St. Martin’s greets new leader with alleluias


Jarrett Kerbel’s business is faith, but at a key point in his own career, he admits hope deserted him.

 “I’d resigned myself that I was never going to get a chance to lead a church again,” he said. “And that felt like a horrible loss.”

Sunday afternoon in Chestnut Hill, loss was officially transformed into opportunity, resignation into delight.

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With alleluias from his new bishop and a teasing sermon from an old colleague, the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel was installed as the new rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.  Charles Bennison, bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, presided at the service, which packed the old church next to the Philadelphia Cricket Club.

Kerbel replaces the Rev. Robert Tate, who retired last year after 14 years at the church. 

“Hold onto your hats,” the Rev. Daphne Cody, who worked with Kerbel at a church in Chicago, told the congregation. ”Jarrett’s flaws are ones the rest of us would love to have. … His mind just buzzes with too many ideas. Your church is about to change.”

Barbara Dundon, the parishioner who led the parish’s search for rector candidates, said the search committee regarded Kerbel as “the whole package.”

Still, on the November night when the vestry reviewed the short list of candidates and made its decision, the meeting dragged pretty deep into the night. Kerbel, in Kansas City attending a seminar, stared at his silent cell phone, fretting and telling himself to prepare for disappointment.

The 9:30 p.m. phone call telling him he was the choice was “like manna in the wilderness”

 “This place is wonderful. It has a very special set of gifts. I already feel very at home.”

Putting spouse’s career first

As he spoke, Kerbel sat in his second-floor office in the parish house, most of his books unpacked, some mementos of his time in a favorite city, Chicago, already on the wall. He preached his first sermon at St. Martin’s earlier in the month; he and his family are moving into a church-owned apartment next door.

Family is a big reason Kerbel at one point feared he’d never again get to do the work he most loves, leading a big-city congregation. His wife, the Rev. Alison Boden, is a well-known United Church of Christ minister whose own career, campus ministry, took off before Kerbel’s did.

“Our marriage is a great example of how women mature quicker than men,” he said with a rueful smile.

A few years back, they’d had a great set-up. Boden was chaplain at the University of Chicago; Kerbel, rector of an Episcopal church. Then Princeton called, wanting Boden to become its dean of campus ministry.

“I couldn’t imagine asking her to say no to Princeton,” Kerbel said. “I mean, it’s Princeton. Well, I tried very hard imagining it, but I just couldn’t do it. I was raised to be a male feminist.”

So Boden, Kerbel and their two adopted children headed back to central Jersey, where Kerbel had grown up. He got a job running the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton, and by most accounts did a fine job of it.

But all the time he was mourning the loss of the work, parish ministry, which he said “is where my gifts get put to most use; it activates all my stuff.”

Kerbel then chuckled in self-deprecation: “Listen to me. ‘Stuff.’ That was real eloquent.”

Open door to community

As a man who says he loves “the swirl of community,” Kerbel has vivid hopes for the role St. Martin’s can play in the Chestnut Hill and Northwest Philadelphia community:

“I’d like people to say about us, ‘Wow, that place is powerfully engaged in the neighborhood, has the good of its community very much at heart. It’s open, it’s accessible, it’s a place where people, no matter where they are on their spiritual journeys, feel welcomed.’”

He thinks his new congregation has “a very nice balance of head and heart. The challenge now is: How do we share that more widely? How do we get those doors open, and let the larger community in?”

As for the community in which he now finds himself, Kerbel is a huge fan of Chestnut Hill.

“It’s beautiful,” he exclaimed. “The trees. Being able to walk places. The amazing access to parks. The trains. I love it.”

The new rector, whose own kids will attend Chestnut Hill Academy next school year, said education is an issue where he’d like to see his congregation apply its powers of head and heart, of intellect and faith. But he sees that happening as part of a larger community movement. 

“I want to see what we can do with other churches, other efforts,” he said. “As a single church, I’m not sure how big an effect we can have, but as part of a coalition, we can have a huge impact.”

 Note to readers: The author of this article is a member of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

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