The Alban Institute has been interested for some time in the connections that exist between active participation in a congregation and what people do in the world. Specifically, we wanted to know how participation in a congregation assists people in discerning what they are called to do and how to do it, how it helps people cope with barriers to fulfilling a perceived call or to recognize that it is time to end a particular vocation and follow the call of a new one.
To better understand these connections, we recently invited individuals from all walks of life to reflect on what their own participation in a congregation has meant to them on their vocational journey, then present their thoughts in a brief essay. In the following pages we present six of these essays, which reflect a diversity of experience with regard to how—and how much—congregational participation affected vocation.
Their stories are tales of fear overcome, of self-doubt being pushed to the sidelines in the face of powerful callings; of the power of congregations to shape children and youth into leaders; of the lines between secular and sacred being erased, with greater fulfillment in the world the result; of congregational support and companionship that was there in both good times and bad; and of a deepening of faith and connection through the answering of the calls that came.
These stories, presented on the following pages, are, of course, the unique stories of the people who have told them, but they are also windows into the desires of other members of other congregations—desires for fellowship, for purpose, for meaning. They are also examples of what is possible when people come together as a community to love God and one another.
From Edge to CenterOvercoming Fear to Accept God’s Call
Starting in my youth, I felt something missing in my life and began to seek it. What I sought was a place where I could be intimate with God, a community where I could be free to both be myself in my search for God and to follow the path God set for me, regardless of how quirky it might seem to others. I was interested in health and health foods. I was interested in meditation and expanding my spirit. I was interested in the holistic connection between mind, body, and spirit. The problem was that I did not find people similarly interested in these things in the traditional church of my youth.
I was baptized and raised in a traditional Presbyterian church, but drifted away as a teenager because I felt a lack of spirituality in the church. I looked for that spirituality in many directions, and found in Eastern religious New Age practices ways to experience an energy and a presence greater than what seemed to be allowed in the “Christian” churches. I followed this path for about 10 years, and as I did I grew in spirit, even if this growth was sometimes painful. I had wondrous and amazing experiences through my practices of meditation and speaking and listening to the Spirit. Later, I learned that what I was doing was praying.
During this period of my life, I rejected organized religion and was downright angry at the church for separating religion and spirit. Then I realized I was missing something not just in the church but in myself. I discovered that I needed more than just my individual practices. I needed to worship God in a congregation. I missed saying the Lord’s Prayer in a large group, and I missed singing the words of praise found in Christian hymns. So I started going to a Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where I lived at the time. I didn’t go every Sunday, and when I did go I generally sat in the back during worship, rushing out a corner door the moment the music from the service faded, and before anyone had a chance to talk with me.
When my oldest daughter, Mailie, was about 13 years old, she started to come to church with me. She got involved with the youth group and pulled me deeper into the church, deeper than I thought I could go, especially considering my years of skepticism about the church.
When we moved to Pennsylvania, my first order of business was to find a church and a health food store, places to keep me spiritually and physically whole. The health food store was easy to find. The church was not. Mailie and I began visiting churches in the towns around us. Most of them were dying or already dead. The ones that weren’t dying were loud, pushy places that lacked any real sense of Spirit. I didn’t believe I could be accepted with my alternative background. I felt I would have to fit into their mold, which was not the mold God had created me from.
We were ready to give up on finding a church at one point, but decided to make one last attempt. I called Calvin Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, and a member of the church, Alice Lee, answered the phone. She told me the times of Sunday service and that she would be at the door to welcome me, since she was going to be ushering. We went to the church that Sunday, and Alice Lee was at the door, smiling. Mailie and I felt welcome when we walked in. There was something different about this church than the others we had visited. Mailie and I looked at each other and said, “This is it. We’re home.”
