Monday, July 7, 2014

Catching up with Chris (part 1)

(This is the first in a series of blogs I will be posting this summer as part of my field study at Episcopal Community Services.)

Why is the Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul's Cathedral doing a “Field Ed” at Episcopal Community Studies (or ECS as it is known) and why am I blogging about it?  Well, those are good questions, first a little background:  For those who do not know, I am a postulant for holy orders. That is, in addition to my normal duties at the Cathedral, I am being trained to be a priest in the Episcopal Church. How did that come about you ask? Well, it’s a long story but suffice to say after several years of having this question tug at me and me waiting to see if it would go away (it didn't) we decided to explore it further and discover if that was indeed what God was calling me to. After all we are all called to serve. It just not always immediately clear how. And I for one was feeling pulled in a lot of different directions.

With the support of (then) Dean Richardson and (then) Sub-Dean Allisyn Thomas, we called a committee together in the early 2013 and spent several months in prayerful conversation and listening to what the Spirit might be up to. In time, we discerned with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that this might be the next right thing in the evolution of my ministry. And by the way, when I say “we” I mean the “royal” we meaning, me, you, my faith community, friends and family who don’t even go to church but are spiritual but not religious, (especially you!) were all helping me discern this call-- whether you knew it or not! :) When you asked me to marry you or to baptize your children, to preach or teach a class, or when you wanted to just talk, you were helping me understand what God might be calling me to next.

After some interviews, recommendations, background checks, psychological evaluations and more conversation, listening and lots of prayer, the Bishop and the Commission on Ministry eventually decided to make me a postulant. At that point, the Bishop and I had to make a decision about a formation plan. We decided that in my case, instead of a traditional 3-year seminary, it made more sense for me to pursue my formation locally in the context of where I will be serving. The diocese had just opened the School for Ministry and it seemed like a perfect option for me.   In addition to the benefit of allowing someone coming to the priesthood as a second (if not third) career, it would have been a significant barrier to sell my house and quit the job I love at St. Paul’s (which is an excellent training ground for ordained ministry in and of itself) and ship off to a residential seminary.  Oh and did I mention that adding to the $90,000 in student loans I still have left over from law school wasn't particularly enticing considering clergy salaries these days! :)  Plus my husband Joe is a hair stylist and has spent years building a clientele in San Diego. Leaving San Diego would have meant giving up his business and considering that may have to support us one day, that was also a factor. So a residential, traditional seminary program, would have presented significant challenges to put it lightly.

The School for Ministry is located at the
Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach
which doubles as a homeless outreach center.
Fortunately, the School for Ministry was opened at the Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach as a way to train and form clergy in their local context using the variety of talented and brilliant faculty we have right here in the diocese. What’s more, the Episcopal Church Center is a mission center with an emphasis in outreach to the neighborhood homeless population and so our classes are held in the midst of a Saturday morning homeless feeding program which helps to keep our hearts and our minds grounded in those we are called to serve.  (By the way, everyone is welcome to enroll and audit individual classes at the School for Ministry - check out the website for upcoming class schedule and enrollment information.)

Needed a couple of books for an exegesis.
Huh? Don't ask! (Photo courtesy of Joe's
Last month we finished our first year. And what a year it was! I have mentioned to many of you that it felt like I was in law school all over again. We had four classes each semester, which we prepared for during the week and then attended class all day Saturday.  All of us at the school had a hard time adjusting to the amount of school work on top of our normal workload. Plus, with more than 15 years removed from law school, I noticed that I was a tad rusty as a student and it took me some time getting back into the rhythm of reading and writing and getting papers by a certain deadline (and learning the art of "good enough"!). I of course had to severely cut back my normal work and social schedule to make it work (and spend many a night at Lestat's my favorite 24-hour coffee house!). Many of you have undoubtedly noticed you saw me a bit less last year, or that I was often leaving dinner parties or birthdays early to work on a paper or finish a sermon. And I have to say, the social impact was hard on a number of levels. For starters, I found it to be somewhat isolating. I missed my friends and missed meeting new ones. I missed being able invite over new acquaintances and being able to always say “yes” to invitations. Even in law school there was time for social gatherings on Friday nights – here, I was studying most of my Fridays – not so much here. But having said that, I did meet some new friends who I will know and cherish the rest of my life and that is my fellow postulants, faculty and students at the School for Ministry. After spending that much time together we really bonded and by the end of the year grew really close. We all had different styles, different approaches, backgrounds, as you might expect. But by the end of the semester, we had become like an extended family.

But more than all of that, I wouldn't not have traded it for anything.  The cumulative experience was indeed transformative.  I am not sure exactly what happened, but somewhere amidst the long nights, the endless readings, the reflections, the papers, the arguments, the laughter, the frustrations, the friendships, the prayers and the worship together, something changed.  I can honestly say, I am not the same person now as I was at the beginning of the semester.  I don't know if I can completely put my finger on it, but both Joe and I noticed a shift that began.  But more on that in part 2....

Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and postulant for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at or connect with him on Facebook

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