GARDINER — With the help of Rev. George Lambert, Christ Episcopal Church is recovering from the investigation and suspension of its minister.
Rev. Jacob Fles was placed on a two-year suspension after he was found to have engaged in sexual misconduct consisting of “inappropriate language and interpersonal boundary violations.”
Fles had been placed on paid administrative leave since late September 2011 while the Episcopal Diocese of Maine investigated allegations of sexual misconduct, financial impropriety and improper clergy conduct. The investigation found no evidence of financial misconduct.
Lambert has been conducting Sunday services since October. Then in January, Bishop Stephen Lane asked him to stay on as priest in charge.
Lambert said he agreed to stay and be part of the planning and rebuilding of the church. His main goal is to help the congregation heal after this “painful” matter.
“I think they’re doing well,” Lambert said of the congregation. “I think they’re beginning to heal, but healing is a process. I’m starting to explain to them what that process will be and their different options.”
An “After Pastor” is one option the bishop suggested. The After Pastor is a priest who specializes in the ministries of reconciliation and rebuilding, he said. Another option would be the team approach, which could be structured in a number of ways, he said.
He said it hasn’t been an easy time in the life of the parish, but the hurting is over. Lambert said he has seen many signs of hope and strength. People have stepped up to fill places of leadership. A recent meeting of the Christ Church Women’s’ group had a record attendance. The church also had a successful Christmas fair and is entering 2012 with a balanced budget. Last year, he said the church had a deficit.
“I think some difficult matters have come to a closure,” he said. “And these type of things are a barometer of it, an indicator.”
Lambert, 64, has been an ordained minister for 20 years. Before that, Lambert and his partner owned a building design company.
His first position was on staff at the Episcopal Cathedral in Boston. He also served in other Boston churches and lived there until he moved to Maine in 2004. Lambert ministered at the St. James Church in Old Town for three years and prior to that, St. George’s in Stanford.
He was asked to conduct Sunday services at Christ Church while the church investigated Fles.
“I was asked if I would be interested, and I said I think I would,” he said. “Certainly it would be a challenge, but I think the church has a lot of things going for it. The congregation and its long and storied history. It was one of the first churches in Maine.”
Lambert said he hopes to stay on, which will be determined in June.
Fles has pursued disability retirement from the Church Pension Group because of a physical disability resulting from his liver failure and eventual transplant. He took an 18-month leave for the transplant and returned to his duties June 1, 20011. He has been ill with hepatitis C and pulmonary hypertension, a secondary condition caused by liver disease.
Fles was placed on administrative leave in September while the diocese investigated the allegations of misconduct.
Lambert said he will reach out to members of the church who continue to come to services and those who have left. He also will devote time to the creation of ministries like the church’s new pet pantry.
Martha Chase, parish administrator, said the congregation has fallen in love with Lambert. She said he devotes much of his time to pastoral care of the disabled, hospital patients, and shut-ins. His sermons are loving and tender, and she said he’s a great boss.
“He’s a remarkable administrator,” Chase said. “He knows what the church needs, and the direction we need to go in, which during this time of transition is very important.”
Lambert said he hopes to continue with St. Francis Day Blessing of the Animals and the Annual Blessing of the Motorcycles.
The church also is planning a welcoming back service in April.
“We want to invite people back who have been on the sidelines,” he said. “I want to visit with people and get their feelings about the church’s past and its future, what they want to focus and build on.”
Mechele Cooper — 621-5663