A Call to Prayer
Mailie started youth group and I went to meet with the pastor, Graham Standish. I told him I would like to be involved but only on the very edges, maybe in a prayer chain. He suggested I consider becoming involved in the church’s prayer group, which met each Wednesday to pray for the church, its members, its staff, specific needs, and local and world events.1 I decided to be brave and give it a try. I had never prayed out loud with others before, even though I had been in meditation groups where I had led guided meditations. I’m very shy, and being the center of attention is almost painful for me. I went to the prayer group and found it wonderful. There I found not only a way to grow in spirit through communal prayer but also women who would become wonderful friends and sources of support for my family and me. One of the women even had a meditation group at her home on Tuesday evenings, where I ended up meeting a woman who became my Reiki teacher. Beginning in this group, I found a tremendous connection between the Eastern art of Reiki and the tradition of healing prayer in Christianity, a connection that I continue to practice in my own prayer ministry at Calvin Church.
Within the year, Graham developed a new kind of prayer ministry, one that he had been doing on his own but later realized was an opportunity to share with laity. In this prayer ministry, specific members would emulate the words of James 5:14 (“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”) by being trained to pray with and anoint with oil those in need of prayer. I became part of that ministry, and as a healing prayer minister I had the blessing of praying with a woman with cancer, Betty Alexander, who had an extraordinary faith. She taught me to pray in a new way, a way of faith and confidence that trusted Christ to heal. Increasingly, I began to pray more with those I knew, and with strangers who eventually became loved ones. As my sensitivity in prayer grew, I began to sense more of God’s love flowing through me, a love that is so much more than I am capable of by myself.
It soon became apparent that the growing prayer ministries at Calvin Church needed someone other than the pastor to orga
nize them. The pastor asked a member of the prayer group and healing prayer ministry to organize it, but she did not feel called to do so. Despite my fears and trepidations, I kept hearing God calling me and telling me to do the job. I kept telling God I had none of the skills or talents necessary to do it. But you know how God is. So I went to Graham and told him I would do the job temporarily until the right person came along. That was my plan, but God’s plan was that I should remain in this position and help the ministry grow, which it has over the past three years.
Since then this position has grown exponentially. We have more than doubled the number of healing prayer ministers from six to over 15, and in the process their ministry has expanded. One healing prayer minister coordinates an e-mail prayer concern ministry. Others continue to be prayer angels for those in need, responding in both formal and informal ways to their need for prayer and hope. After each worship service, two healing prayer ministers are in the sanctuary, available to pray for any member or visitor. At our Wednesday evening service of centering and healing prayer, prayer ministers are available to pray for those in need of tangible, personal prayer.
In the process of expanding our prayer ministry, I have discovered that our prayer ministers have shared my experience of feeling inadequate but persevering anyway. Most of them were frightened, as I was at first. One of the amazing things is that their fear hasn’t kept them from being willing to make fools of themselves for Christ, even though they were afraid they wouldn’t be good enough or that they couldn’t live up to the responsibility of having such an important task in their hands: the task of speaking the prayers of someone’s heart and of being the voice that links God and God’s precious children together. This is an awesome job that we are all honored to do. I am continually amazed to find out that, with God, even I can do it.
One other prayer ministry that has had an incredible impact has been the prayer shawl ministry. When Graham first proposed that we start such a ministry, I was surprised because I thought it had been my idea. For years I had been making shawls and filling them with positive energy to comfort and heal those I loved. I always had at least one at my house, and when visitors were cold they would wrap up in a shawl. One friend said it was like being wrapped in a hug. But Graham’s inspiration for starting a prayer shawl ministry was not my practice of making shawls but the publication of a friend’s book, Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry.2
For the first couple of years after Graham suggested forming a prayer shawl committee, my daughters and I were the committee. I hadn’t wanted to ask others to buy yarn and put in the hours necessary to make the shawls. Then I realized that making the shawls and praying as we did so was as much a blessing as receiving one of the shawls, so I opened the ministry up. Nineteen women showed up at the first meeting! We now have about eight women making shawls and another eight who pray over the finished shawls and then deliver them to those who are in need of one. I hear from everyone in the prayer shawl ministry that they feel blessed to be involved. Recently we began a new ministry, in which we make angel dolls in the same loving and prayerful way that we make the shawls. The dolls are not only for little girls and boys but also for grown women who were hurt as little children.
