The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham jingled his keys as he unlocked a door at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Monday afternoon.
"They’re new," he said smiling as he shrugged his shoulders.
Higginbotham’s first day on the job as the new rector of the Gainesville parish was spent exploring the more than 75-year-old building. The church itself is 185 years old, one of the oldest in diocese.
His favorite part, he said while walking down the aisle to the back of the of the sanctuary, is the church’s original chapel.
Higginbotham stooped inside the door frame of the small chapel and took a moment to admire the carved wooden altar. It was the only piece of the church left standing after the deadly tornado of 1936.
"It’s really cool because that’s such a huge part of the parish’s story," Higginbotham said. "Because (the church) was destroyed and it rebuilt all around the altar. This is how we can integrate all of our stories. I’ve kind of looked at that as the over arching story, each person, each family brings their own stories to it as well."
He stopped to look at figurines of Jesus and his disciples on his way out of the chapel. He tapped a figurine of Thaddeus and lamented the lack of information about him "other than he was one of the 12."
Higginbotham, who was raised Baptist and attended a Presbyterian college before becoming an Episcopal priest, is clearly excited by stories in the scripture.
"The saints who we read about were actual people," Higginbotham said. "They get to the point where we just read about them like characters in a story book but they were actual people who lived and they had actual experiences. They all differ and they all had very different approaches and understandings of who God was and who Jesus was for them in their own lives and they wrestled with those. The really cool thing, if you will, is the reasons we see them as saints is because they still speak to us. Their experiences connect with our own."
Higginbotham said his passion for learning people’s stories started while he worked in pastoral care. Today, he hopes to use the skills he learned from his two years as a hospice chaplain to bring people together and encourage them to explore their relationships with God.
He said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to get to know the nearly 900 members that make up Grace.
Higginbotham served for six years as the senior associate pastor of St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Smyrna, a young church that grew from 150 to 1,000 members in his time there. His last service at the church was at midnight Christmas Eve. He’ll lead his first Sunday sermon at Grace on Jan. 12.
Kathie Futrell, chairwoman of the search committee for our new rector, said the process to find the right rector for the church took just over a year and 30 candidates applied.
The final decision to bring Higginbotham on was made by the church’s vestry.
Kathleen Gosselin, senior warden of the vestry, said Higginbotham brings intellect, humor and "an obvious spirituality" to the church.
Higginbotham’s experience in pastoral care and getting newcomers involved at his previous church made him stand out of the crowd.
"Stuart has told us assimilating newcomers into the life of the parish was not solely about an increase in numbers, but offering a space in which they could continue to seek God and find nourishment in their spiritual lives," Futrell said. "He went on to explain that both personal presence and sincere compassion are integral to pastoral care. Our connection to one another calls us to support one another in our times of need."
Higginbotham is married to Lisa Higginbotham, a teacher. The couple have one daughter, Evelyn, who will turn 7 the weekend of his first service.