Spotlight: Eric Barker

This is the first in a monthly series of articles focusing on First Church's people and programs.

 Many of us know him as the man who helped found and lead our contemporary service, WIRED. Some have enjoyed his baritone voice in choir and a men’s quartet. Others recall his stepping in to lead our music program when we were between directors.

But in his professional life in the College of Pharmacy, Eric Barker is a 2013 winner of the Murphy Award, Purdue's top honor for excellence in teaching given annually to no more than six of the university's more than 1,800 faculty members every year. He has served as an associate dean for the past five years, first for graduate programs and now for research, edits a major professional journal, and has published over 40 research articles, 15 book chapters, and invited reviews. 

His road to becoming a professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology started at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, 20 miles west of his hometown, Edwardsville, Ill. At first he thought he'd go into the business end of pharmacy, but then switched to research. He had become fascinated with the way drugs impact the brain — both legal ones such as those used to treat depression and illegal ones such as cocaine.

Armed with his bachelor's degree from St. Louis in 1988, he headed to Vanderbilt University to work on his doctorate. But his heart was still in St. Louis with pharmacy student Loretta Karpus, a Southside Chicagoan. She finished in 1990 and the next year, they were wed in the same Chicago church in which her grandparents had been married.

Two years later, in 1993, Eric earned his Ph.D. Then came post-doc work at Emory and Vanderbilt before Purdue offered him a tenure-track position in 1998.

New to West Lafayette with a baby daughter, Anna, they started church shopping. Eric had grown up in the Church of the Nazarene while Loretta had been Roman Catholic. They earlier had decided that Methodism was the right blend of their church backgrounds. In 2000, they chose First Methodist as their new church home.

"The Pastor at First, Dean Stuckey, was such a gifted preacher and thinker," Eric recalled. "We loved the old church in Chauncey Village.  And we liked the big pipe organ and the choir."

A lot has changed since then.

For one, Eric and Loretta added a son, Aaron. Today, Anna is starting her freshman year majoring in chemistry at Purdue while Aaron is a freshman at Harrison High School who loves swimming and computer gaming. Loretta is a pharmacist at Franciscan St. Elizabeth Hospital. And, the congregation has moved from its landlocked location in Chauncey Village to the growing area just west of campus.

In thinking of how to use the new facility, Eric says, "God planted a seed in my brain." Eric envisioned adding a contemporary service that would reach out to the unchurched or people who hadn't been to church for a long while. And it would appeal to a new generation that expected video, technology, and a new style of Christian music. Guitar, drums, and praise music or even secular pop songs replaced hymns. Explanation replaced liturgy. The emphasis would be on inclusion and addressing issues relevant to society and everyday life.

Eric, Aaron, Anna and Loretta BarkerInspired by the possibilities, a team of more than a dozen turned the idea into reality in 2010 and called the new service "WIRED." Eric, who along the way had become a certified lay speaker in the Methodist Church, organizes the worship and preaches about half the time for WIRED services, incorporating humor, casual dress, video and technology. He urges people to view the Bible in context, using Christ as the litmus test.

WIRED is now at capacity.

And at the request of the congregation, this year Eric led the Fruitful Congregation Journey task force that explored ways to expand WIRED. As a result, our church this fall launched a 9:30 a.m. Sunday WIRED service in addition to the one at 11 a.m. and plans to help other churches launch similar services. We've also reopened talks about building a sanctuary.

Besides obviously excelling at time management, how does Eric manage to shepherd WIRED while balancing home and work?

"It's humbling, even daunting at times, but I'm called to do it," Eric said. "As Pastor Craig (LaSuer) said recently, God knows I have another job. So I don't get too hung up on perfection. And I have great teams for greeting, technology, and music. I don't have to worry about those parts of the service."

He also relieves stress by swapping it for a different variety. He plays golf.