The Rev. Paul Tunkle is retiring next year as rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Homeland, one of the largest churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
"I am sensing a call from Christ to do something new," Tunkle, 63, of Bolton Hill, said in an interview June 3. "I don't know exactly what that is. It's probably going to have less to do with wearing robes and standing in front of an altar. I feel like maybe I'm being asked to turn a corner."
His planned departure next May will bring to a close an eventful 12-year chapter in the history of the church, in which he has overseen the installation of a geothermal heating and air-conditioning system, but has clashed with his more conservative congregants at times over his outspoken sermons on political and social justice issues.
Tunkle, a former Jew born in the South Bronx, N.Y., said he and his wife, Judy, are moving to Dresden, Maine, near Augusta. That will bring them back to the state where they lived for the first nine years of their marriage, where Tunkle was baptized, where their three children were raised, where he graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in Business Administration and Accounting, and where the Episcopal Diocese of Maine sponsored him for seminary, starting a three-decade career as a rector, he said.
There, they plan to build a house fully powered by solar energy, on 38 acres of undeveloped woodland, he said, adding that they look forward to "living in a way that is congruent with our values."
Tunkle championed a $2.5 million, high-efficiency geothermal system at the church that was installed last year. At the time, he called the project "a bold theological step to protect this fragile earth."
Tunkle said he might like to teach and is also willing to "help out" at Episcopal churches around Maine, if needed. He said he is also considering getting more involved in peace and social justice issues, such as going to the Middle East to "be a witness to peace over there."
He said he would also like to get more involved in counseling people who have lost loved ones, especially children, and could see himself doing chaplaincy work on a pediatrics ward, for example. His own daughter, Lea, 22, committed suicide in 1997. The Tunkles have spoken publicly about her death and have been active in the national group Survivors of Suicide.
"I survived the death of our child," he said..
Tunkle, who was previously a rector in Louisiana, was hired at Redeemer on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked New York and Washington.
He announced his planned retirement to congregants at the church Sunday, May 26, but told them, "Let's not make it a year-long funeral."
One of the things Tunkle said he is most excited about is not having to water down his views because of his role as a rector.
"My strong antiwar (sermons) were not always appreciated by the congregation," he admitted.
In 2004, Tunkle gave a passionate sermon lambasting President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq and preaching, "It is a terrible mistake that we're in this war. This president owes us an explanation. This president owes us an apology."
After the fact, some parishioners urged him to tone down his rhetoric, saying he went too far and polarized the congregation.
Tunkle and the vestry held a community forum at the church, 5603 N. Charles St., to clear the air and give parishioners an opportunity to comment. One longtime parishioner told Tunkle at the forum she felt "really uncomfortable" as she listened to the controversial sermon and felt "kind of like I didn't have a voice."
Tunkle has also raised eyebrows in anti-gun comments from the pulpit and in comments urging love and acceptance of gays and lesbians.
As a rector, he has sometimes felt constrained and therefore not as "faithful to Christ" as he could have been if he had not been a rector, he said.
"I always have to play that balancing act and be judicious about how strongly I come out," he said.
After he retires, he won't have to worry about that anymore.
"I'm almost at an age where I can say whatever the hell I want," he said.
Tunkle submitted his letter of resignation to the vestry May 21. In his sermon the next Sunday, he assured congregants that the church is in good shape and that he is not leaving because he is sick, "or sick of you."
But, he said, "I'm ready to click my heels three times and make my way back home."