulate what we are hearing from God and craft a vision for many years to come," he said. "The next big event on the horizon is the 100th anniversary of First Church of God, and I'm looking forward to planning for that major occasion."
Smith said he is also looking forward to working with the Punxsutawney Ministerial Association and Church in the Park, among other organizations.
Smith was joined in Punxsutawney by his wife, Shirley.
He has two daughters, Emily who lives in Bogota, Columbia, and has two daughters of her own, while his other daughter, Abby, is a missionary in South America.