Sean Collins: Turning His Life Around
Growing up, it never occurred to Sean Collins that he would end up in ministry.
“It’s the last career in a million years I would have thought I would have,” he says.
And what is Sean now? He is the pastor of the Winthrop Baptist Church in Deep River. He also serves as a chaplain at Connecticut Hospice in Branford.
In high school, Sean had a plan. After graduation, he would go into the Air Force. “I would serve for 20 years and then work for Boeing for 20 years and then retire to Florida,” he says.
That is not the way things turned out. Sean went into the military at 18; a year later, he was out with a medical discharge. He had no idea what to do next.
“At 19, my life went into a spiral,” he says.
He had what he describes as an anti-Christian lifestyle, which included both too much alcohol and drug use. He has never hidden those things in his life as a minister. In fact, he uses the story of his recovery process as the material for sermons.
Back living in his father’s basement in Naugatuck, Sean took a variety of jobs. He did food service work as a cashier and waiter; he worked at a car dealership parking cars in their lot; he was a telemarketer and did cable company sales.
In the confusion of his life, he looked to religion. Born Catholic, he had gone to church when he was in the Air Force, and now he began to experience the wide range of Christian experiences. Still, he had not given up the habits that had gotten him into trouble.
“I was still in the stages of alcoholism. I would call an Uber or a Lyft and not remember when I woke up in the morning where I had been,” he says. “I would listen to a church service in bed, hung over.”
He credits the beginning of a new way of living to a Christian rock concert he went to in San Antonio, and in particular to a song by a group called Cloverton, “A Hallelujah Christmas,” which uses the same melody but different words as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” He was struck by the line, “I know You came to rescue me.”
It was a pivotal moment.
“A light bulb went on. I got it,” he recalls.
What he got was a solution he had never considered before. He would find the rescue and stability he needed by attending divinity school. That wasn’t easy. He had been an indifferent student in high school, “a straight 2.0,” he says of his grade point average. Sean thought he would try Gordon College, a Christian institution in Wenham, Massachusetts. He didn’t think the school would admit him, but he decided applying would give him practice in the interview process. To his surprise, at the end of the telephone question-and-answer session, the interviewer welcomed him to Gordon College. In retrospect, Sean says he knew it would be a lucky day.
“It was my birthday,” he says.
College was a challenge. “At the end of the first month, I was flunking everything,” Sean says.
There was a reason, and it was not that Sean was goofing off. He found he had a learning disability, a visual processing disorder, and he had great trouble remembering written material. If, however, he heard it rather than saw it, his memory was fine. With the help of professors, he was able to find scanning apps that turned written into spoken material and audiobooks that turned his academic career around.
Sean graduated from Gordon and has just received his Master’s degree in Divinity from Denver Seminary. The Winthrop Baptist Church, which he now leads, is part of the American Baptist Church, not the much larger Southern Baptist Convention. Among the differences, women are permitted to serve as ministers in the American Baptist Church.
“Baptists are not what people think they are, holy rollers or something like that. We have to change that perception. It is not true at all,” Sean says.
The Winthrop congregation is small, and Sean is eager to increase membership.
“Give us one Sunday to find out what we are about. In this church, we are so open, so loving; we get along so well.” He adds that as a result of COVID-19, the church is trying to update its digital footprint. “People see us online, and they decide if they will come,” he says.
He wants to involve parishioners in his sermons, often starting out by asking those in attendance what the Bible verse he is focusing on means to them.
“I want to hear the wisdom of the parishioners,” he says. And as the discussion moves forward, he adds, “I have no problem making myself the butt of the joke.”
Sean says important help in his ministry comes from his fiancée Marissa to whom he has been engaged for several years. They have not married yet, he explains, because they both have been in school.
“We’re going to get it done,” he promises. Marissa has given him a sign for his desk, “Chaos coordinator.”
Sean, who lives in Guilford, is at the gym in the morning from 4:30 to 6:30.
“I love weightlifting,” he says.
He’s a true New Englander when it comes to sports, a fan of the Bruins and the Red Sox. And, though he doesn’t participate, he has a happenstance connection to another sporting activity: mixed martial arts (MMA). He looks remarkably like MMA star Connor McGregor.
“That’s when I take my glasses off,” he says. And when he took them off, a visitor agreed.
For more information, visit winthropbaptist.org.