Perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the spotlight — and, by many accounts, ill at ease with the management of a large congregation — Neil Smith founded and led Dungeness Community Church for three decades.
So it wasn’t a total surprised to his wife Melanie that in 2008, one year after leaving his lead pastor role at the church to lead Olympic Peninsula Ministries, their nonprofit ministry to other church leaders on the peninsula, Smith reflected: “I’m finding what I was meant to do.”
His favorite part of being a pastor, Melanie Smith said last week, was “seeing the light bulb go on in the eyes of people who are listening and their hunger to know God.”
The 73-year-old Smith died at his Sequim home in the early morning of April 30, suffering from complications of severe injuries from an April 13 fall and late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
Born James Neil Smith on Oct. 12, 1946, he grew up with an older brother and three younger sisters in California’s Bay Area. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in history at San Jose State College in 1968 and the next year interned at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, Calif., leading high school and college students. He went on to get involved with Young Life and Campus Crusade for Christ and eventually graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1973 with a masters degree in theology, majoring in Old Testament Studies.
He returned to Peninsula Bible Church (PBC) as a youth pastor for four years until he got the calling to lead a church in the Pacific Northwest, moving his wife and their then 2-year-old son Jonathan to the Olympic Peninsula.
“What I loved about Neil was his humble demeanor passion for God and his encouraging people,” said Melanie, who met Neil in 1966 at a college bible study. They married in 1971.
While he enjoyed being a youth pastor at PBC, a large church, something in him yearned to lead a church from the ground up, Melanie said. The couple took up a friend’s suggestion he check out churches in Silverdale and Vashon Island.
“We’d never heard of Sequim (and) never thought of living in the Northwest,” Melanie said.
After a visit to the area, while Neil was somewhat non-committal, Melanie recalled asking him, “Who’s going to teach the faithful people in Sequim?”
After gleaning divine direction and considering whether the area could benefit from a congregation, the Smiths jumped, moving 1,500 miles north.
DCC had meager beginnings, starting as a house church with just three couples. The Smiths eventually hosted families at a home they had built in 1979, putting a significant amount of square footage into a large living room for Bible studies. (It’s the same house the Smiths live in now, 41 years later.)
The DCC congregation took up residence in whats now called the Old Dungeness Schoolhouse, eventually outgrowing their meetings from the historic building’s downstairs rooms to upstairs while adding Sunday School services.
“I realized this is our home,” Neil said in a 2002 interview, as DCC celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“After a year, we knew the grocery store clerks and the way around town,” he said. “Our kids were in school. There was no big event, just a product of time and relationships. The first year, I was a stranger. Then again, the town was smaller then.”
Eventually the schoolhouse keepers wanted to use the whole building, Melanie said, so church leaders began to seek a new home. They didn’t have to look far. DCC representatives met with leaders of a small, struggling church with a partially unfinished building on Eberle Lane, about a mile to the southeast of the schoolhouse.
Instead of staggering services to DCC use of the facility, Melanie said, the other church’s members were happy to trade the land and building for some retirement money and a truck for their pastor.
In the mid-1990s, the church added a gymnasium, rather than a sanctuary. Neil said members wanted a structure to be used by local groups to promote a sense of community.
“That (community) is our philosophy and why we have community in (the church’s full name),” he said. “We are open to this whole community.”
In leading DCC, Melanie said, Neil tried to emulate some of his mentors of the years — David Roper of Peninsula Bible Church, English Anglican priest-theologian John Stott and Bruce Waltke, a professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary — for their love of God and scriptures.
“What he strove for the most is giving God the glory,” Melanie said.
Tim Richards, a Sequim native and Dungeness Community Church’s current lead pastor, knew Smith for several decades.
“Neil was definitely a shepherd in the sense of (having) a very compassionate heart, very people-centered,” Richards said. “He was more interested in spending time with individuals and … their lives than managing or running an organization or building a church numerically.”
Smith was a “committed student of scripture,” Richards said, and that he trusted staff and congregation with helping coordinate church activities.
“What Neil set in motion is that DCC has always had a family kind of feel to it,” Richards said.
“You never got the sense DCC was about Neil Smith. DCC was about Jesus.”
Richards and longtime member/church elder Ross Hamilton spoke of their connections with Smith on DCC Daily — a web video series posted on Youtube each weekday since the COVID-19 restrictions were enforced — on May 1.
Hamilton, a well-known peninsula photographer, said he met Smith in the mid-1980s and recalled a conversation with the senior pastor in 2000, about preparing for the first of Hamilton’s several eye surgeries.
“He (Smith) said, ‘I’m going with you.’ And he did — he spent three days with me. That’s the kind of caring guy he was,” Hamilton said.
Smith also got involved in the community, particularly with youth sports for his and Melanie’s sons Jonathan and Jared. He coached both Little League and Gym Rats basketball teams, refereed and umpired games, and was a scorekeeper for Sequim high boys basketball teams.
“He knew my friends … one of the great things growing up in Sequim during those years there was a real sense of community,” said Jonathan, now a law professor living in St. Louis, Mo.
“He spent a lot of time with us; a lot of my memories growing up in Sequim are around that (sports scene),” Jonathan said.
An avid horseman and one with a wide variety of music tastes — from Handel to Dylan, Melanie said — Smith was a dedicated student of scripture and a committed student well into his pastorship, family members recall, translating texts from Hebrew and Greek.
“One thing I valued about dad, I did watch him study all the time,” Jonathan said. “I’d sit there and go through (his) books. I learned there was a world of thinking out there.”
But personal connections were important to Smith, too, Jonathan said.
“I think he liked making people feel valued who didn’t feel valued,” Jonathan said.
Smith stepped down from leading DCC in 2008 but didn’t stop serving. For the next several years he and Melanie oversaw care ministries to other pastors on the Olympic Peninsula through Olympic Peninsula Ministries. Richards said that was a valued resource for a number of church leaders.
“He just became a friend, with no agenda,” Richards said. “When he’d show up and ask you to go have a cup of coffee, he was just there to care for and listen to you.”
Neil eventually retired in June 2019.
Richards said Smith laid a solid foundation for the church.
“He definitely left a legacy that Dungeness Community Church is one that values the scriptures and good biblical teaching … a church that has the mindset of compassion,” Richards said.