February 4, 2015
Dear Friends of Fourth Presbyterian Church,
It is a cliché to begin these letters by noting how bittersweet it is to say good-bye to a congregation you love, but it really is true. Two weeks ago the Board of Trustees at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, voted to call me to a four-year appointment as Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism, a brand-new position they have created to help address the challenges and potentials of ministry in our changing world. I am excited about this new adventure but also sad to leave a community that has meant so much to me for the majority of my adult life and ministry career.
I moved to Chicago fifteen-and-a-half years ago to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School. I came to this city feeling called to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I had never actually been a member of a PC(USA) congregation. I set out to find the best place to learn about Presbyterianism and quickly found myself in the pews and classrooms of Fourth Presbyterian Church. I joined the congregation, volunteered with the youth ministry, and came under care of the Session as an inquirer and then candidate for ministry. After serving in pastoral leadership at Community Presbyterian Church in Clarendon Hills for six years, it was an unanticipated joy to be called back to Fourth Church and ordained here as Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry. In more ways than I can number, this church has shaped my life, my faith, and my ministry. I simply would not be the person or the pastor I am today without the nurture of this remarkable congregation.
This position at Union Seminary was not at all on my radar prior to being contacted about it several months ago, but the more I learned about it the more I felt called to a rare and unique leadership and learning opportunity. My work will involve the fields of evangelism, church growth and vitality, new church development, and ministry among emerging generations. In addition to teaching, I will coordinate student internships in these areas and work closely with the Presbytery of the James to explore new models of missional evangelism. I will also have the opportunity to host conferences and engage leaders around the country as our wider church reimagines what ministry looks like in the twenty-first century. In so many ways this will be a direct continuation of the work I have done in youth ministry here at Fourth Church, my recent doctoral work at McCormick Theological Seminary, my leadership in the Presbytery of Chicago, my engagement in the wider denomination, and the crazy ideas I explore on my blog.
I will have more to say in the months to come, but it will be difficult to find all the right words to express what a privilege it has been to lead the youth ministry at Fourth Church. The young people I have journeyed with during these eight-and-a-half years have inspired me to give my very best in ministry for and with them. I trust that the time and energy we have faithfully invested in these emerging leaders will come back to bless and transform our world in ways we cannot even imagine. Our volunteers are a treasure, and we could not do this ministry without them. I am grateful for their trust in me and their commitment to this ministry. I am pleased that we have been able to grow the youth ministry staff during my time here, and I value the opportunity I have had to share in ministry with very talented and faithful people. It has been a thrill to participate in the growth of the children, youth, and family ministries at Fourth Church, and I am proud of our efforts to build a sustainable youth ministry that I trust will continue to thrive beyond this transition. I hope that I have lived up to the dreams of the visionary nominating committee that took a chance on an unlikely youth pastor nine years ago and called me to help them develop, in the words of Steve Bumpus, “a world-class youth ministry.”
I must confess that I am disappointed to be called away less than a year into Shannon Kershner’s pastorate at Fourth Church. It is not an exaggeration to say that nothing has filled me with more hope for the future of this congregation than her call to ministry here. I was blessed to be on the pastoral staff during the final years of John Buchanan’s inspired leadership of this congregation, and there is no doubt in my mind that Shannon is the pastor who will define the next chapter in the storied history of this church. I will miss working with her and the rest of my colleagues on this exceptional staff.
Chicago has been my home for longer than any other place in my life. Anna grew up here, and this move will distance us from her parents. We will miss this amazing city and the roots that have nourished us for so long, but we are also excited about the possibilities that await us in Richmond. Anna will continue her career as a nurse anesthetist and our boys—both of whom were baptized in this church—will have new experiences to shape them as they learn and grow. I will be forever grateful for the love you have shared with my family.
Fortunately, there will be plenty of time for good-byes. I will continue my work at Fourth Church through the end of May, and June 7 will be our last Sunday. Anna and I both cherish this community and the love we have experienced here. Fourth Church has been our home, and for that we are deeply thankful.
With sincere gratitude,
John W. Vest
Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry
• • •
Dear Fourth Church Friends,
The word John used bears repeating: bittersweet. It bears repeating because his accepting the call to serve as Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary is just as bittersweet for all of us as it is for him.
We have been blessed to have him among us as an Associate Pastor for the past eight-and-a-half years—and exceedingly fortunate! In the Presbyterian Church (USA), it is actually quite unusual for an Associate Pastor to stay at one congregation that long before moving on to the next growth opportunity in his or her ministry. It is even more unusual in the case of youth ministry! So we are particularly grateful to John for his commitment over many years to this place, for his having planted the vibrant youth ministry that we have at Fourth Church today, and for his taking the time to ensure it would have the deep roots that it does for the future.
But it is not just the youth and their parents who have benefited from John’s fruitful ministry, of course. We have all been deeply touched by his consistent leadership, preaching, writing, and desire to help God’s people grow in their faith. It has been a gift to me to work alongside him these past months. We will all miss him. And yet already we rejoice with him and the larger church at this exciting new call, at this opportunity for John to share his gifts more widely in new and ever-more-vibrant ways.
Fourth Presbyterian Church is known for—among so many other things—providing strong leadership within the larger Presbyterian denomination. As much as that is about people on this staff serving as Moderator of the General Assembly and of Presbytery, about their participating in denominational and Presbytery committees and task forces, it has always been just as much about our nurturing people who have tremendous gifts for ministry and helping launch them into the work of the larger church.
John Vest’s call to become Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Seminary is but another manifestation of that preparation for larger call to leadership. In his new role, he, in turn, will be training pastors and educators for their future leadership in the church. He is wonderfully equipped to do that, as I had the privilege of seeing firsthand. Because I serve on the Union Seminary’s Board of Trustees, I overheard the seminary’s conversations with John and watched him interact with both students and faculty throughout the interview process. Even though I hated to admit it to myself, as I watched him try out this new role, it was so clearly a call for John, it was so clearly something that he was ready for and needed for, that I had to push through my own reluctance about his leaving and couldn’t help but embrace the real joy for this new opportunity that John has now been given. It will truly be a gift to see how he continues to grow and to serve Christ’s church!
The Fourth Church Personnel Committee has been informed of John’s call and will be working with Session to make sure our strong youth ministry continues with ordained leadership. In the meantime I am so very grateful to have Shelley Donaldson and Katie Patterson—the coordinators for senior high and junior high youth ministry—as well as the amazing cohort of volunteer youth leaders and mentors here to provide continuity for our youth and carry on the good work in that ministry. Session will keep all of us informed as it shapes the process going forward.
Throughout the next few months we will have time to thank John and Anna—including on their last Sunday with us, June 7. We thank God too for John’s ministry among us and for whatever ways Fourth Church has helped prepare him for this next step on his vocational journey. And we give thanks for the gift that John will be for the seminary community of Union, the Presbytery of the James, and our larger PC(USA).
Shannon J. Kershner