Bishop My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to this priesthood?
Answer I believe I am so called.
Ordination of a Priest, Book of Common Prayer, page 531
On this day 10 years ago, my first bishop, the Right Reverend Henry I. Louttit asked me this question in a crowded church in Savannah full of family and friends, a cloud of witnesses both seen and unseen. This is the first question asked as part of the “Examination” portion of the ordination liturgy. This examination is really a formality, because the real examination takes places both before and after those words are spoken. It takes place before in the midst of numerous meetings, interviews, evaluations, prayer, seminary classes, and field education. But it takes place after every day a priest gets out of bed and decides she or he will once again stand up and be the person God has called her or him to be.
Most days, and I mean 99% of days, I make this choice unconsciously because I serve a fantastic, healthy parish and community, I have a bishop whom I want to follow and a diocese in which I’m proud to be included. There are only one or two days that I can recall where the Bishop’s question above would cause me to pause. In reflection over 10 years of priestly ministry, I’d say that’s a good run so far.
The first half of my ministry took place at St. Peter’s, Savannah, on an island called Skidaway, in the mythical land of the gated community. I credit much of my ministry during that time to my friend and mentor, the Reverend Sam Buice, for whom I was proud to work. Sam really taught me how to be a priest, moreso than any class or book consumed in seminary. With wisdom like, “The church is more like a ocean liner than a race car, it doesn’t always respond quickly to the direction we turn the wheel,” or “The Spirit blows whichever way she chooses,” or “Pastoral counseling is like handling toxic waste. You have to wear your hazmat suit to care for people,” or “It’s harder to stand in the middle of the road because that’s where you get hit,” “JEFF!” (that last one was usually brought on when I used the word “suck” in a sermon or left a baby pool full of rotting food out after Messy Games). Sam taught me how to be real, how to lead, how to allow for brokenness and not perfection, and how to laugh in ministry.
The congregation of St. Peter’s should be commended for allowing the two of us to be their priests during that time. For an affluent and proper group of people, Sam and Jeff probably seemed more like Mutt and Jeff, but we did good work with good people. I’m most proud of the youth that were cultivated during that time. I see that many of those kids are still close friends today, and that makes me feel like the beach retreats, the breakfasts at Chick-Fil-A, the movie nights, the roller coasters, and the mission trips were all worth it.
The second half of this decade of priesthood has taken place at my beloved St. Nicholas. As much as Sam taught me to be a priest, the people of St. Nicholas have taught me as much, if not more. I’m still very much a student, and many of them would be the first to tell you that I’m not always easy to work with, I can be stubborn, naive, and myopic. I don’t always get it right. But no other congregation I know of would be as patient, warm, and forgiving. They are wonderful teachers and minister to me as much as I to them.
These years at St. Nicholas have been marked with so much joy. Often, I am commended for the work St. Nicholas has done by people both within and outside the church. My response is that no one priest, no matter what their gifts may be, could do what St. Nicholas has done thus far. It takes a congregation of committed and loving disciples of Jesus, who open their hearts and their doors to the Holy Spirit, in order to be a successful church. From my perspective, St. Nicholas is that kind of congregation. I think that’s what makes us fit so well together.
These years have meant so much to me: the holding of parishioners who have lost loved ones, the laughter of the congregation when a child says something funny and poignant during a children’s sermon, the marching for causes we hold dearly, the singing of the choir, the faithful decisions of the Vestry, the people in the community who exclaim when St. Nicholas shows up again in a full-page spread in the Harris County Journal, the quiet conversations over lunches, the blessing of relationships, animals, backpacks, and lay ministers, the baptisms, weddings, and funerals, the sound of children praying the Lord’s Prayer.
Of course, this decade of ministry would have been impossible without the one person who listens, loves, supports, encourages, cares for, and is the “priest to the priest,” my sweet wife Molly. She has had to live with a priest for the last 10 of our 12 years of marriage, which I’m sure has had it’s ups and downs, but she does so with grace, humor, and unconditional love. As much as I was called to be a priest, Molly was called to be a priest’s wife, and I’m grateful that she says yes to that call every day.
These 10 years are full of reasons that make it easy to answer the Bishop’s question:
I believe I am so called.