New pastor arrives at Grace Church
The Rev. Robert Hensley assumed duties as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven this week, ending the church's 13-month search for a new pastor.
Since 2001, Father Hensley has served as the associate pastor of St. Margaret's Church, an inner-city, bi-lingual congregation of more than 500 in Washington, D.C. He and his long-time partner, Michael Helgert, lived nearby in Silver Spring, Md.
Father Hensley's duties included running the church's outreach and education programs, including "Charlie's Place" (Las Casa de Carlos), which provides a breakfast program every day and social services for about 100 people. He also served on the adjunct faculty of Virginia Theological Seminary.
The Rev. Robert Hensley. Photo courtesy of Rob Hensley
The pastor and Mr. Helgert first visited Grace Episcopal Church in November, which also was their first trip to the Island. Having grown up on a farm in central Illinois, Father Hensley said the slower-paced lifestyle was a definite attraction.
"A lot of the issues are the same, just on a smaller scale, no matter where you are going, such as affordable housing, poverty and hunger," the pastor said. "Those are the things I have always worked with throughout my ministry.
In working in a smaller community, he said, "You get a sense of accomplishment, because you can see the results of your work, which you can't so much in a larger setting."
He said his partner also is looking forward to Island life. Mr. Helgert, an electrician by trade, is retired from the Air Force.
"He has a passion for animals, and will probably volunteer at the animal shelter," said Father Hensley. Their two dogs, a collie and an old beagle/bull terrier mix whose various surgeries have earned him the title "bionic dog," have been trying to figure out how to herd wild turkeys in the rectory yard since their arrival, he said.
Father Hensley's selection resulted from a 13-month process in which the Grace Church search committee winnowed down 37 applicants to 6 finalists, said Lorraine Clark, a committee member. "He was exactly what Grace Church was looking for," said Ms. Clark, who married in the church 51 years ago. "His resume was wonderful. He opened it with something none of the others did, a beautiful prayer. He caught everyone's eyes."
Mike Shepard, another committee member, agreed. "He was head and shoulders above the others." Mr. Shepard and committee members Beebe Green and Kim Carlos visited St. Margaret's Church one weekend where they listened to Father Hensley's sermon at the 9 am service and again at 11:15.
"We all agreed that this was the only time that it was a pleasure to hear the same sermon twice," they reported to Grace Church members.
After visiting the six candidates in their home churches and/or hosting their visits to Grace Church, the committee selected Father Hensley.
In some Episcopal churches in the United States, the 2003 ordination of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the church's first gay bishop in a committed relationship, and the blessing of same sex marriages have divided congregations. Last July in Connecticut, a bishop suspended one of six priests under his supervision who had clashed with him over his support of Bishop Robinson's ordination.
Amidst the backdrop of conflict in the Episcopal Church over these issues, the response to Father Hensley's selection at Grace Episcopal Church caused barely a ripple, with the congregation welcoming him with open arms.
During the search process, Al Stefanik, a retired priest, served as the interim pastor starting in November 2004. Once Father Hensley was selected, Father Stefanik and his wife Claire sold their home in Vineyard Haven and bought another in northern Vermont where they will live near family.
Contacted before he left this week, Father Stefanik said only "a couple of people" in the congregation had expressed some reservations about their new priest. "I advised everyone to meet Father Hensley first. He is a good human being, and I think he is going to be a great pastor and a good listener," he said.
Two people who told other church members they would leave the congregation over Father Hensley's appointment had no comment when contacted.
"We pray that we believe in what we say, and we live it. We're not going to turn our backs because somebody's gay. We may lose some people, but we're going to gain a lot," said Ms. Clark. "There are a lot of people who are quite pleased with our choice. They are looking forward to meeting these guys and moving on with our church life."
Another long-time member, DiAnn Ray, has served Grace Church in many capacities over 34 years, including senior warden and vestry member. She said she is excited about Father Hensley's selection.
"I think that there will be perhaps some negative response, but there already has been a great deal of positive response from the congregation and also from the community at large when people have heard about this," Ms. Ray added. "Grace Church is a very exciting and dynamic place, and I can only think that together with our new pastor, we will continue this vibrant work."
Father Hensley will conduct his first services at his new church this weekend.