DOVER -- The Rev. Emily C. Heath will be missed following her last service at the West Dover Congregational Church on Sunday. Afterwards, she will be leaving to become senior pastor at the Congregational Church of Exeter, N.H.

"I'm excited. It will be a big challenge," said Heath. "It's a much bigger congregation. I feel this is the place God is leading me to now. Although I am sad to leave the Deerfield Valley, I believe a new challenge is waiting for me in New Hampshire."

Following the 9 a.m. service, the West Dover church will be having a farewell celebration, "Hats Off to the Heaths," to say goodbye to Heath and her spouse, Heidi. Attendees of the casual gathering are encouraged to wear any kind of hat they want to.

Reverend Emily C. Heath will be leaving West Dover Congregational Church after Sunday’s service. (Submitted Photo)
Reverend Emily C. Heath will be leaving West Dover Congregational Church after Sunday's service. (Submitted Photo)
It is expected to start around 10 a.m.

Heath served as a pastor for eight years before arriving in West Dover. It marked the first parish in which she was reverend. She told the Reformer it was an extraordinary experience and she loved the community.

"I really enjoyed serving this community," Heath said. "I was always so grateful for the welcome we received here."

One of her biggest contributions was assisting people during and following Tropical Storm Irene. She also served as the chaplain of the West Dover Fire Department, which she said she particularly enjoyed doing.

During her four years in the community, Heath guided the union of two congregational churches, Wilmington Congregational and West Dover in May 2010. The church also voted unanimously in November to become an "open and affirming" congregation, meaning it would welcome individuals of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

"Many churches say that they welcome all, but sometimes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have found that to be less than true," Heath stated in a press release. "When we say that we welcome all, we don't just mean that you are allowed to come in the doors. We mean that you are going to be respected, treated as an equal and invited into the full life of the church, along with your family. We believe our faith requires nothing less."

According to the press release, there are more than 1,100 congregations within the United Church of Christ that have made that decision. In Windham County, those churches include First Congregational Church in West Brattleboro, Guilford Community Church, Congregational Church of Westminster West and Christ's Church in Saxtons River.

Currently, there is an interim minister search committee that is connected with the Vermont Conference for the United Church of Christ to find candidates, said committee member Kathryn Longbotham.

"We're going to miss Emily so much," Longbotham added. "She is just a marvelous leader and compassionate listener. She's been growing our church with outreach."

Heath believes the church has doubled in membership during her service there.

Currently, she serves as a member of the National Board of Directors of the United Church of Christ and regularly contributes to the Huffington Post.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.