It was 29 June 1978, and I was still 27 years old (I am a November baby born in 1950). 26 days earlier, I had received my Master's Degree at Nashotah House and moved my then relatively meager belongings and collection of professional books to my new job at Christ Church, Springfield, MO. I then drove to Orlando, FL, which was the See City of my home diocese (Central Florida).
On 22 June all of us who had just graduated from seminaries from Central Florida gathered with Bishop Folwell and a staff of clergy and lay specialists in the canonical areas of proficiency at Camp Wingman. A four day series of oral exams followed. At that time, our diocese required the Master's Degree, the successful completion of the General Ordination Exams (on the same level of law or med boards...given to all senior seminarians in the Episcopal Church in January....seven grueling days of in-class examination and writing of essays in all seven canonical essays) and the successful completion of the diocesan oral examination. These exams were anything but objective, but examiners could tell how well we functioned under pressure and how our knowledge could be flexed with convoluted questions.
Now, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul -- 29 June -- I stood at the Altar Rail of St. Luke's Cathedral, Orlando with six other candidates. We were about to be ordained to the Transitional Diaconate. With assignments in various places, we would work as Deacons for a period of six months. If all went well, we would then be ordained to the Priesthood. The vocational journey was now almost underway!
There were seven of us ordained to the Transitional Diaconate that evening in Orlando. Three of us had graduated from Nashotah House. The other four from one of the other ten seminaries in the Episcopal Church USA. I no longer remember which ones. We were about to be scattered to almost the four corners of the United States. Central Florida was turning out a lot of priests in those years. I was the average age of seminary graduates, and jobs were not plentiful at that time. Central Florida had one postion for an Assistant open. My dear friend, Paul Wolfe, got that position by actually doing a summer internship in the parish that hired him. West Missouri had no one emerging from seminary, and I got "loaned" to Christ Church, Springfield. Therein lies a story fit only for memoirs...not a blog.
Of the seven of us ordained on 29 June 1978, four of us are still active in parochial ministry. One left the Episcopal Church for a breakaway entity. One retired due to health issues. My friend and "co-conspirator" in both serious endeavors and occasional hijinks, Paul Wolfe, died from cancer in March 2009.
My "pay entry date" for retirement purposes was 1 July 1978. It is when I technically started at Christ Church. I drove back to Missouri two days after ordination and began actual work on 5 July. June 1978 was a whirlwind month of proportion that astounds me upon reflection as an older person. I was known for high energy, quick response, dogged determination and theological acumen. I ran 10 miles a day, ate sparingly and practiced Hatha Yoga faithfully...at 5:00am every morning but Sunday. My long runs were five days a week and worked into either lunch hours or after my workday....rain, shine, snow, heat and cold -- sometimes at 10:00pm through the Southwest Missouri State University campus that was less than five blocks from my apartment. Stamina was the name of the game. My ordination picture from those days appears on my Facebook photo page.
I was ordained a Priest six months -- to the day -- later. Bishop Arthur Vogel ordained me on 29 December 1978 at Christ Church....on a cold, icy Friday morning. Even with the weather, the church was full. I will never forget either of those ordination days! Powerful and unusual things happen during those sacramental rites. Something inside changed. For me, it was a palpable and rather radical shift in character...state of being.
I began my vocational struggle (it's like a caterpillar trying to emerge from a cocoon...those years of preparation for ordination) with a plan NOT to be a parish priest. My plan was to finish a Ph.D. and teach in a seminary or university setting. God is much bigger than we are, and, as my journey unfolded, one parish experience led to another and yet another. I developed specialties for which I never believed I had gifts. I learned to compensate for areas where it was clear I was not gifted. There is an "economy" of spirituality that creates balance -- if the individual and community are patient and willing to seek complementary functions in community. I found this to be the hardest lesson for both priest and people.
Today, I sit in my office at St. Andrew's, Kansas City, MO -- Diocese of West Missouri. I have come full circle in my travels, without ever meaning or intending to do so. When I went back to Central Florida in 1980, I thought that was it in terms of general place. Today is the 32nd anniversary of my ordination to the Transitional Diaconate, and I have been down a long road.
I no longer run...having shattered miniscus cartilidge in both knees (requiring surgery). I'm on borrowed time for a prosthetic right shoulder joint. My power lifting days are over. I still stretch and use yoga techniques. I now get aerobic with bicycles and elliptical machines. I deal with the kinds of limitations that age creates -- though I still have a lot of energy and stamina. Stamina can now be also measured by how much crisis I can absorb and maintain both objectivity and balance. That comes only with experience.
My office now has a library of almost 800 books....35 years of reading, research and shifting interests in the theological disciplines. I love these books. They are extensions of experience and define a good portion of my universe. I have written extensively; been published a few times; taught thousands of hours; preached hundreds of sermons; faithfully followed my Benedictine Rule of contemplative prayer and in-depth study. I have been been married almost 30 years, and we have raised two wonderful, bright and engaging daughters. They are launched into life apart from us. We have lost parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. We have gained second and third cousins, nieces, nephews and countless dear friends.
My hair is now silvered, slightly thinner and not quite (but almost) as long as when I was ordained. I carry some extra weight and struggle with the issues of genetics....heart, vascular and joint conditions. Medco pharmaceuticals, providing our clergy insurance with long-term prescriptions, knows me well. I hate this part. I have always loved my self-sufficiency. It is now more restricted. I am dependent on others for my well-being. An important lesson is being learned here.
Parish Priesthood has hugely opened my vistas. I have no patience for prejudice, bigotry and closed minds. I have almost no patience with passive-aggressive and passive-dependent behaviors. I am barely tolerant of those caught up with self-importance. My love for persons in general has expanded exponentially...regardless of culture, creed, orientation or socio-economic place. I soak up their wisdom and reflections like a sponge. Constantly confronting pain, grief, brokenness, and transformation has made me more progressive, tolerant and accepting. Like Desiderata suggests, I do walk more placidly amidst the noise and haste.
When I knelt before the Altar at St. Luke's Cathedral, Orlando and awaited Bishop Folwell's hands to rest on my head and his prayer of ordination...calling down the Holy Spirit...I wondered what others might think. Now, I am blessed with not worrying about that much at all. I am God's person. Period.
Thirty-two years, six parishes, thousands of people, weddings, funerals, Eucharists...teaching, proclaiming, caring, counseling, directing, praying, laughing, crying and walking in places most others might not care to tread both in the world and deep within souls. It is the ordained life. One gift given: I am rarely frozen in fear. I keep moving. My spiritual feet still seem quite agile. It is truly a gift!