I’ve come to believe that the mechanics of leading the prayer ministry are not nearly as important as the hearts that do this job and the hearts and souls that are reached by this calling. This ministry is so tiny and so huge and I am honored to be smack dab in the middle of it. I know the only way I can be in the middle of this is that Jesus stands with me, holding me up, telling me what to say and do, forgiving me when I don’t get it right, and fixing what I make a mess of. I am so grateful.
A Challenge to Others
Because of my own experience with these prayer ministries, I would like to pose a challenge to all laity. We are all called to be spiritual leaders in some way. I in no way consider myself leadership material, but that is irrelevant because I have been called to be a leader, leading the prayer ministry at Calvin Presbyterian Church. Too many Christians are spirituality lazy, expecting our pastors to do it all for us. We expect our pastors to be like Christ, and then are disappointed when they turn out to be human and have limited time and resources. We are somehow surprised when they become exhausted and forget things we think are important. We must pray for them, but we also have a responsibility to lead other Christians in Christ’s ministry—ministries rooted in prayer. As Christians, we stand for something great: Christ’s healing ministry of love.
There are many people at this time who are wearing the name Christian, and many of them are in leadership roles, yet they lead in ways that are so contrary to scripture and the ways of our master and teacher Jesus Christ that it makes us ashamed to claim Christian-ity. These individuals are arrogant, judgmental, and convinced of their own righteousness, and as a result they don’t pray and they don’t love. That very fact is what makes it imperative that we reclaim our name and function as Christians. Many people, even Christians, will look down on us for making our faith and prayer our passion, but we cannot let that make a difference in our walk with God. Jesus made it very clear what God wants from us: to love God with all our minds, bodies, hearts, and life force, and to love others as we love ourselves.
1. For more information on this prayer group and how to start one in your congregation, please see N. Graham Standish, Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), 234–238.
2. Susan S. Izard, Susan S. Jorgensen, Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry (Harrisburg: PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2003).
Diane McClusky is a prayer minister for Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. She has been a member of the church since 1999, and has coordinated its prayer and healing ministries for two years. She is also a Reiki master and practices hand and foot reflexology. She, her hus-band Daniel, and her daughters Mailie and Amanda live in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.
Companionship on a Wilderness Journey
After working for many years as a denominational bureaucrat in what seemed like a secure career path, I suddenly found myself without a job. In the months leading up to that moment, as work had begun to become more stressful, I started meeting regularly with one of my pastors for spiritual direction. The discernment task suddenly shifted from, “Is God calling me to another ministry?” to “God, how did I end up here and what can I do about it?”
To complicate matters, my husband was between positions and finding it hard to locate employment appropriate for his education and experience. With two children and the typical financial commitments of a family with a mortgage, it was terrifying to be without any income. We’re now on the other side of that surreal period, re-creating a more normal life. As I look back, there are many amazing things that happened during that time—lessons that will follow us always.
What was most striking was the amount of su
pport we received from our church community. When I see the astonished looks on the faces of the people I tell about all the ways our congregational family reached out to love and care for us, I realize what a remarkable role a faith community can play in being dispensers of God’s grace. While we were truly fortunate to be in our particular community, I know that congregations all over are playing similar roles in people’s lives. One thing that’s become clear is that the outpouring we received was the fruit of the lives we lived within that faith community. I can see now that there were seeds sown and soil cultivated that led to this wonderful fruit.
In this brief article I can include only a sampling of the gifts we received. First, there was a thoughtful comment from a very wise woman who shared with me her sense of the Spirit, that I “should be involved in creating something rather than trying to fix something in decline.” She shared that insight without knowing what a significant role it would play in my discernment. Then there was a diverse group of church members who spent an evening helping us brainstorm vocational directions and financial strategies. When I determined that I was feeling led to start my own business, rather than hearing criticism of such a risky plan, I received a check for $2,000 from a couple in the church who knew firsthand the start-up costs of an entrepreneurial venture. People gave me books and led me to clients, in some cases graciously bearing with me as I moved my way up the learning curve.
Probably the most dramatic piece of fruit came toward the end of our wilderness experience, when I took a new position that required an out-of-state move. Our family was frantically navigating the complexities of selling one house, buying another, and making it all work in time for our daughters to start the school year without having to switch schools later on. Out of the blue, a couple we had met just five years earlier when they had moved to the area decided they would give us a bridge loan to simplify the process. Since we were moving to a hot real estate market, their generous and completely unexpected loan made it possible for all the dominoes to begin to fall. We moved to our new house a week before the girls started school.
Seeds and Soil
When you are the recipient of so much love and care, you can’t help but wonder what you did to deserve it. Like God’s grace, it’s not something we deserved, but I’ve concluded that it did come as a result of some seeds that were planted and soil that was prepared. As Jane Vennard puts it, “Good soil is plowed and ready, moist and rich. When the soil has been tilled, seeds will take hold and sprout.”1
The seeds I’ve identified were: our long-term association with that community of faith, the leadership roles we played, and our authentic partnership in the ministry taking place within and through the congregation. For many years our family had been an active part of what happened at that church—through good times and bad. We attended regularly and participated fully, responding to opportunities of service and leadership as our gifts and call led.
I can see two major ways the soil was prepared: taking advantage of the opportunity for spiritual direction that was available and our choice to be open about our situation with our community of faith. Through spiritual direction I was able to notice God’s presence in our circumstances and the actions of others. We opened ourselves by publicly asking for prayer and keeping the community up to date on our struggles and our celebrations. We resisted the temptation to go it alone and accepted help, even when it felt like too much, because it was clear that people wanted to be able to stand with us.
Congregations—all of them imperfect—can be the means by which God accompanies us at our most vulnerable points. I’m grateful to have seen that so clearly and personally. I’ve often wondered, and even more so now, how do people make it through tough times without a faith community to support them? It’s an experience I don’t intend to live out.
1. Jane E. Vennard, A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), 3.
Kristy Arnesen Pullen is associate director of publishing for the Alban Institute. Prior to her move to Virginia, she and her husband Larry and their two daughters were members of Central Baptist Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania, for many years. They are now in search of a new church home in northern Virginia.
Celebrating the Sacrament of God’s Presence in the Secular World
JAMES W. JONES
Celebrating the Sacrament of God’s Presence in the Secular World JAMES W. JONES For the past 32 years, my wife and I have been active members of an extraordinary community of faith—St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Reston, Virginia. My participation in the life of this remarkable congregation has had a profound impact on my own theology and my sense of lay vocation. It has molded my worldview and my life in ways both subtle and profound.
St. Anne’s is an extraordinary church in an extraordinary community. Founded in the planned “new town” of Reston some 40 years ago, when the town itself was brand new, St. Anne’s quickly became one of the spiritual centers of community life. Conceived as a “church without walls,” the parish met for 20 years in rented space, opting to focus its energies and resources on outreach and on providing a broad range of services desperately needed in its new and growing community. Reston’s first day care center, its first babysitting service, its internal bus system, a coffeehouse and after-school center for teens, the Greater Reston Arts Center, the Reston Nursing Service, and many other human and community service activities were conceived by and grew out of the congregation.
Throughout its history, St. Anne’s has been a welcoming and nonjudgmental parish, accepting all who came and extending a special welcome to those who, because of past experiences in the church, felt hurt or rejected. The congregation is very diverse, including people of many races, nationalities, and languages; singles, families, and lots of children; and both straight and gay people.
In reflecting on how my active involvement at St. Anne’s has shaped my own sense of vocation, it is difficult to know where to begin because the influences of this faith community on my life have been so profound. It is possible, however, to identify two fundamental principles that I believe are at the heart of the congregation’s theology, principles that have molded my own sense of my place in the world.
The first of these is a deeply sacramental view of the world, a strongly held belief that the whole created order is a blessing from God that we are invited to accept as a sacrament of God’s presence among us. Our job is to recognize God’s presence in ordinary things just as in the Eucharist “ordinary” bread and wine become vehicles of God’s grace. Embracing this way of looking at the world not only leads to a life of service to others and to the world itself, but it also forces a deep sense of humility that is manifest in a non-judgmental acceptance of others as equal participants in God’s creation.
A sacramental view of the world also completely breaks down the classical distinctions between the “sacred” and the “secular.” If all of the created order is a physical manifestation of God’s presence, then there can be no part of
the created order that is “profane.” One of the great sins of religion has been to establish the mistaken notion that some things (and people) are “sacred” or accepted of God while others are not. In its sense of ministry, St. Anne’s has always refused to recognize this dichotomy. It has offered its services, its love, and its acceptance to all without distinction.
That radical notion of unconditional acceptance and of the “holiness” of the entire created order convinced me that my own call to service was in the so-called secular world and not in the ordained ministry. It also persuaded me that, in my role as a lawyer and community leader, I could celebrate the sacrament of God’s presence in unique ways that could have lasting effects on the lives of people.
The second principle of St. Anne’s theology that has deeply influenced me is the conviction that being a Christian isn’t about adhering to a particular set of beliefs or following an established set of practices. It is rather about relationship—relationship to God and to other people—as that relationship is mediated through our understanding of God’s relationship with the world and the created order.
In the Christian tradition and the experience of Israel that preceded it, our understanding of that relationship is mediated through the telling and retelling of stories. In the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, it is primarily through stories that we learn about God’s relationship to us and what that means in terms of our relationships to one another. The great themes of our faith are played out in the stories of the people of Israel, from the separation of humankind from the Creator in the Eden story to the demands of faith placed on Abraham, from the transformation of Jacob to the forgiveness of Joseph, from the story of the Exodus and the wandering in the desert to the entry into the promised land, from the faithfulness and faithlessness of the kings of Israel to the Babylonian captivity, and on and on. The relationship of God and the people of Israel is spelled out through their stories. The same is true in the New Testament. When Jesus is asked repeatedly about the Kingdom of God, he always responds with a story: The Kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow, or a man who built his house upon a rock, or a merchant who found a pearl of great price, or a woman who has 10 silver pieces and loses one of them.
God interacts with us in our lives, where we live and where we interact with other people. God becomes real to us in the relationship. Thus, it is little wonder that we rely on stories as the basis of our faith, to understand what God has done in the past and to hold ourselves open to what God is doing in our present. For me, one of the chief purposes of the community of faith is to remember the stories, to retell them from one generation to the next, and to add our own stories as we perceive the hand of God at work in our own time.
Storytelling is, of course, a communal activity. And good stories are always about relationships. Over the years, my active participa-tion in St. Anne’s congregational life has put me in the center of these stories and the essential truths embedded in them. Those experiences, nurtured in my faith community, have shaped my way of looking at reality, of perceiving values, of understanding the nature of relationships, of knowing what works and what doesn’t, of understanding what is just and what is unjust. Together, they are the warp and woof of my woven picture of how the created order works. As such, they constitute the framework for my vocation in the wider world, a ringing endorsement of the blessing of creation, and a constant reminder of the God who is always present in the heart of true relationships.
James W. Jones is a senior vice president of Hildebrandt International, a management consulting firm to the legal industry. A lawyer, Mr. Jones is a former managing partner of Arnold & Porter, one of the largest law firms in Washington, D.C. He has served in many positions of leadership in professional and community organizations, including terms as chairman of the boards of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, and the Pro Bono Institute. He and his wife Suzi have been members of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Reston, Virginia, since 1973.
Together in Joy and Sorrow
CARLA TIGHE MURRAY
My husband and I joined our local parish church when we bought our first house together as newlyweds about seven years ago. At that time I was running a small division in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon. I have two primary vocations now: Three days a week I work for a nonpartisan government agency as a senior economist. In my other vocation, I’m a wife and the mother of a preschooler.
The decision to step back from a full-time career was not an easy one for me. I had gone straight into a Ph.D. program after receiving my undergraduate degree and, after earning my doctorate, spent the next decade carving out a very satisfying professional life for myself in Washington, D.C. My marriage at age 36 did not conflict with my career goals.
When my daughter was born in January 2001, I planned to take three months of maternity leave from my Pentagon job and then go back to my busy professional life. I pictured myself leaving the office each day with a full briefcase so that I could turn my attention back to work at home in the evenings after putting my daughter to bed. I pictured a fuller, busier, but ultimately very satisfying life.
I stuck to my plan initially, returning to work in April 2001, but I was not the glamorous, perfect senior executive and mother of my fantasies. I struggled to keep all the balls in the air while still asking for more balls to be thrown my way. (Did I mention that I am ambitious?) And then, on September 11, a plane crashed into the Pentagon. I was not on the side of the building that was hit, but it was a scary day. A friend and colleague was killed. Other friends and colleagues barely escaped with their lives. The fear from that day stretched out over the next several weeks and months, and our jobs began to change.
That dramatic event caused me to reassess my priorities and my ambitions. The support I received from my clergy and fellow congregants that day and since continually reminds me that I am not alone in joy or in sorrow. About six months after the plane crash, when the opportunity came to leave the Pentagon and accept a part-time position without managerial responsibilities, it seemed like a chance at a more balanced life and I took it. It hasn’t solved everything. There are times when I’d rather be running a division, not playing princess with my daughter. And sometimes I’d rather be with my family than sitting at my desk.
Being part of a congregation has supported my two vocations in many ways. Some families brought us meals after our daughter was born. Our Mothers’ Group meetings were my first outings with my daughter, and those meetings provided a wealth of fellowship and practical knowledge. Mothers’ Group also showed me the varied ways in which women cope with the same transformative event: the birth of their child.
Perhaps the greatest benefit for me comes from being part of an active community of so many different kinds of people. I get to see a lot of different responses to common situations. Everyone was affected by the terrible events of September 11, 2001, no matter where they were when it happened. Each of us responded in her or his own way. Experiencing the different ways people handle life-changing situations is
very important in both my vocations. It reminds me that there is no one right way to stop a four-year-old from whining. It also reminds me that there are many ways to wrestle with a difficult sponsor, supervisor, or colleague; my first, almost automatic response may not be the most effective one.
Our parish family has seen many joyous occasions since September 11, 2001, and we’ve experienced some personal tragedies as well. Being part of a congregation lets us share painful times and lets us experience the growth and renewal that can come from pain. Worshipping, committee work, and outreach remind us all that we are not alone in joy or sorrow.
Dr. Carla Tighe Murray, who received her doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois (Urbana) in 1989, currently works as a senior economist for the Congressional Budget Office. The views expressed are her personal views and not those of her employer. She and her husband and their daughter live in northern Virginia and attend Immanuel Church-on-the Hill in Alexandria.
To Make a Joyful Noise
Oh make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; Come into his presence with singing.
—PSALM 100: 1-4
When I stand before our congregation as a lay leader, as a soloist, or as a choir member on Sunday mornings, I am mindful of how much the church has taught me about my own voice in worship and in service. And Monday through Friday, as I sit in my psychotherapy office supporting adults and whole families in healing and reclaiming their voices, I am aware that through my own journey in faith I am better able to listen and encourage others.
To say that God works in mysterious ways is an understatement of how, at age 43, I began singing at my church. Less mysterious, however, is how the congregational life at the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, offered me inspiration, safety, and fellow travelers on my journey, and above all taught me the power of selfless love and praise in meeting life’s challenges.
Ten years ago I was in a time of transition and questioning about the foundation and goals of my life. It began then, persistently and unfailingly, on Sunday mornings, as individuals turned to me after the worship service to say, “You have such a beautiful voice. Do you sing? Why aren’t you in the choir? I love singing beside you.” The comments continued in an embarrassing profusion for many weeks. Although I had sung in church choirs in my youth, I had left performance behind years earlier. Further, unbeknownst to those offering encouragement, I had allowed speaking anxiety, which I had battled for years professionally, to become a symbol of personal defeat and a barrier to invitations to speak, much less sing, before an audience.
After many Sunday mornings and with much trepidation, I finally took the step to ask about joining one of the choirs. You could say the rest is history, but here began the lessons I was to learn. The first of these was that the church community, the fellowship of groups, provides a sense of belonging and opportunities for self-expression. For me, joining the choir was the first step toward reclaiming my joy of worship through musical expression. A year or so into my choir singing, a gifted and enthusiastic voice teacher, a member of the church, began offering Saturday group classes for beginning singers. The lesson I learned from this was that the church is a safe place with plenty of support to take small steps in an unexplored area of potential talent. These classes found a following and, over time, a group of us cheered, clapped, and cried our ways out of our shells. We singers were then encouraged to perform in the occasional Saturday Night Cabarets at the church. From this I learned that the fellowship of the church supports you at all points on your journey, including the beginning, stumbling, and risking phase, not just in reaching your goal. Inevitably, the music director asked some of us if we would sing in duets or trios in worship services, bringing yet another lesson into my experience: that at church you will step up in unexpected ways to give back to a loving community. Finally came solo opportunities. By this point I was studying voice and committed to taking risks, but still quite anxious inside. My lesson from this step on my journey? Share your gifts in praise and thanksgiving.
“Share your gifts in praise and thanksgiving.” As that calming clarity came to me, anxiety truly faded. The truth of selfless giving and the power of praise resonated in me. If singing could be about praise and not about the ego, then I could find no reason to say “No.”
During all this time, the singing in church was also working as a powerful life metaphor influencing the values expressed in my psychotherapy practice. As I took risks in my own life in the service of love, praise, and truth, I found a new capacity to help others find that message, that true “voice” seeking expression within themselves.
This story has its coda. Although in the beginning I was willing to stand in front of people only to learn to sing, not to speak, the barriers to speaking also came down. As I gained the clarity that all good work is an act of praise, my public voice became clearer and stronger. Through my church life I found not only growth of faith but new freedom to speak personally and professionally with passion, conviction, and the life-affirming message of praise and thanksgiving for all that we are given.
Frances Sink, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Wilton, Connecticut, and a lay leader in the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut.
They Knew My NameHow Early Congregational Life Shaped a Leader
From the beginning of my life, my home congregation loved me into the faith. As a preschooler in the nursery, I felt so very safe with “church.” A few years later, in the primary department, I remember standing at the sand table, charting the journeys of Paul or the journey of the Exodus. Little did I know then that such teaching would form the beginning of my knowledge of the Bible and its stories, or that when we were invited to discuss and respond to these stories that it was the beginning of my training to be a leader of the church.
This church of 250 members in Texarkana, Texas, was where, even as a small child, people knew my name. These people knew all the children of the church. They helped raise us and teach us and called our behavior into question when necessary. They made us feel important. Even now, I linger on those words, “they knew my name.”
The Best of Pastors
In the church’s pastors, I experienced the best of all worlds. The first was my pastor from birth to early adolescence, an intelligent scholar with a doctorate from Princeton who had married my parents in the living room of the manse he lived in for over 30 years, baptized me when I was 12 years old, and participated in my ordination to Word and Sacrament. I remember him preaching eloquently from the Psalms and his frequent use of the word “utterly,” as in being “utterly swept up in the sheer love of God.” When, as an adult, I became deeply involved with the church on a national level, I had long
conversations with this pastor—who had been a member of our denomination’s General Assembly Council—on the health of the church he continued to love long after retirement from active ministry. I was blessed to assist with his memorial service when he died at the age of 98. It is most difficult to give words to these experiences and rituals except to say that they were utterly faith-shaping.
The second pastor who influenced my faith and vocational journey was a young pastor who arrived in my Texarkana congregation during my early adolescence. While I remember little of what he offered in Sunday worship, I remember vividly the complete joy I felt in having a pastor who was young, who participated actively in our youth ministry program, and who went to church camp with us. Before school on Tuesday mornings, he and his wife would invite us into their home for devotions and conversation. He was the first pastor I saw wearing Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes. When he smiled, his whole face lit up. We young people loved him and he loved us.
It was during this pastor’s tenure that I experienced the more sinful side of the saints whose names graced the membership roll of my church. A vocal segment of my congregation found this new, young pastor with his youthful ways an unacceptable replacement for their former pastor of 32 years, despite the fact that he and the retired pastor were good friends who liked and respected each other. I still have vivid memories of people I had loved saying ugly things about this young man. It was not a pretty picture. My sadness at the young pastor’s ultimate departure was shared by most of the church’s young people. This experience was a pivotal part of my coming of age in the faith; I learned that if I was going to stay in the church I would have to live with the knowledge that sin was not some-thing that was always “out there” but would also, from time to time, rear its head in the hallowed halls of the church. Although I now understand some of the family systems theories and the transition difficulties that will surely occur after long-term pastorates, back then I knew only that I had lost a kind of naivete about the church, and that new knowledge was accompanied with much sadness.
Learning to Lead
In those days, people did not leave the church when there were problems. By sticking it out through difficult times, they modeled for me a level of commitment that is rarely seen today. While I know feelings ran deep, what I saw were people staying in the faith, disagreements and all. Like these other members of our congregation, my family and I stayed active in this church, and the congregation that had brought me to adolescence continued to nurture me. I served in a leadership capacity in the youth ministry program on the local, regional, and statewide levels. I remember feeling blessed and somewhat singled out to serve and lead. I had the gift of leadership, but the people in the congregation helped me develop that gift and make its use possible. They did so for countless other young people as well. While we had various resources available, it was understood that the best Sunday evening fellowship devotionals were the ones we wrote ourselves.
Our leadership training was extended to stewardship as well. I did not know how unusual it was to be in a church in which the youth drew up their needed budget for the year and then made the stewardship visitation calls to the homes of young people to receive their pledges for this program. The stewardship chair would give reports throughout the year on how our financial needs were or were not being met. This experience was invaluable to me and is probably one of the primary reasons why some of my gifts for ministry have been in the area of stewardship and finance.
Another way in which the congregation supported its youth members’ development was by allowing us to join the chancel choir—the adult choir—when we entered senior high. This was another experience of being valued and accepted.
I grew to identify with the Reformed tradition, a tradition that emphasizes that we are a connected and related denomination. As my local congregation encouraged and enabled its young people to participate in area and statewide events, they helped us know of this connectionalism. We knew we were a part of something larger than the church on Pine Street. Those experiences were also opportunities for leadership development, since I was in a denomination that believed that youth and adults share in leadership together, and my congregation gave ample evidence of this commitment.
One key experience beyond my local church had a major impact on my vocational choice. While at a statewide youth conference, I shared with some male pastors (there were no female pastors in my denomination in those days) my thoughts about going into full-time Christian education. It was these pastors who suggested that I consider going through the regular seminary program so that I would be on the same educational level as the pastors with whom I would be working. They were the ones who planted those seeds of my ministerial vocation. About nine years after that I became the seventh woman to graduate from the seminary of my choosing.
“Catching” the Faith
As I reflect on my early congregational experiences and their impact on my vocation, I realize that it was not the infrequent significant things my congregation did but the little things they did week in and week out that molded and shaped me. And, since my family was truly there every time the church doors were opened, there were many opportunities for me to be fed and nourished by the congregation. They taught the values of honesty, integrity, and good work by modeling them. They also shared a deep joy in knowing they numbered among God’s ordinary but beloved children.
It is important to remember that I grew up in a very different culture than those being raised in the church today. Except for occasional people moving in or out, our community was mainly static. People stayed in one place. Churches did not have to compete with a world of other activities for people’s time and attention. Our world was family and friends; work or school; music, dance, or sports; and church. Our lives were safe and blessed. Not only our church but also our town was, for the most part, a safe place in which to live.
I suspect that “catching” the faith from one’s home church is more of a rarity in these days of an upwardly mobile society and lives packed with activities. The exception might be smaller rural churches. I do know I am blessed to have these memories and blessed to live the life my family, pastors, and the members of our congregation taught me to live. Those “ordinary” people number among the saints of the church. They not only knew my name, they knew me and loved me. They encouraged and challenged me to offer my best, and they affirmed me when I did. My response to all this? Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!
Judy Fletcher is a member of the Alban Institute’s Board of Directors. She is also executive director of the Synod of the Sun (Texas, Arkansas, Okla-homa, Louisiana), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The Journeys Continue
Alban Institute members will find two additional stories of church and vocation under “Additional Articles” for the Spring 2006 issue of Congregations. The authors of these essays are Rev. Dr. Frederick Schmidt, director of spiritual formation and Anglican studes and associate professor of Christian spirituality at Southern Methodist University