The Reverend Robert Zemke, 54, has spent most of his life straddling the line between acting and ministry.
But he’s set his heart on his pastoral career — and plans to put his skills to use as the new pastor at the Mattituck Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Zemke joined the Main Road church Sept. 11 following the departure of the Rev. John Carrick earlier this year.
He was working as a pastor at Roslyn Presbyterian Church for five years before he was contacted by the Presbytery of Long Island in early June. The Presbytery was searching for a pastor to fill the Mattituck vacancy.
“[My wife and I] had been to the North Fork several times, and we love it out here,” he said. “For the people and the focus of where they were at, and what they wanted in a pastor, and how I’m wired — it really made sense for me.”
But religion wasn’t always in the cards for him. The Rev. Zemke grew up across the Long Island Sound in New Haven, Conn., and moved to Dallas, Texas, at age 11. His family was not religious growing up, he said. He moved to Richfield, Minn., with his family as a young teenager.
It wasn’t until he was 16 that he first attended youth group services in Minneapolis with over 300 student participants from the surrounding area. It sparked his interested in Christianity.
Shortly after, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received a degree in political science and philosophy.
“I think I knew that I wanted to pursue ministry after I graduated and I thought philosophy would be something very helpful in that,” he said.
The pastor went on become a campus staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, in Milwaukee, Wis., and later attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass., to obtain a master’s in divinity. But it was cut short — he left with a Master of Arts — to pursue an acting career at age 32.
The next 10 years of his life were spent in New York City: He taught religion and history classes at the Geneva School of Manhattan for four years. Toward the end of his time in the city, he worked as a spiritual care minister in a support group for actors.
“Interacting in that kind of ministry was exciting, because people would come to New York City from Iowa or whatever, you’ve got a lot of dreams, hopes, aspirations, then you come here and most are … don’t work out as anticipated,” he said. “So we had an opportunity to tell them, ‘God still loves you, this is a place of support, we will pray for you.’ ”
As more ministries popped up that catered to that demographic, he switched back to a pastoral focus and began filling in for absent pastors across the five boroughs.
Soon enough, an opportunity for him opened up in Glen Head in Nassau County, where he worked part-time as a pastor at Glenwood Presbyterian Church. He married his wife, Flavia, and the couple moved to Roslyn Presbyterian Church.
One of the most difficult parts of adjusting to the North Fork, he said, is learning the history, getting to know everybody, and understanding how the church will change in the future.
The Rev. Zemke said he hopes to use Scripture to bridge a gap between people that are divided in today’s “divisive” culture.
“I’ve been looking at parts of Scripture that talk about what it means to have humility,” he said. “Which is related to our relationship with God, but also our posture toward the world. How do we interact in this divisive culture? … It’s all about how we live it out and communicate with humility and grace.”
He also aims to host community events outside of the church. In Roslyn, the Rev. Zemke hosted theological talks at a local bar, which encouraged all community members regardless of faith to ask questions and have open-ended discussions. He plans to bring a similar program to Mattituck, but the details have not been finalized.
“At church … you don’t want to say anything heretical or wrong,” the pastor said. “At a bar, my posture is, let’s dialogue about it. We’re free to share and as much as possible, I don’t get into teaching or preaching.”
He said he’s excited about the like-mindedness of people in the community and the future of where the church can go.
“People here are taking their faith more seriously, what it means to love and care for others, and focus on God,” he said.
The Rev. Zemke is working to receive a doctorate in ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He lives in Mattituck with Flavia and their three children, Luisa, Benjamin and Mariana, who attend Cutchogue East Elementary School.
Photo caption: The Reverend Robert Zemke. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)