A Somerville man who was a pastor in Maine for more than 40 years and the pastor of the South Somerville Baptist Church for the last 32 retired last month.
During a recent interview at the church, John C. Dancer discussed his childhood in Kings Mills, his path to the ministry and back to northern Lincoln County, and how his long battle with cancer enables him to relate to others going through hard times.
Dancer, now 68, was born in Gardiner and grew up on a small farm in the Kings Mills area of Whitefield.
He attended the two-room Kings Mills Elementary School through fourth grade, across the street from what was then the Kings Mills Union Church.
A new, consolidated school had opened by the time he entered fifth grade, and he attended grades five through eight at Whitefield Elementary School.
For high school, Dancer attended and boarded at Glen Cove Christian Academy and Bible College in the Knox County village of Glen Cove.
Dancer met his future wife, Donna, at Glen Cove. During his sophomore year, “she invited me to a Sadie Hawkins Day party,” he said. “The whole purpose of that was, the girls could invite the boys.” The couple has been together ever since.
Dancer graduated in 1967 and enrolled in Northeastern Bible College in Essex Fells, N.J., where he earned bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies and theology.
During his last year of high school, “I had felt like I was being led to consider some kind of biblical ministry,” he said, though he “didn’t necessarily think of being a pastor.”
“When I was growing up, I didn’t think I would be anything other than a farmer,” he said.
Dancer’s father wanted him to study agriculture at the University of Maine and return to help out on the farm.
But while Dancer was at Glen Cove, a sickness decimated the farm’s cattle and his father was not able to replace the animals or keep up with the demands of government regulators. “I wasn’t going to be farming,” Dancer said.
There was, however, another obstacle between Dancer and his future as a pastor.
“To me, it’s a miracle that I ended up being in the ministry, because as a kid, I was extremely shy and I couldn’t even talk in a group of three or four, let alone 85-100. I didn’t see there was any way possible that I could ever be a minister or a teacher,” he said.
But “God had other plans,” he said. He was still shy when he started college, but his studies and his work with a pastor at a church in New Jersey “showed me that I could be part of leadership in a church,” he said.
His first pastorate was back in Maine, in the small Franklin County village of East Wilton. He became the pastor of the East Wilton Union Church in 1972.
The church was going through a crisis when Dancer arrived. When he would meet people in the community, “they would say, ‘Why did you bother to come? They’re going to close the church up in a year or so. It’s not going to make it.’”
“Well, it’s still there today,” Dancer said. “It’s still thriving. I wouldn’t ever give up on a church because of what somebody says about it. There’s always hope.”
Dancer was in East Wilton for about 6 1/2 years. His next stop was at the Charlotte Baptist Church in Charlotte, a small town in Washington County near the border with Canada.
As in East Wilton, the Charlotte church was recovering from a split when he arrived. He stayed for about five years, long enough to see the church recover.
“Both of my first churches, I would have stayed, but we came to a parting of the ways as far as viewpoints, I guess, on what things should be done or what were important in the church work,” he said.
After Charlotte, the Dancers moved in with Donna’s mother in Rockland in May 1984. Around this time, Donna started working as a maternity nurse at Pen Bay Medical Center, where she would stay until her retirement in early 2015.
Dancer was feeling “burned out” after his experiences in Charlotte and East Wilton. “I wasn’t even looking to get back in ministry at that point,” he said.
But while in Rockland, Dancer received a call from Don Hewett, a deacon at South Somerville Baptist Church. The church was without a pastor, and church leaders had heard he might be available to fill in.
Dancer agreed, thinking he would speak a Sunday or two.
“August I came, September I came, October, November, December, and each month they would talk to me and say, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t be interested in becoming our pastor?’” and I would say ‘No, I’m really not interested. My wife likes the way things are right now and we’re really pretty content.’”
Eventually he reconsidered, and the church installed Dancer as pastor at its annual meeting in January 1985. The Dancers moved into the parsonage, across the street from the church, in March.
When Dancer started at the church, his duties included “just about everything,” he said.
He would visit the sick in the hospital and in their homes, reach out to people in the community and encourage them to come to church, and make sure the oil furnace at the church was functioning so the church could hold services.
“We have taught Sunday School. We have led the youth work. We have swept floors,” Dancer said. “I don’t think there’s anything in the church, as far as maintaining the building, that I haven’t done over the years.”
When Dancer arrived, about 25 people attended church “on a good Sunday,” he said. The average size of the congregation peaked at about 90-95 in the mid-1990s and early 2000s and is now about 75.
