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New senior pastor takes over reins at First Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Lee Koontz to be officially installed Jan. 17 at the Gainesville church
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The Rev. Lee Koontz, 40, accepted the job as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville after spending 10 years as associate pastor at Philadelphia Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. He will be installed officially at 3 p.m. Sunday at the church. - photo by Erin O. Smith

As a man of God, the Rev. Lee Koontz is used to answering to different names. Lee, Pastor Lee or even the Rev. Koontz just to name a few. But one of the standard and interesting titles he answers to is one half of a “clergy couple.”

You see, Koontz and his wife, Heather, are both ordained ministers in Presbyterian Church USA. And they are the newest additions to the clergy community in Gainesville.

Lee , 40, is the new senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Gainesville. He started on Jan. 3 and will be installed officially at 3 p.m. Sunday at 800 S. Enota Drive in Gainesville.

But he did not originally see himself becoming a pastor.

Growing up in a home with two pharmacist parents, the North Carolina native seemed destined to enter the medical profession. In fact, he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon.

“I wanted to take things that were broken like bones and help heal them and be part of that restoration to wholeness,” said Lee, who enrolled at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill as a pre-med major.

However, during his studies Lee felt a “tug on his sleeve” from God. But the college student ignored it and chugged along for 18 months in his chosen field with the end goal of becoming a doctor.

“I was all excited and just running along that path, and then I hit organic chemistry class,” Lee said, adding a professor warned him the particular course is designed to weed out students who couldn’t make it through medical school. “And it weeded me right out.”

He changed his major to psychology but continued to feel God’s pull toward service. He then added more courses to his studies, ultimately double-majoring in psychology and philosophy.

“I began to appreciate that there are ways in which people are far more broken than bones,” he said. “There is spiritual pain and there is emotional pain. And as I began to appreciate that and to spend time with people in their moments of spiritual and emotional challenges, I began to appreciate that there is very much a healing process in that ... God guides us through, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Therefore, Lee responded to God’s call and enrolled in Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997.

There he met his wife.

Heather, 42, enrolled in seminary school after working in Washington, D.C., for a couple of years following her graduation from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The Maryland native said she wasn’t “passionate” about her 9-to-5 job.

“I realized that I was always rushing to leave work to go to church to help with the youth group and other things at the church,” she said.

Her youth advisers and pastors from her hometown church told her to consider attending seminary school. So, she did.

“It was very affirming that I had a love for the Christian church and finding ways to a make a difference in the world,” Heather said.

Her first week of school she met Lee, who shared her vision.

The couple became “good friends” right away but didn’t date until a year later. The following year the couple got engaged and were married in December 2000.

That same year, the couple embarked on their yearlong internships where Lee found himself linked to the medical community that he originally thought he would be a part — just now in a much different role. He was a hospital chaplain.

“It was wonderful,” he said with a smile. “Back then, I thought I could spend my life as a hospital chaplain.”

After his stint in the hospital, his wife accepted a call to serve as associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, N.C. While there, Lee served a smaller church in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., about 10 miles away.

Next, the couple moved to Charlotte, N.C., where Lee served as the associate pastor of Philadelphia Presbyterian Church. His wife took some time off from the pulpit as the couple started their family. They now have two boys, 9-year-old A.J. and 6-year-old Alex.

But Heather did not step away from service for long. She served as an interim pastor, which allowed her flexibility in her schedule. And when the Koontz family decided to move to Gainesville, Heather was serving as an associate minister at a smaller church.

“I had served larger churches before and then I served smaller churches in Charlotte and fell in love with the smaller church communities,” she said.

The clergy couple spent 10 years in Charlotte before being “open to being called somewhere else.”

First Presbyterian was the church that called.

“Lee came in fairly late,” said Jack Spencer, who interviewed Koontz via Skype as one of the Pastor Nominating Committee members. “We were blown away by the quality of his initial interview.”

More interviews including one at First Presbyterian in Gainesville and one at Lee’s church in Charlotte followed. Then the church made a decision.

“We truly prayed for guidance, and that’s how we came to ask Lee,” Spencer said.

Koontz accepted. And his family packed up their belongings and moved out of their home Dec. 16 and into their new home Dec. 19.

“We were so blessed,” Koontz said. “So it was hard to leave.”

Since serving the church for 10 days, Koontz said with certainty Gainesville is the place for him and his family.

“I’ve been a little surprised with how natural this all feels,” he said. “I feel I’m meant to be where I am.”

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