December 23, 2015

“I Got Restless”– From People Work To Painting, Greenleaf Keeps the Faith


WALLS AND WINDOWS: Repainting the exterior and reglazing windows at Nassau Presbyterian Church was a recent project for Greenleaf Painters, which counts many houses of worship among its client base. Former pastor Jonathan Shenk started the company a decade ago.

Jonathan Shenk doesn’t limit his client base to houses of worship. But churches, synagogues, and Quaker meetinghouses figure highly in the work done by Greenleaf Painters, the company he founded a decade ago. Since Mr. Shenk is a former pastor and a self-described “missionary kid” whose parents were Mennonite missionaries, it makes sense.

The Princeton Junction resident, whose company is based in Lawrenceville, recently completed work on the exterior of Nassau Presbyterian Church, to which he and his family belong. In addition to residential projects, other local jobs have included the Jewish Center of Princeton and Princeton Baptist Church. The Ewing Presbyterian Church, which was considered uninhabitable and listed as one of Preservation New Jersey’s Ten Most Endangered Sites in New Jersey, is another client, as is the Friends Meetinghouse in Trenton.

As the son of missionaries, Mr. Shenk was born in Somalia and spent much of his childhood in Kenya. “I climbed a lot of trees with my friends there, which might have prepared me for climbing up on ladders to paint,” he said last week while pointing out work he and his crew completed at Nassau Presbyterian Church. “But I don’t climb up that high anymore,” he added, with a chuckle.

Mr. Shenk has up to 20 employees during the busy summer season. The unseasonably balmy weather has kept the company busier than they usually are this time of year. Mr. Shenk took some time from his schedule this past week to talk about how he made the transition from pastor to painter.

“After college, I became a high school English teacher in New York City,” he recounted. “Then, after being faced with some of the challenges of being in the city, I realized I wanted to revisit my faith. So I went to Union Theological Seminary and became a Presbyterian minister.”

Mr. Shenk and his wife, who is a writer, moved to Princeton Junction after the birth of their son — now a Rutgers University freshman — to be closer to their families. He became the associate pastor of Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church, remaining in the post for six years.

“I got restless,” he said. “I think I wanted to do more physical, tangible stuff. The results of church work can be gratifying, but they are less tangible. And all of my experience had been in people work up to that time. It was hard for me to connect with people who were in business and the trades. And I wanted to learn to do that. It was like learning a new language.”

Having done some painting during high school and college summer vacations, Mr. Shenk looked for a painting crew to join. But it was the off-season, and no one was hiring.

My wife said to me, ‘Why don’t you start your own crew?’ And that’s what I did,” he said. “My first customers were former parishioners from the church I was leaving.”

Mr. Shenk named his new company Holy Roller ­Painting, but changed it after a few years. “People would invite me to bible study,” he recalled. “They assumed we had a religious affiliation.” The name was changed to Greenleaf to reflect their commitment to the environment. “I like the image — it’s fresh and new and alive,” he said of the name and logo.

The recent work the company did on Nassau Presbyterian Church involved painting the exterior of the sides and the rear of the building, and a lot of window reglazing. For The Jewish Center of Princeton, they repapered the main lobbies and set up a system for hanging artworks. For the Princeton Baptist Church, exterior painting and the painting and repair of the steeple were completed in 2012, in preparation for the church’s 125th anniversary celebration last year.

Another significant project is the 1867 Ewing Presbyterian Church, which came close to being torn down because it was structurally unsound. Schulte Restorations has been leading the project, and Greenleaf has done repainting and plaster repairing of the interior.

Mr. Shenk may have made the transition from the ministry to the trades, but his work still involves some interpersonal relations. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m meeting customers all the time and hearing about their lives,” he said. “There is still a lot of people work involved. And I like to shift their perspectives about painters and their reliability. We emphasize a customer connection and we get things done on time. We’re not just painting. We’re forming relationships.”