Rev. Jeffrey Lee felt the pull of the pulpit even before he was an Episcopalian. His Lutheran pastor urged him from an early age to consider a clerical career.
Lee moved a little closer when he entered a darkened Episcopal sanctuary as a teenager, smelled the incense and heard the poetry of the prayers and knew he belonged in the Episcopal Church.
But Lee did not obey that initial calling until years later, when he confronted the excesses of wealth and poverty he saw in front of the Manhattan department store where he worked and decided to become a priest.
This weekend, Lee, 50, will be consecrated as Chicago's 12th Episcopal bishop, an assignment that after many years as a suburban parish priest returns him to the urban din that ignited his call to ministry.
"One thing I love about the life of the city is things are so compressed. The full reality of human life is right there in front of you," Lee said. "It's not for nothing that early Christianity was an urban phenomenon, because the Christian movement is about embracing the reality, not hiding from it."
Chicago Episcopalians overwhelmingly chose Lee from a slate of eight nominees in November. The slate, which included a lesbian and two Africans, highlighted issues of racism and homosexuality that divide the Chicago Episcopal diocese and the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the American arm.
But at a time when some view every disagreement as a step toward schism, Lee exudes a calm tone, patience and sense of humor that some find refreshing and others find unsettling given what's at stake.
"When I met him, he seemed like a very nice man. I'm not sure I'm comfortable having someone nice given what's going on in this diocese," said Derrick Dawson (the name as published has been corrected in this text), chairman of the diocese's anti-racism commission. "All we can do as a diocese is try to push things forward as much as we can and hope and pray this is a man who is responsive and will do the right thing."
Growing up near Kalamazoo, Mich., Lee was wooed by the beauty and mystery of the Episcopal liturgy while taking organ lessons at a Episcopal parish. He converted, and his family followed suit.
Lee met his wife, Lisa, over a foolish argument their freshman year at the University of Michigan. But they became fast friends and accompanied each other to church on Sundays. The couple married in 1979 and honeymooned in Chicago.
Shortly after, Lee and his wife moved to New York City to become assistant buyers at Bloomingdale's. Men's ties were Lee's specialty. But after seeing a limousine parked near a homeless woman on Fourth Avenue one day, Lee decided to trade neckties for a collar and enrolled in Nashotah House. The Wisconsin seminary would shatter many of his conservative ideas, including his opposition at the time to women's ordination (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).
"I had a particular theological viewpoint about the priest being someone who stands for Jesus in the church," he said. "What I learned at Nashotah House and have embraced ever since ... is that Jesus doesn't need a stand-in. His presence is all about God in the church."
After his ordination in 1985, Lee was tapped for a variety of positions that would groom him to become a bishop, including first serving as a canon to the ordinary, or chief of staff to the Northern Indiana bishop. As a new church developer, he started a congregation in a suburb outside Indianapolis. As rector of parishes in the suburbs of Milwaukee and Seattle, he revived declining congregations.
Members of those parishes credit Lee for teaching them the art of contemplative prayer. (Lee recites daily prayers and retreats regularly to a Benedictine monastery near Boston.) Lee said he learned he could look to parishioners for inspiration and leadership. Josh Hosler, an unordained staff member at St. Thomas in Medina, Wash., will deliver the sermon at Lee's Saturday consecration.
"Wherever Jeff goes, people tend to discern their gifts," Hosler said. "He wants to send a message to the church that we need to change the channel. We need to always be looking for the next generation of leaders."
Hosler and others also praise Lee for being able to defuse tension without dismissing it.
"He's good at recognizing the difference between a crisis and an incident," said his wife. "When there are anxious times, everything seems like the most important thing. He's able to separate what really is the important thing and what is ratcheted-up anxiety."
But not everyone believes in Lee's judgment. Conservatives complain that he will maintain the liberal status quo that they believe is bringing down the Episcopal Church.
Meanwhile, some liberals believe the decision to hold his consecration at the House of Hope, the home of Rev. James Meeks' Salem Baptist Church, sends the wrong message. They say many African-Americans sought refuge in the Episcopal Church to escape the anti-gay rhetoric preached by evangelical pastors such as Meeks. The consecration was planned before the new bishop's election. In his trademark steady tone, Lee deferred to the event's organizers, saying he trusts in their intentions. But that does not mean the conversation ends with the event, he said.
"I plan to use this matter as an occasion to ask some deeper questions to help me learn more about issues of decision-making and inclusion, to learn what it is that stands behind the choice and the objections to it," Lee said. "It's all part of my very steep learning curve. As a diocese I want us to be a learning organization, not an organization that makes winners and losers."
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