This is the second installment of a series of articles providing an inside look into my earliest engagement with St. John’s through your Rector Discernment Committee. Near the beginning of our conversation with one another, I was asked to answer several essay questions. Below is the second set of those questions along with my answers. I hope this series gives you both a better insight into how St. John’s Rector Search was conducted and who I am as a person and priest in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Who or what led you to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church?
I felt called to ordained ministry as a senior in college. My childhood dream was to follow in the footsteps of my father and be a pilot. That goal was on the brink of being realized when I was selected to go to pilot training with the Air Force. However, very quickly after my selection, I felt an overwhelming sense that God had other plans for my life. Try as I might to ignore or outlast it, I simply knew my life was to go in a direction other than the one I had planned. Therefore, I gave up my pilot slot, and two weeks after graduating college, went to Kansas City, Missouri, to start seminary with the Church of the Nazarene, the Christian denomination of my youth.
Seminary was a great fit for me. I flourished in my studies, yet was unsettled when I left the fundamentalist confines of my childhood and experienced the expanse of good theological scholarship. The excitement of unexpected knowledge, and the world it opened to me, became impossible to ignore. Yet it situated me in a significantly different place than the average Nazarene congregation. It was through an invitation by another seminarian to visit an Episcopal Church for a Friday Eucharist that I discovered a life changing alternative, and immediately knew I had somehow come home. The evocative liturgy, the sacramental priority and the openness of the message that had no compunction to dot every “i” or cross every “t” grabbed me almost immediately and has never let go. That moment set Shelley and me on a new trajectory that established the Episcopal Church as our forever home and ordained ministry within this tradition as our future.
What led to your calling to your current parish?
The first eight years of my priesthood were spent establishing a new Episcopal congregation in Kansas City, Missouri. My bishop asked me to take on this challenge out of seminary, and as difficult an undertaking as it was for a baby priest, the years ahead proved remarkably fruitful. I loved my work and I adore that church. However, I also longed to do something more in the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. I wondered what it would be like to work with an established congregation, generations old, with experience at being the Church over generations. At the time, the congregation I founded, St. Mary Magdalene, was well established and in a unique position where my associate could take over the church and continue our work without overly destabilizing what we had built. Furthermore, Shelley was pregnant with our youngest daughter, Madalene, and we longed to be closer to family. As Shelley and I were raised in Memphis, Tennessee, we have family throughout the southeast, but none in the Midwest. Therefore, while we were not actively looking for a new position, these realities conspired together and made us open to the possibility.
That opportunity came very unexpectedly when I was approached by St. Christopher’s, Pensacola, which is about thirty miles from where my mother has a beach home. What drew us to St. Christopher’s is it seemed like a grown-up version of St. Mary Magdalene, the church I founded. At the time, it was a congregation full of original members who had started the congregation in 1957. Although its past was filled with significant success, they had become a very elderly congregation, having lost several generations of members, with little in the way of children’s ministry and absolutely nothing for young adults. The congregation was on the brink of extinction, and I felt God wanted me to help them to pivot to the future. Therefore, we moved to Pensacola and have toiled with the great people of this parish so that a bright new future is what they now enjoy.
What has God taught you about yourself through your service at your current parish? At your prior parish(es)?
In both my current and former positions, God has taught me that I am a builder. I am not a maintenance man. In fact, I quickly get bored sitting pat. As the Church is alive, it is always moving forward or in decline. I know myself to be a priest who is forever looking for the next God-sized project.
In concert with this, I take pride in being a leader with vision. I instinctually see new horizons and have experienced considerable success in leading people forward to places many before thought impossible. My preaching, teaching and administrative efforts are geared toward new possibilities. This has been infectious in the communities I have led, and consequently, has created cultures of optimism and expectancy within them.
Finally, through church planting and turning around an aging congregation, I have learned to not be intimidated by challenge. I entered ordained ministry with fear and trembling over the task that was set before me to found a new congregation. Yet, because I took on such an enormous undertaking and found, with God’s people, that it could be done, it is now cemented in my soul that anything is possible as long as God does the heavy lifting. In fact, it is a waste to not push forward, as the muscle for the work of Christ’s Church is never ours alone. Thus, my ordained life has trained me to be confident, as ultimately our work is principally God’s doing, or not worth the doing.
In summation, I have recognized that it is a gift to do ministry “over my head,” as I put it. Moreover, I have discovered this truth, in turn, applies to congregational life. Every community of faith ought to be doing ministry “over their heads.” God taught me through these wonderfully difficult efforts that it takes courage to not sit pat in a place of comfort, but to venture out on a grand adventure in God. Thus, every congregation should be on tip toes, trying to get an expectant glimpse of what God is about to do next, if we risk doing the work that can only be accomplished through a power greater than our own.
What do you consider your most significant accomplishment at your current parish? At your prior parish(es)?
As is probably obvious from my statements above, I believe my greatest accomplishment at St. Christopher’s has been leading a dying congregation to a place of vitality, possibility, anticipation and joy. No longer is this a parish worried about month to month finances or whether there will be anyone left ten years in the future. St. Christopher’s is a congregation full of new people, young families, vibrant ministries and warm community. Our challenges increasingly revolve around keeping up with new members, which is a triumph. As we have had to bury so many long-standing members over my tenure here, the fact that we have experienced such growth has been an experience of defying gravity. The joy we share in doing so is our constant companion at this church.
This fits easily with what I regard as my greatest accomplishments across my ordained life. I have had two incredible opportunities to work with congregations desperate to see a future where before they could see none. While certainly none of this was achieved alone, these experiences remain at the top of those things of which I am most proud.
-Stay tuned for more Q & A.