Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Churches I never served...

People were surprised around the Middlesex Cluster Ministry when Rowena Kemp, who'll be ordained this Saturday, chose to come be a part of our ministry and mission. She had other options and she chose us. People were overjoyed, having met her.

That got me thinking about the choices I made and the churches I never served because of those choices. Since I'm retired from full time ministry and plan to stay ever so part time at the Cluster until I really stop practicing my ministry, it's an interesting trip down through my life to consider where I didn't go.

Coming out of Seminary, I was offered a job at St. Chrysostom's in Chicago. I would have been the assistant to the Rector and been the missionary to the yuppies who lived in the high rises that lined the Lake. St. Chrysostom's was (and probably still is) a thriving urban church with great outreach. Meals on Wheels, the national program, was founded by the parish. It seemed a dream to me. But when the Rector called the Diocese of West Virginia to get me 'released'--you 'belong' to your diocese and to go to another you must be given permission by the bishop. The Rector, unfortunately (or 'fortunately' as I now think of it) got Bishop Campbell on the phone instead of Bishop Atkinson (who I told him to call) and Wilburn Camrock Campbell told him that under no circumstances was he 'releasing' me to the fleshpots of Chicago. When the Rector (I don't remember his name) told me this after he hung up with Bishop Campbell, I immediately called Bishop Atkinson and gave him holy hell. He finally agreed that if I would come to one interview in West Virginia and turned the job down, he would fight tooth and nail with the Diocesan (Atkinson was the Bishop Co-Adjutor, meaning he was the Diocesan Bishop in waiting, waiting for Wilburn to retire....)

So I went to be interviewed at St. James in Charleston, an African American congregation whose building was in North Charleston about a mile from where Charlie Manson grew up. This Black congregation had been moved to a redneck part of Charleston from down-town in the Black community where it started instead of Institute, a wondrous college town of a historically Black College 7 miles from Charleston. I think, when that move was made in the 60's, the thought was to kill the church off but don't get me started on that.

I fell in love with the people. And they loved me with more compassion and understanding than any white church would give a Black priest (but don't get me started on that either...) On the plane back to DC Bern, great with child (our son Josh) said to me, "we're moving to Charleston aren't we?" And I had to say, "If you will..." And she would.

No fancy Chicago parish for me. A humble little, misplaced African American mission was where I went and learned more about myself and race and grace and possibility than I ever would have dealing with Yuppies in Chicago.

The road not taken turned out to be the road that would have made me a different person than I am. And at this point in my life, I love 'who I am' and I love 'my life'. So as crazy as the decision seemed at the time, it made me who I am today and, in case you didn't get it, I am who I always hoped I would be.....

The second church I never served was in suburban Baltimore, when I was thinking about leaving St. James after five years of joy, I 'put my name in' (which is the Episcopal-speak for 'applying for the job' and at St. John's in New Haven. When St. John's expressed interest, though I was farther along with the church off the Beltway in Baltimore, I took my name out. (I've never been a suburban priest. I don't think I'm up to it. I love cities, and since I've been in the Cluster I've learned that I love 'rural', which is where I came from in the first place. Being in the Cluster is like 'going home' in lots of ways.) I have lived in Cheshire, a suburb of New Haven/Waterbury/Middletown/even Hartford--at one point when I was still working and Bern was working, we'd leave for Waterbury and New Haven and the couple next door would leave for Hartford and Middletown. Go figure. Cheshire is a poly-suburb. I love living here, but I wouldn't be much good as a priest here--too political and too left wing theological I, I don't like wearing suits. Suburban churches expect 'suits'--inner city and rural churches don't....

