The new rector at Christ & Holy Trinity Church has huge shoes to fill.
For 22 years, Westport’s Episcopal congregation was led by the beloved Rev. John Branson. For 29 years before that, Rev. Dana Forrest Kennedy was the church’s revered rector.
Both were prodigious figures in town.
This fall, their shoes will be filled by a new, highly regarded pastor. For the first time in CHT’s history, a woman will lead the flock.
But — this being 2013 — that’s not the story. What’s got the entire congregation so excited is not Rev. Whitney Edwards’ gender, but the fact that they found such a dynamic, involved and passionate person to perpetuate the church’s legacy.
The process to replace the legendary Rev. Branson — who retired in June 2012 — was “remarkable,” says CHT warden Frances Rowland.
For a year, 3 groups pondered the church’s past, present and future. A “discernment committee” asked questions like “who we are, what we love, where we’re successful, where we can grow, and what can take us there,” Rowland says.
The Connecticut diocese distributed a document the committee produced, so any clergy looking for jobs could learn about the Westport church. Resumes poured in from around the country. A search committee winnowed out the top candidates, and invited some for interviews. The vestry made the final decision.
It was a long, collaborative process. And when Rev. Edwards was called to be CHT’s new rector, members were elated.
In her native Virginia — where the Episcopalian tradition is strong — she is known for innovation and outreach. She helped serve 2700 church members, and created enormous mission programs in Latin America, Sudan, New Orleans, Appalachia, Alaska — plus inner-city Richmond. She was deeply involved in prison programs, from meeting inmates one-on-one to creating a Spanish-language ministry for Hispanic inmates.
During a year in Panama, she designed and implemented a church microfinance program.
In her current post — associate rector in a Portland, Oregon church — she tripled attendance at family service, led a humanitarian tour of Palestine and Israel, and designed a youth program.
Rev. Edwards is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (summa cum laude, majoring in religious studies and anthropology) and Yale Divinity School (where she earned a Preaching Excellence Award).
“We were looking for a very strong leader; someone very faithful, and very committed to welcoming all kinds of people,” Rowland says.
“We wanted a really good preacher, someone who prioritizes outreach to the community and those less fortunate; a good administrator; someone who could grow with us — and someone who can have fun.”
Rowland smiles. “And we found her.”
Rowland describes Edwards as “incredibly bright. She’s a gifted writer. She has such a warm personality. She’s amazingly strong, but has a humble presence. We were all taken by her.”
The new rector’s gender was a non-factor. “We had so many amazing candidates, but Whitney had every quality we were looking for,” Rowland says. “This has nothing to do with male-female, old-young. She was the best person, and the person we most wanted.”
Edwards, her husband (finishing a graduate degree in music) and infant daughter will arrive in late November (though she’ll make a couple of trips to Westport this fall).
“We’re excited to have a growing family here,” Rowland says.
“And we’re excited for people to get to know Whitney, both within the church and throughout Westport. Everyone will love her.”