“A clergy search process isn’t like an academic or executive search; it’s more like matchmaking.” That’s how Audrey Riley described the work of the committee, which she co-chaired, as they considered candidates for rector of Grace Episcopal Church.

Rev. John Rumple, who led worship for the first time at Grace on Sept. 8 and Rev. John Edgerton who was doing the same thing at the same time a block east on Lake Street at First United Church of Oak Park, talked about leading faith communities in terms of a marriage.

In both cases their new churches were rebounding from relationships with pastors which had ended painfully, like the dead of a spouse or divorce.

Caitlin Zinsser, chair of the personnel committee at First United and a member of the pastor nominating committee, said, “First United has been a church in flux over the past decade, with an unusually high level of pastoral turnover, primarily due to illness.” One pastor who died from ALS. 

“We were hopeful to find someone who was committed to serving with patience for a congregation frustrated with instability, and someone who was interested in forming a longer-term relationship.”

Mother Mary Slenski, Grace Episcopal’s interim for the 26 months preceding Rev. Rumple’s arrival, said that when she arrived, “There were many needs for forgiveness and reconciliation regarding people and events in their past and good ministry to be celebrated and nurtured.”

That’s what interim ministers like Slenski and Rev. Deborah Kapp, who served as interim at First United, provide. They help congregations resist jumping into a new relationship before they’re ready and take the time to do some healing and acquire some emotional/spiritual equilibrium.

The next step in the matchmaking process is dating. Like singles who use eHarmony or Match.com to find a partner, Grace Episcopal put their profile online. They said they are theologically progressive, highly educated, diverse and have a solid endowment. They also acknowledged that they have “suffered painful pastoral transitions and conflicted relationships between and among clergy, vestry, and congregation.”

They added that they’re looking for “a wise and holy priest who is grounded, scholarly, prayerful, and inspiring to serve as our next rector.”

“We were looking for a long-term, healthy, happy relationship for priest and people,” Riley said, “and we made a point of reminding ourselves frequently that we didn’t need to do this fast. We needed to do it right.”

Rev. John Edgerton was attracted to First United’s online profile and agreed to a “first date” by entering the interview process.

“What attracted me so much to first United,” he recalled, “was that not only were they involved in acts of charity like the food pantry, Beyond Hunger, but they are also engaged in real and effective organizing to change the structures of society.”

“First United,” he added, “is a good place with good people seeking to do good in the world. They’ve had a tough go of it in recent years. I think I can be someone who is solid, cares for them and helps them figure out who it is they want to be. I view leadership as being a profoundly conversational process. I need to understand what are their gifts, dreams and passions and to lead from that place to where God is calling this church to be.”

In addition, he sees Oak Park as a great place for him and his wife, Heather Upshaw, to raise their 2-year-old Veronica.

Rumple also sees Oak Park as a good community in which he and his husband, Christian, can make for themselves a home and he can grow professionally as a priest.

The atmosphere in both churches felt a bit like a wedding, celebrating matches made in heaven. 

“It was plain to all of us that we had found the priest we could recommend wholeheartedly and we’re eager and hopeful for what comes next in the long history of Grace Church Oak Park,” Riley said.

Cathy O’Kelly, senior warden of the vestry at Grace, said, “Fr. John has exceeded our expectations. He has a strong intellect, is an excellent preacher and is a warm and caring pastor.”

After hearing Edgerton’s first sermon and worshipping together for the first time, many First United members voiced the opinion that they had found the right person to lead them. 

“I was very touched by his sermon,” said Sylvia Menninga. “I think we’ll be very happy with him.” 

“Our first day with Rev. Edgerton went terrific. He has a big vision,” said Jim Babcock.

“He was well received by all the members,” said Gene Armstrong, “and I think we are in for a very long and successful relationship.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...