The third church I never served was St. Mark's in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was actually 'called' to be their rector. I adored the building and the community and the liveliness of the Search Committee. I actually believed I was 'called' to be the Rector of that progressive, rapidly growing parish. Bern wasn't enamored of living in the south and our kids were still in grade school, so it would be a stretch. But we'd visited and they'd visited and low and behold I got the 'call' on the Friday before Labor Day! The Senior Warden was going to be on an island without a phone until Tuesday so I couldn't give her my answer (which is always 'yes!' since such time and energy goes into search processes) until the Tuesday after Labor Day. So our family did 'votes', everyone with 5 slips to either put into 'Yes' or 'no' and every vote was so close as to be moot. Finally, Bern and I decided to play Backgammon, a game we played every night to decide. This was on Labor Day itself, knowing I had to call the next day. Best of five was the deal. I won the first two games and said to Bern, "it's OK, we'll stay in New Haven". But she said, "let's play it out" and won the last three games! Then she said, "I know you want to go, so, let's go." We hugged and went upstairs to tell Josh and Mimi who had known their crazy parents were downstairs playing a board game for their futures. I walked in the room and opened my mouth to say, "We're going to North Carolina!" and what came out was, "We're staying in Connecticut!" Then I burst into tears.

I didn't sleep at all, wondering how to phrase my 'no' to the Senior Warden. And when I got her on the phone I told her "it's not time to leave Connecticut"  and she said, "You're kidding, aren't you?"

I told her I kidded about most everything but not this. After a long, minute long silence, she said, "You son-of-a bitch!" I got worse after that and suddenly I realized I'd made the best decision of my life without knowing it. I hung up on her and the Search Committee sent me flowers and called several times, but the road less traveled (saying 'no' to a call to a wonderful parish) was taken. Really, as I felt sorry for myself, on Thursday the head of the Search Committee at St. John's in Waterbury called me. (The irony was I wasn't in full time ministry at the time and the folks from North Carolina came to hear me preach at St. John's where I was doing supply as they looked for an interim Rector.)
"Did you take that job in North Carolina?" Judy asked me.

"No," I told her, wondering why she called to ask.

I heard her take a big breath and then she said, "would you be willing to have your name put in for Rector of St. John's? Please say yes...."

I shook my head at how mischievous the Spirit can be. "I'm probably not eligible because I was with you for three months before Jeff came to be interim," I said, meaning it, wishing it weren't so.

"No," Judy said, breaking into laughter, "the bishop has already said you can...."

So, that's how things go in the strange and mysterious ways of the Spirit.

The last church I never served came when I was 51 or so and realized if I didn't move from St. John's then, I wouldn't until I retired. So I 'put my name in' at the Cathedral in Minneapolis. I didn't think much would come of it, being Dean of a Cathedral, but there were phone interviews and I flew to Minneapolis to talk to the Search Committee and Vestry and was told I was one of 7 they'd brought up to talk. Then a three member group of the Search Committee came to see me in Waterbury. The came for a weekend and came to church on a Sunday in Advent when there was a mess of snow (though they probably thought that was normal, being from Minnesota) and on the day before wanted to interview four members of the parish. So, I picked four folks I knew wouldn't gossip about it all and they came to be interviewed. What I realized on that day, I was there all day as the folks came in to talk to the Minneapolis folks, that the folks I chose to talk to the MN folks were much more interesting than the MN folks they were being interviewed by.

So, a week later when I was called to be told I was one of three being flow, with my family, to Minneapolis for a final interview, I, without forethought, turned it down. I probably wouldn't have ever been the Dean of the Cathedral in Minneapolis, but I wasn't willing to take that chance, knowing I was where that mischievous Holy Spirit meant me to be until I was either thrown out or retired.

It was the latter that made me leave. I retired at 63 and 13 days of age because I had 30 years in the pension fund and was eligible for early Social Security and knew if I didn't leave then I might never leave because of the three churches I DID serve in all those years, I loved them all to death and St. John's was the ice cream on the pie of my 30 years of ministry.

I need to thank Rowena, because she chose to come to the Cluster rather than any of her other offers, for the joy of pondering the 'roads not taken' in my ministry. And I will thank her and be full of humility and joy to work with her until she comes to another fork in the road and has to choose....

As for me, I am convinced I always took the path I was meant to take, as painful as the choices were, and that is a Gift to ponder as I grow older. Always being where you were meant to be--what a wondrous Gift...what a joyous life....

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.