A Newcomer Priest’s Reflection – Writing mid-March, 2020
On December 1, 2019, I entered the community of God’s people who are St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, North Carolina. Referring to this particular congregation as a ‘community of God’s people’ is quite intentional. I quickly observed a unity of spirit here, a kinship born of worshiping and experiencing together the chances and changes of life.I see firsthand their commitment to one another and to God’s people surrounding the church, many of whom are in need of support. Here I find a group of people who also appreciate the heritage of this faith community.
Last November, when we first met, none of us knew we would find ourselves in Mid-March, 2020, in the middle of a worldwide health pandemic. The words ‘coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’ are writ large in our hearts, minds, and spirits. There is no escaping the realities of the threat brought about by this microscopic virus.
I’m writing in a strange and unexpected circumstance – that of being physically separated from a group of God’s people whom I’ve come to love over the last three and a half months. Because of the threat to public health, our Bishops, like many others, have suspended our in-person worship experiences as well as the many meetings which our faith community holds weekly or monthly.
Because God’s people are the Church, we are connected one to another through the gift of God’s love. But, it feels so very different not to be in one another’s presence. I miss being with the people of St. Stephen’s in the spaces we are accustomed to being together. But, hope does spring eternal! Worship will now take different forms electronically while we still draw on ancient practices of personal prayer.
In looking back, during my interview with the Vestry one question in particularcontinues to stand out for me. “If you are called to be our Interim Rector, what would be your most important job?” I remember pausing and looking around at the faces of the women and men gathered in the Church’s Parlor. I answered,“To love you.”
There were puzzled looks on a few faces and perhaps even a few slight head-tilts accompanied by smiles. “To love you,” I recall repeating. When I was asked what that would look like, we were off to the races! We talked about pastoral care and preaching and teaching and administering (the last word meaning literally ‘to minister with’) and other priestly duties. We also talked about the reality that growth and change come about when the entire faith community works together.
When I think of my loving this particular community it boils down to a ministry of presence – of being with and among God’s people, of being invited to share life’s journey with them and of making a commitment to share my journey in return. I’m grateful to be serving as St. Stephen’s Interim Rector even though I am not, for a period of time, physically in the same rooms as those with whom I serve.
To love one another is, of course, one of the two Great Commandments of our faith. I can say frankly I am experiencing God’s love and the love of the people of St. Stephen’s. I feel welcomed and respected. I witness a willingness to acknowledge that grief accompanies many changes we humans experience in life. In the context of the church that includes the loss of a clergy person and any family members they may have as they move to a new ministry locale. The people here are also committed to looking forward to the possibilities which have yet to unfold.
I continue to be impressed by St. Stephen’s leadership in the surrounding community. The congregation has been instrumental in bringing together people inside and outside the church to begin several vitally important ministries. When I attended my first Outreach Committee meeting, my eyes must have widened looking around at the impressive numbers of congregants attending. When the leader of the meeting went down a list of ministry links in need of leadership, every single area was filled! Now we’re being challenged to serve and preserve these ministries in new ways in order to safeguard each person’s health and well-being. Working with local organizations, we’re figuring out how to provide food and supplies to economically disadvantaged adults and children with whom we can no longer interact across a desk.
Other ministry areas of the church reflect similar commitments to service. I continue to hear of times and circumstances in which church members have been present for one another in times of crisis or need. There are unsung heroes among us: people do ministry in a low key way and I learn of it after the fact!As far as I can determine it, St. Stephen’s has a stellar reputation in Oxford and the surrounding area. Now we are using tried-and-true methods of supporting one another – telephones and computers are serving us well.
Like any faith community, St. Stephen’s is made up of human beings with all that entails. When we miss the mark, we hope always to be people who change directions, ask forgiveness, and begin anew.
When I reflect on my contribution to the congregation during the interim, my mind goes to the importance of preaching, worship, and pastoral care. Overall the people of St. Stephen’s welcome a priest’s presence. One of the delights I’m experiencing is offering new or renewed experiences in the liturgy. Our Lenten program this year is entitled “Liturgy: Bringing Us Together.” We began exploring the ways in which we name and know God with the goal of enriching our spiritual lives and making ever closer our individual and corporate relationship with the Holy One.One of my favorite things is receiving Collects written by the people of St. Stephen’s – one of the exercises in our Lenten program. We are praying the Collects on Sunday mornings in our recorded and livestream worship.
And, because our Lenten supper gatherings are suspended, we’ll continue electronically our exploration of our liturgical life.
I’ll close by observing that time feels as if it is flying-by. How is it possible to be just over half-way through my fourth month at St. Stephen’s?! I’m counting on this parish to welcome their next settled rector with as much enthusiasm and love which I am experiencing – what a grand beginning that will be!Daily I keep in my prayers the Parish’s search process and those yet-to-be-known clergy whose discernment may well spark a call to serve – a call best lived here, in this community of God’s people.
With sincerity and hope and God’s love,
The Rev. Dr. Lorraine Ljunggren
The Search Committee has completed the information to be included in St. Stephen’s Parish Profile, the Vestry has approved it, and it has been submitted to the transition office of our diocese. It will be entered into the OTM format and posted on the appropriate sites within the next few days. We will be receiving names from clergy interested in learning more about our vibrant parish and community until the end of April 2020. DUE TO THE CO-VID 19 SITUATION, WE HAVE EXTENDED THE DATE TO RECEIVE NAMES BY TWO WEEKS! We look forward to the process of mutual discernment for the next full-time rector at St. Stephen’s.
Many thanks to everyone who participated in the Parish meeting last Sunday. The information that was gathered will be used to build our Parish Profile which we hope to have ready to post by the 1st of March. That is the first major step in the search process for our next settled rector.
Parish Meeting to Build Profile
Please mark your calendars for Sunday, January 26th, and plan to be present as we meet with members of the diocesan staff who will help us identify what qualities our parish is seeking in our next full-time rector. There will be ONE service at 9:30 AM on that Sunday. Following the service, we will have soup and sandwiches while we begin our conversation. Plan to spend approximately 1-1/2 hours once the meeting is underway. This is an extremely important first step in our journey to discern who the next settled rector at St. Stephen’s will be. We need everyone to be present!
Search Committee Has Been Chosen
The Vestry has appointed David Spitler and Tammy Howard to serve as co-chairs of the Search Committee. The committee members are John Anderson, Grey Currin, Mary Hicks, Clarence Lemons, Sherry Owens, Samuel Spitler, and Joe Tartamella. The co-chairs have had a preleminary meeting with the diocesan transition officer and have laid out a plan of action going forward. There will be a very important parish meeting on Sunday, January 26th, to ilicit information from the entire parish – young and not so young – to help us determine what we are seeking in our next full-time rector. The information gained at this meeting will be used to build our Parish Profile that will then be shared with the wider church for access to those clergy members seeking a new call! Mark your calendars now; don’t miss your opportunity to be a part of this very important step in our process!