HUNTINGTON - When Eric and Alicia Porterfield met while attending Duke Divinity School in the 1990s, they were both on their own, individual paths to the ministry.
They basically stayed on those individual paths for the first 20 years of their marriage - with Eric serving as senior pastor at two different North Carolina congregations and Alicia serving in a variety of roles, from a health care chaplain to writing Bible study curriculum to serving as a interim pastor for a year.
Though they did write some Bible study books together, this month marks the first time that Eric and Alicia Porterfield's careers are converging as staff members of the same congregation - and they're doing so here in Huntington at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church.
Last week was their first full-time week in the church, as Eric began his new position as senior pastor and Alicia began her new position as associate pastor of adult education, and as their sons started fifth, seventh and ninth grades in Huntington schools.
The Porterfields come to Huntington from Wilmington, North Carolina, where Eric was senior pastor at Winter Park Baptist Church for the past decade and Alicia was interim pastor in a neighboring town at First Baptist Carolina Beach. They were chosen after a year-long search for new leadership. Eric Porterfield replaces Allen Reasons, who retired last year after more than 15 years leading Fifth Avenue Baptist.
They heard about Fifth Avenue Baptist from two friends/colleagues in North Carolina, Tim Moore and Mike Queen, who had both grown up in Huntington attending the church. Alicia, who is originally from the Atlanta area, had been to other parts of West Virginia before, but never to Huntington. Eric, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native, had been to Huntington once.
"As a 12-year-old, I played in the Buddy League tournament here in Huntington in 1981, and I must say that we did defeat the Huntington team for the championship," he said.
When it came to considering a position here, they started talking with the search committee several months ago.
"We talked to the committee and went through several months of conversations with them, and through that process sensed God calling us to come here," Eric Porterfield said.
"We're enjoying it," Alicia said.
Not only do their new positions simplify their family life by giving them just one church schedule to build around, but they've also been impressed with the congregation.
"It's a very warm and welcoming congregation, and they're organized in how they're warm and welcoming, which I appreciate," Alicia said.
For example, she said, a member of the search committee formed a welcoming team, which listed opportunities for members to help with everything from tidying up the family's yard and shampooing carpets before they moved in, to unloading the moving van.
"It took us six hours to load (the moving truck) in Wilmington and about an hour to unload it here because we had all that help," Alicia Porterfield said. "By the time (the day) was over, it looked like a home ... which was huge for us to begin to feel settled. That's just an example of the church's commitment to living out loving their neighbor, and we really appreciated that.
"It's also a very mission-minded congregation - locally, nationally and internationally. It's very focused on helping others, which was appealing to us."
The church's quick response to help West Virginia flood victims, its Helpington mission program and its support for an orphanage in Nicaragua are just a few other examples the Porterfields felt were impressive.
They're excited to get to know their church and the area even more.
"We're looking forward to getting to know Huntington better, the community," Alicia said. "Everywhere we've served, it's been interesting to learn about the history of the community. We've watched 'We Are Marshall,' and we want to learn more about the town - the blessings and the struggles."
As for working together, they're looking forward to that as well. They are co-teaching a Bible study class at 6 p.m. Wednesdays that got underway last week and is open to all. It will be based on a book they wrote together, "Proverbs: Living wisely, loving well." Another book they co-authored was "Sessions with Psalms: Prayers for all Seasons."
Alicia said she was happy to learn, when talking with the Fifth Avenue Baptist search committee, that some of the Bible study curricula she had written for Smyth & Helwys publishing house had been taught at the church.
"It was neat to know they'd taught lessons I'd written before we ever met," said Alicia, who also wrote "A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood," which later turned into an online blog and forum for pastors who are mothers at ministryandmotherhood.com.
"That's been wonderful," she said of the blog, adding that it came out of her own struggle as a minister and a young mother. She'd talk about the struggles with other ministry mothers in the hallways at conferences, and realized they should have an ongoing place to share ideas.
"It occurred to me that we have to form the community that we want," she said. "The book was first, and the blog was an attempt to get the conversation out of the hallway and more toward the center. And it gives ministry moms a safe place to talk about what does that (life) look like. We try to put something out once a week. We don't want to flood people's inboxes, and it's a lot of work."
Eric served at First Baptist Church of Sanford, North Carolina, from 1996-2007, before serving at Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington. One project of which he was proud in Wilmington was partnering with ministers at some of the city's African-American churches, offering shared worship services and service projects "as we worked toward racial reconciliation," Eric Porterfield said. "That was something that was a privilege to be a part of. It went very well."
As for what they plan to do in Huntington, they want to spend some time getting to know their church members and city before they decide.
"We're in the process of learning the congregation and the community, and it's exciting to do that," said Eric Porterfield, 48. "In that process, we want to participate in some of the wonderful things that are already happening and seek new ways to serve our community."
"A lot of what we're doing at this point is listening and learning," said Alicia, 44. "We're learning what is already here that's going well and what are the longings and the dreams - and how has God been moving here and how do people sense God moving into the future."