The hair is almost completely white now and maybe just a tad thinner, but the piercing blue eyes of Pastor Steve Keeler still look out among the congregation of Sea Island Presbyterian Church as warmly as they did when he arrived in 1991. If not the dean of Beaufort’s denominational pastors, a 25-year calling at least earns Keeler the title of tenured professor.
“The church has definitely grown with him,” said Charlie Frost, Sea Island Presbyterian’s minister of music since 2002.
Frost himself has stayed longer here than at any other church in his career, and a lot of that is due to the relationship with Keeler.
“I felt him truly being a pastor, not just someone who stands up and speaks once a week,” said Frost. “My interview with him lasted two and a half hours because we hit it off so well.”
Keeler, along with wife Kay, a retired elementary school principal, has made that same connection with many in the church and community. According to clerical scholar Eugene Peterson, it takes seven years for a congregation to trust their pastor. By that point, said Heather Prince-Doss, Sea Island’s associate pastor from 2008-2015, Keeler had already fully embraced the Lowcountry.
“Steve has a strong sense of place and a deep commitment to his people,” said Prince-Doss. “By the time he reached the seven-year mark at Sea Island, Beaufort was home and the people were family. The rest is history.”
A graduate of the Louisville Theological Seminary, Keeler also pastored a church on Edisto Island and served as a Naval chaplain onboard the USS San Jacinto during Operation Desert Storm before heading to Beaufort to start the church as a mission of First Presbyterian downtown.
Since then, he has seen church membership — not to mention the church campus — grow. Perhaps it’s because of the mission-minded approach that extends beyond the church. Keeler has been heavily involved with Habitat for Humanity, Family Promise and other local organizations, and has led mission trips around the world.
“The church is not a museum,” said Frost. “We reach out to the community and open ourselves to the community because of his leadership.”
Church member Jessie Chapman has had Keeler mentor her, perform her wedding ceremony, be present before the birth of her children and later baptize both children. “That’s how he treats all his parishioners,” she said.
Noted for going the literal extra mile for church members in peril, he has kept the same home he and Kay moved into in 1991. It’s where they raised the children who have now given way to grandchildren.
And besides fostering a tight-knit biological and extended family, another secret to longevity is keeping cool under pressure.
“Every church has issues that come up, but he weathers them because of his commitment to the people here,” said Frost.
Church Deacon Shay Dineen agrees.
“I've seen him, more than once, offer a loving smile and gracious hand shake in the face of adversity,” said Dineen.
Then again, as evidence of Keeler’s reach in the community, it should be noted that Dineen is also Keeler’s son-in-law, so he probably feels he has to say something nice.
Whatever the motivation, in a world where pastors are not immune to human nature’s recurrent need for nomadic careers, a tenure like Keeler’s should be recognized.
And if you want to tell him congratulations in person, you know where to find him on Sunday mornings.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at email@example.com.