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Over the past several months, your leadership has been working hard on a transition plan for this Fall, when our beloved Christine Lee moves into her new role as “Priest-in-Charge” of St. Peter’s. As someone who has overseen several priest searches in previous parishes, I was immediately impressed by the caliber of candidates who presented themselves for this position. To be blunt, it’s not always easy to find a high caliber assistant priest, and I’ve regularly experienced dead ends in searches. The reality is, the best candidates generally want to serve as head Rectors–not as somebody else’s assistant. So, the talent pool in these searches is often pretty thin.
That was not the case for us. From the very beginning, it was clear that we would have our pick from any number of highly qualified applicants. The trick, as we began to vet candidates, was to determine exactly what we were looking for as we made this hire. The big question was this: Did we want to call somebody immediately who could step fully into the role that Christine has had? Somebody who could, like she did, serve as a partner to the Rector for the foreseeable future (in Christine’s case, for almost a decade)? Or, did we want to come up with a short-term solution, somebody who could be with us for a discrete period of time, allowing us some flexibility on the road ahead?
As we began discussing this question, an amazing thing happened. God answered the question for us. Vestryperson Funmi Akintayo-Mullis put it well when she said ‘These decisions come to their best resolution when we look, not for the one who we want, but the one who God is sending.’ That’s exactly what happened here.
I’ll try and tell you the story as best and as quickly as I can. About a month ago, a portion of your parish leadership held a meeting at the Rectory, during which we discussed a particularly interesting candidate. However, after a lengthy discussion about this candidate, some significant concerns had been raised, not only about this candidate in particular, but about the idea of immediately hiring a full-time priest in general. At the time, I was also hosting Bishop Ric Thorpe–the church planting expert whose work has brought radical revitalization to churches throughout London, and who had come to New York at Christine Lee’s invitation to help pioneer church renewal in our Diocese. After the meeting was over, I began to process the various aspects of the decision with Bishop Ric.
Suddenly, Bishop Ric interrupted me and asked this puzzling question: “Who is your best friend?” “Excuse me?” I asked in response. Then he said: “I just think whoever your best friend is, you should reach out to him, and do whatever it takes to get him here.” Then, he excused himself to go to bed.
If the interruption was puzzling at first, it became even more so as I began to ponder it further. Many of you have already met my best friend, The Rev. Dr. Jonathan (“Jono”) A. Linebaugh, as he was the preacher at my Institution. The thing is, while he’s an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, his primary vocation is to the theological academy. So, I thought: “That couldn’t be it.” True story, I spent the rest of my night going through my rolodex, searching the archives of my various networks, trying to think of a more “realistic” candidate whom Bishop Ric’s enigmatic words could be suggesting.
The next morning, out the blue, I got a text from Jono. In short, Jono’s text said this: ‘My plans for my sabbatical this coming year are still unclear, and I’m not really sure what I should do. What do you think?’ Talk about “the one who God is sending,” right? As a friend, my first response was to help him weigh his various options. But in the end, I finally hit him with it: “Jono, you should come work with me.” And, thanks be to God, all were in agreement.
As a bit more background, Jono is a Lecturer in New Testament and Theology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College. He and his wife Megan have three children: Liam, Callie, and Anna. His main academic focus is the interpretation of Paul’s letters in the New Testament and he has written and edited a number of books and articles on Paul’s theology and the way the apostle’s letters have been read by later interpreters. For Jono, this research is also wed to his pastoral calling. Ordained in The Episcopal Church since 2008, Jono hopes in his research and teaching as well as his preaching and pastoral care to be a minister of the word: to hear and receive the gospel so that it can be spoken to and shared with the world.
Calling Jono as our “Visiting Priest and Scholar” means that we have gone with our second option: a short-term hire, who will be with us for a predetermined amount of time–specifically, this Fall and Spring. As it became clear that God was calling Jono specifically, we also began to see how this was the best thing for our parish on the whole. This is true for several reasons. Above all, it allows us the time to both be more intentional in determining exactly what we want from a second priest–whether we will want to hire another “Vicar” like Christine, or whether we should use that position for some other good purpose–as well as the time to be patient and thorough in our search. Please pray for us as we continue to seek God’s will about this future.
For now, I could not be more excited that Jono will be serving our parish this coming year. You’ll see him and his family for the first time at the Annual Parish Retreat in September, and then regularly beginning in October after Christine’s departure.
Please join me in giving thanks to God, and in welcoming Jono when he comes!
Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee+