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Southtowns pastor of megachurch departs, 38 years after arrival

At times it felt like sheer energy.

For the man who served as pastor at a Hamburg megachuch for 38 years – and who is now leaving his post – the process of building up the campus and congregation still seems awe-inspiring.

“There were times here,” said the Rev. Greg McClain, 65, “when it felt like we were riding a wave.”

McClain leaves the Wesleyan Church of Hamburg in a much different place than he found it, back when he was a new pastor in his 20s.

The church has two campuses – on McKinley Parkway and South Creek Road.

It has several structures, including a mammoth worship area and a building called “The Hub” created specifically to appeal to teenagers.

The congregation is large.

Last weekend, more than 1,900 people attended the church, including services at both sites, McClain said.

And yet McClain – the grandson of a Christian minister who led a church in Buffalo, the Pilgrim Christian Tabernacle – still seems to marvel at what has happened over the years.

“It was almost electric,” he said of the years building up the church.

“There was a sense,” he said, “we’re on a mission here.”

McClain, who has been married to his wife, Sue, for more than 40 years, graduated from Wheaton College in 1972 with a degree in philosophy. He earned a master’s degree in divinity from Trinity, in Illinois.

When he came to Hamburg – after being approached about the role in 1977 – it was a move that was an opportunity for both sides.

McClain, who grew up in places including Hamburg and Pennsylvania, was an inexperienced 26-year-old.

The church, as well, needed someone to lead its congregation. Begun in a home in Hamburg in 1957, the church then had a couple hundred members, McClain recalled.

At the church, the longtime pastor has overseen accomplishments – such as the construction of a sprawling campus on McKinley Parkway in the town.

There have been sadder moments, too. One the community may remember was the funeral of Hunter Kelly, the son of Buffalo Bills star Jim Kelly, who died at age 8. McClain officiated at that service.

A story in The Buffalo News at the time of the funeral in August 2005 read:

“Tuesday’s service wasn’t about Hunter’s medical legacy and the work of his foundation, though both are considered great. Instead, it was about the final journey of faith.”

“The Rev. Greg McClain reminded the hundreds in attendance that in the Christian tradition, the end of life on earth is not an end at all. Just as Jesus left his tomb for the resurrection, so has Hunter found new life with God, McClain said.”

“There’s a message in that for all of us, he said, a message of hope.”

Among McClain’s proudest moments at the congregation was the time the congregation, busily raising money for its own purposes, pitched in to raise money for missions in other parts of the world.

“We said, we’re raising all this money for ourselves – we want to do a give away,” said McClain.

They raised funds for a center for training ministers in India, McClain said.

The Hamburg Wesleyan church also raised $1 million for African work over a span of 3 years, to work with AIDS causes, he said.

The congregation each year does what McClain said is a campaign that largely gets given away – in McClain’s words, a “heart check.”

“We do an annual capital campaign, and we basically give away the bulk of what we raise,” the departing pastor said.

McClain, who with his wife has three adult children who live in the Buffalo area, announced his plans to leave the pastor role last year.

Now, the Hamburg church is in the process of selecting a successor for him in the key role.

McClain said he is in the midst of figuring out just what sort of work he will do – now that he is no longer the leader of the large Southtowns church.

“We’ve been trying to serve the city for some time,” McClain said, of the church’s work.

He said that he is thinking more about that subject, lately.

“I’m trying to sort out,” McClain said, “whether God’s calling me to the city.”

email: cvogel@buffnews.com