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Partners as Pastors // IN THE FAMILY

One hundred and twenty cedars will soon line the property of Maximo Presbyterian Church.

Besides providing an attractive buffer, the trees are symbolic to a church that values permanence. After a year and a half of interim ministers and lay people in the pulpit, Maximo Presbyterian has replaced their pastor of 25 years, the Rev. Lacy R. Harwell, who has retired.

The trees will mark the era of the Revs. William and Holly Wildhack, new co-pastors of the 425-member church.

"We're starting with young trees," said Nancy Appunn, church business manager, "so we can watch them grow."

The Wildhacks, both graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary, honeymooned in the area 11 years ago. But since then, they have ministered in Virginia, Panama, and most recently, California, where Bill served as a Navy chaplain aboard an aircraft carrier.

With two young children, the couple began looking for positions that would allow them to spend time together as a family. Co-pastoring Maximo Presbyterian meant one of them could be with Evan, 4, and Jocelyn, 2.

"We always talk about keeping the family together," said Bill Wildhack, 35. "This was a way to show how important it is."

Bill Wildhack felt called to ministry as a junior high school student in Arlington, Va. In the seventh grade, he began attending a Presbyterian youth group. It was there that he first felt "God's love and acceptance," he said.

"I was short, fat, had braces, glasses and greasy hair," he said. "But here were 80 kids clapping that I had shown up."

A year later _ after a growth spurt, straightened teeth and new contact lenses _ he continued to attend the youth group. And at school, he and another boy formed the Ambassador Club, an after-school, interdenominational Bible study.

Poor eyesight kept him from his childhood dream of flying F-14s. He knew he excelled in science, and his father wanted him to be a lawyer, "but all other things I was really into never had as much attraction" as the ministry, he said.

After studying communication at the University of Delaware, he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary. He met Holly during his last year there, in 1984. They had their first date _ dinner in the student dining hall _ after his ordination exam.

"We stayed up too late talking," he said. "And we've stayed up too late talking ever since then." They were married the next year.

The decision to enter ministry was not as easy for Holly Wildhack, 33.

Her father was in corporate business, so the family moved frequently around the Northeast, she said. For Holly, joining Presbyterian church activities and choirs in new towns was a way to connect to a community.

She enrolled at Duke University as a pre-law student and had a "wonderful worship experience" at the 5,000-member school chapel.

"As a kid, church was something we did," she said. "By college, it was "Hey, there's something more to this.' "

She switched to biblical studies, and after graduation felt called to attend seminary. She enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary.

"It was a difficult decision," she said. "I didn't know why I was called. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I really felt like "wow, this is meaningful. I can really present God's presence.' " By then, after rewarding work with people with HIV, she found her niche in counseling.

The Wildhacks now live in Maximo Moorings, in a house, ironically, where Maximo Presbyterian members held their first meetings 34 years ago. Initially they will receive the equivalent of one salary and split the pastoring between them. To start with, she will concentrate on Christian education and music; he will focus on finance and administration. Both will preach.

"It's a wonderful, healthy congregation," Holly said. And in a denomination that where pastors typically stay at a church for five years, Maximo Presbyterian has had just two full-time pastors.

"People are looking for us to be here a long time," she said.