Rev. John Wilkinson

by Sue Ann Rybak

When the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill’s new pastor John Wilkinson was asked if he preferred to be called Reverend or Pastor, he replied simply, “John.” It’s all part of Wilkinson’s more casual approach to the ministry. He’s a music fan, as quick to quote Bruce Springsteen as the Bible.

Before coming to the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Wilkinson, 56, served 18 years at Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York. Prior to that, he served as executive associate pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church and as pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church, both in Chicago.

Wilkinson, who moved to Philadelphia in September with his wife, Bonny Claxton, is following the work of Rev. Cindy Jarvis, who was the head pastor at the church at 8855 Germantown Ave. for nearly 25 years. Jarvis retired earlier this year.

In this first sermon entitled “Coming Home: Foundations” on Sept. 22, Wilkinson told the congregation that his job was “not to fill Cindy’s shoes,” and, he added, it’s “not to wear the same shoes I’ve been wearing.”

Wilkinson, a music virtuoso of sorts, asked the congregation if they recalled a song from the ‘90s rock group Semisonic, “Closing Time.”

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” he said, quoting the song’s lyrics.

It’s as apt a sentiment as that of his favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 43:19: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

It’s impossible to talk about Wilkinson without mentioning music. As the son of a Presbyterian pastor and public school teacher, he “grew up in choirs, singing in both church and college.” It gave him a great appreciation of both the traditions of the church and pop culture.

On the church’s website, he is described as “committed to urban ministry, the great hymns of the church and Presbyterian theology, as well as baseball, Bruce Springsteen and late night TV!”

While he has long loved pop culture, Wilkinson said his friends encouraged him to become a minister.

Wilkinson, who attended the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, said during his last year of college that several ministers and friends suggested he attend seminary because he had what they believed were “the gifts, perspectives and sense of call” needed to become a minister.

In 1985, he graduated with a BA in History. He then attended McCormick Theological Seminary, where he received his Master of Divinity. Later, he earned his PhD in 20th-Century American Religious History from Northwestern University.

Wilkinson said that after growing up in Zanesville, a small town in suburban Ohio, it was in Chicago that he “really discerned a call to serve in urban or metropolitan settings.

“In 2001, I was called to a Presbyterian Church in Rochester, which is in an urban setting and has a strong urban mission.”

It was there he helped launch Urban Presbyterians Together.

“Our effort was kind of captured in the name,” he said. “We are stronger together. I believe that is true about almost everything – politics, culture and family. We are stronger together. We are better together, but especially as we are facing this kind of epic change. How can we support one another as congregations and ministers? Often times, if you are a minister in a small congregation that is on the decline, that can be challenging and lonely work. So how can we be good colleagues to each other? How can we serve in a broader context? How can we do that in a collaborative way?”

Wilkinson is excited about the what the future holds. He said he feels blessed to work with a great staff – pastors, musicians, program leaders and other support members. He said that together they will figure out what’s next.

He said he thinks Chestnut Hill Presbyterian is a combination of tradition and innovation. While that may sound odd, he said he believes you can do a lot of innovative work within a traditional setting.

Although he did not directly compare the two, the Local couldn’t help but compare the church’s current missionaries to a situation he referred to in Rochester where Urban Presbyterians Together were forced to close a church, but repurposed the building to be used for food ministry, an outreach center and arts and cultural center.

“In Chestnut Hill, I think the arts are such a vital part of that conversation,” he said. “How are we able to meet that need with the sharing of our resources? How are you a good steward of all of those gifts you been given? Of all those opportunities?”

Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at or 215-248-8804.