By Dustin Luca
---- — The Rev. Jeffrey Shilling Gill leaves Christ Church with a lasting image from his last week on the job.
It happened at the end of his final Sunday service on Nov. 18. As he started saying his goodbyes to the parish, a group of children surrounded him.
“I realized that all of this sea of children standing around ... for many of them, I’m the only priest they’ve ever known,” he said.
Last week, Gill resigned as rector of Christ Church on Central Street, a position he has held since 2005. He first came to Andover in 1983 as a seminarian for the church, and he returned to be priest in charge in 2002, when the church was facing what may have been its saddest days.
At the time, the parish was still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when, two days after Christmas, the church’s newly selected rector died suddenly from a pulmonary illness.
“There was a lot of sadness, deep sadness,” Gill said. “The first task was, really, to be with the parish in their grief and try to help them see the future.”
Within six months, there was talk about opening a new school in Lawrence — Esperanza Academy, a tuition-free all-girls middle school, as it came to be known. Meanwhile, a capital program was launching to renovate the church, and the parish’s leadership was looking at reinventing the church’s Sunday presentation.
“What he brought here was the possibilities we could do,” said Debbie Moskal, Christ Church’s director of communications. “Jeff came with such optimism that we could reach out to not only the people in the parish, but the people outside the parish, whether they were in Lawrence or they lived in some other part of the country or the world.”
The church fufilled the last of the goals Gill set with the delivery and installation of a new organ in September.
“I knew, if I were to stay here, we’d either have to reinvent the relationship and go for some other big goals, or maybe it’s time for me to go on and let somebody come in,” Gill said.
Sitting in her office on Gill’s final day in Andover, Moskal recalled a trip to Jerusalem she and several others took with him years ago. Walking through an ancient marketplace, she said she could imagine Roman soldiers building the walkway she was on. She imagined herself moving through a space occupied by Jesus Christ two millennia ago.
“It’s a marketplace, but it’s also a place where Jesus walked,” she said. “It changed my world view.”
In Andover’s corner of the world, “we’ve become better people,” Moskal said.
“Jeff has broadened the way I think, and I think that’s what the other parishioners think as well,” she said. “He’ll probably still encourage Seattle to think differently and more globally.”
While it was a calling he felt that brought him back to Andover a decade ago, it’s the quest to answer another calling that’s sending him to Seattle.
“A wise theologian named Frederick Buechner said your call is where your own deep passion intersects with a deep hunger within the world,” he said.
First and foremost, Gill will be with his family, who live in Oregon.
“We became grandparents 18 months ago,” he said, smiling. “We’re going to be grandparents — big-time.”
And while it’s the memory of Andover children he’ll take with him, his new parish, Trinity, has few children.
“I’ll be going to a parish where there are virtually no children, a handful at best. It’s in a downtown location where families with young children don’t live,” he said. “One of the things I’m really excited about at Trinity Parish is the potential for developing a really strong adult ministry. They’ve got a growing number of young people in their 20s and 30s.”
Even though he’s leaving, Gill’s departure from Christ Church shouldn’t be seen as a loss to the parish, he said.
The church will be led in the interim by the Rev. Gale Davis from Westford. It’s likely the church will then go through a search process to locate and select its next rector.
“It’s going to be an exciting time for them,” Gill said. “‘Where’s God leading us now?’ And, Where is the future for us as a parish?’ And then, ‘Go and find the kind of leadership we need to help us on our journey there.’”