Besides a need to fill many roles, physical and spiritual, Dancer said one of the chief challenges of being a small-town pastor is being available for any situation.
Families often turn to a pastor in the midst of a tragedy and it can be a challenge to know what to say or do, he said. In recent years, he has tried to use the challenges in his own life to minister to others.
Dancer was diagnosed with renal cell cancer in 2005 and his right kidney was removed. About five years later, tests revealed that the cancer had returned and spread. He has been battling the cancer ever since.
“I’m on a biweekly schedule of having chemotherapy infusions. The cancer is not showing any signs of abating, but it’s not growing as fast as it was,” he said. “But it’s still taking up residence in a lot of key organs of my body.”
Dancer has tumors in his left kidney and on his right side where his right kidney was. The cancer is in his adrenal glands, his lungs, and his pancreas.
“It’s very comfortable there and it kind of hates to leave,” Dancer said. “But that’s all part of God’s design for my life, I believe, and gives me an opportunity to be a witness for him in what many would consider to be an extremely difficult situation.
“God has allowed me to use it as a ministry because there are people around us that are hurting in all kinds of ways, and I’ve been able to identify better with them because of the pain I’ve endured and am enduring. I’ve been able to reach out to all kinds of people and be an encouragement, I think, to them.”
He gradually relinquished some of his old responsibilities to church volunteers. Finally, his cancer prompted him to retire.
“I just knew in my own heart it was time to step aside,” he said, and “God intervened in a wonderful way” with the arrival of the church’s next minister, Brian Ritchie, who happens to be around the same age Dancer was when he became pastor.
Last summer, the Dancers moved from the parsonage into a home about a mile from the church. They plan to remain in Somerville and attend services at the church.
“I have no idea how long the battle will be with the cancer, but I do know that this is home,” Dancer said.
Al Erskine, of Washington, has been a deacon at South Somerville Baptist since around 2004. His connection to the church goes back to 1974, when he started to attend services there with his parents and sister.
Dancer – as was the case earlier in his career – arrived at the church at a difficult time for the congregation.
“Pastor Dancer came in as kind of a healer in the beginning,” Erskine said. “He helped people get over their emotional hurts and begin to mend fences.”
Dancer encouraged the church’s members to unify around common goals and to take care of each other. “He’s really good at helping people to get along,” Erskine said.
Erskine described Dancer as an “excellent” teacher of the Bible and a pastor who encourages the members of his church to discover and use their unique abilities.
“As Christians, we believe we are given a spiritual gift – or more – and he helps us to find out what our gift is and challenges us to put it to use,” Erskine said.
“He is also a wonderful counselor in times of grief, marriage struggles, and our stumblings,” Erskine said.
Erskine also credited Dancer with helping build the church’s support of missions to nearly half its annual budget.
Lester Dancer is a younger cousin of John Dancer’s and the pastor of the Sheepscot Valley Community Church, which occupies the building formerly home to the Kings Mills Union Church.
When Lester Dancer was a boy, his grandmother would take him to services at his cousin’s church.
Only later in life did he become a Christian and eventually a pastor. John Dancer was an influence in both decisions and continues to influence Lester Dancer as a pastor.
Anybody can stand up on a Sunday morning and talk, Lester Dancer said.
What separates a pastor is what happens between services, “when somebody’s hurting, somebody needs prayer, or somebody’s in the hospital, and that’s just the kind of guy he is,” Lester Dancer said. “He’s there for other people.”
Lester Dancer said some churches attract large crowds, but fail to care for their members.
John Dancer “is different,” Lester Dancer said. “He’s that old, traditional version of what a pastor should be: somebody who’s out there trying to be there for people, trying to be a leader spiritually. For me, in my ministry, that’s what I want to emulate.”
“I’m really blessed to have known him my whole life,” Lester Dancer said.
Beyond his work at South Somerville Baptist Church, Dancer has been active in the community as a member of the fire department and as the president of the parent-teacher organization and an occasional substitute teacher at the old Somerville School.
He is grateful to still have his family nearby. The Dancers’ three adult children and six grandchildren live in Somerville and Spruce Head. John Dancer’s mother lives in Kings Mills, as do a sister and her family. His mother-in-law lives in Rockland.
Dancer said he stayed at the Somerville church so long – almost half his life at the time of his retirement – “because God used my first two pastorates to prepare me for what he knew was going to be a life ministry.”
In Somerville, he said, “We have been accepted and loved and supported in ways that are just beyond my ability to understand. I look at my life and say, ‘Hey, we did what we were supposed to do,’ but they have really appreciated far beyond measure what has been done.”