“I truly love moving to a new place, discovering the history, people, what makes them special. I’m excited to do that here,” said the Rev. Ben Shambaugh, from his office at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. After a six-month search, he was selected to replace the interim rector, Joseph L. Cundiff IV, who had served since the departure of the Very Rev. Denis C. Brunelle.
Mr. Brunelle, who had served the parish since 2009, retired last June. “Denis Brunelle was beloved, and I want to honor that,” said Mr. Shambaugh.
Reverend Shambaugh, 59, was ordained 35 years ago at a seminary in Chelsea, N.Y., but somehow never made it out to Long Island. “I’ve lived all over the world,” he said. From the wealthy Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, to Paris, France, to a middle-class suburb in Maryland which allowed him to work with a ministry to Africa, his life has been peripatetic. For the last 17 years, he has been in Portland, Me.
“The beautiful thing about this for me, each place became home,” he said, “and each place, I fell in love with the people.”
East Hampton, however, will be different. “I was ordained to be a parish priest, and I’ve never really done that. This is an opportunity to really go back to my roots, to go back to my original sense of calling.” In Maine, he explained, he was involved in higher-level administration, serving on a committee that advised the bishop, and representing the state’s Episcopal churches at the national level. “The focus of a parish priest is to care for the people of the town and congregation.”
“One of the things that Covid taught is that the church isn’t a building, it’s a people,” he said. This became apparent as congregations were prevented from meeting in-person. “If someone asks, ‘What is St. Luke’s doing?’ the real question is, ‘What are the St. Lukians doing in the community?’ Part of my role is to help and encourage that. If there’s a food pantry in Town Hall, we don’t have to start one, but we can support the existing pantry.”
When he spoke with The Star earlier this month, Reverend Shambaugh had not yet delivered his first sermon. He seemed pensive, processing his thoughts, working through what he would say.
“The church is a catalyst for change and for spiritual growth. I hope people can grow spiritually and grow in love for each other and their neighbors, whether they’re involved here or not. For me, church is a verb. It’s about being church.” He recognizes that the mission of the church today is different from what it was in the 1950s, and that it’s undergoing a period of transformation.
Social and environmental justice, marriage equality, inclusion of the LGTBQ community, immigrant, and anti-racism work are all part of its pursuits nowadays.
“It doesn’t matter who you voted for. You have to love and welcome people who might disagree with you. How do you do that? We don’t have the answers. We’re going on a journey. The whole world is changing. Covid accelerated the change that was already happening,” he said.
“I think people don’t know that we’re as welcoming as we are,” said Mr. Shambaugh. While the church doesn’t take overt political stands, he added, it is through its actions that it can speak truth to power. “It’s not just about writing checks for poor people,” he said. “A faith that is real, is a faith that is lived.”
Perhaps accelerated by the pandemic, longtime community organizations have struggled. Everyone has read about how volunteerism is dwindling. Reverend Shambaugh sees an opportunity for the church to role-model good citizenry.
For example, a tuba player since the fourth grade, he hopes to join the Sag Harbor Community Band. “I have played in bands for a long time. It’s a way to feed my soul and have fun.” He’s also a nature guy. “Part of what attracted me is that it’s beautiful on the East End. As a priest, part of your spiritual life is taking time every day to pray. I love to do that with a walk in the woods.”
He also loves the water, and is a chaplain for the Coast Guard. “I oversee the northern part of District One, from New York to Maine. I help with ceremonies, retirements, and change of commands, but my specific training is critical incident stress management and suicide prevention. When there is a crisis, they can call me.”
“I’m at a stage in my career where I could have retired, but I feel like I have more energy and more to give. St. Luke’s seems to be a place where I could use my gifts and skills and really enjoy life here. Enjoy ministry here. I see all of us going on a journey together and discovering what God has in mind.”