I was first ordained 41 years ago in 1979 through a consortium of non-denominational churches in Florida. I had been a student leader of a mid week campus prayer meeting that we incorporated as a church. I was called to serve as their second Senior Pastor even though I had not yet been to seminary and had no formal training. I made a lot of mistakes but words cannot adequately express how much I loved those folks and what an honor it was to serve them.
Those were some colorful years. We bought property and built a building. The members of the parish took their faith very seriously and lifelong spiritual friendships were formed among them. The group of churches, with which we had been affiliated, became increasing cultic and so I pulled our church out from it. That was a very difficult step to take. Although it was the right thing to do it also meant that we were entirely on our own. At times the weight of that seemed unbearable because I knew that I was caring for people’s souls. I was mindful of St. Paul’s saying that teachers will incur a stricter judgment.
Over the years I worked part time on a degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston. I was also able to travel and taught clergy and lay ministers in Haiti, Spain and the Philippians. On one occasion I smuggled bibles into Communist China during their New Year’s celebrations. I worked very hard for the Church but not hard enough on myself, and as a consequence I went through a terrible burnout. My life unraveled and I left the ministry.
God had mercy and blessed the broken road that led me to Chattanooga, where I met and married Beth. We were both social workers and I saw myself remaining in that career until retirement. I had no interest in returning to full time ministry. I particularly enjoyed not being on call 24/7, having weekends and holidays free, and being able to completely forget about work the moment that I locked my office door.
As the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” My plans for a career in social work were not His plans. Beth and I were newly married when the call returned, doors opened widely, and everything changed for us. It involved quitting my job, leaving Chattanooga and taking on additional studies at Sewanee’s School of Theology.
The reason that I said the priesthood is nothing like I expected goes back to 4thgrade. My father was stationed in Boston and so we lived nearby in a town in Rhode Island. My family attended a small parish that was so close to our home that we walked to church. The rectory was next door to the church and our priest led a beautiful liturgy. His life seemed to be quiet and serene. This planted an image in my mind of one day being a priest in a small stone church that was next to a quaint rectory. I imagined spending most of my day in my study in the rectory, smoking a pipe and reading. Once a day I would saunter over to the church to say Mass, and twice on Sunday. Other than an occasional counseling session, life would be quiet, contemplative and alternate between study and worship.
My curacy, instead of being in a small stone church, was in a very large, historic, downtown parish. And the church, rather than being quiet and contemplative, was always bustling with a large staff and much activity. I had an office in an old part of the church where monks used to live. It was a very wealthy parish and was known as the church to go to when you want to see and be seen. My job was to do everything that the Rector did not want to do. It was a privilege to serve in that beautiful and historic parish but the Rector and his wife were so dysfunctional that it soon became time to leave.
Providentially in the fall of 1996 I received a call from the Bishop of Tennessee to plant a church in Smyrna. The challenge was that there was no one waiting for me, I could not ask for help from nearby parishes (because they were upset with the Bishop for planting a church near them) and we had to be completely self-supporting in 5 years. To be honest I felt the call but I was terrified.
I moved to town first and Beth followed a few months later when she was able to secure a transfer in her job. I converted a second floor real estate office into a chapel/office/library. It was warm and inviting. All that was missing was the people.
It made sense to start with a Bible Study. And since at the time all I had was a Bible, a Prayer Book and a Processional Cross, I could not have started with worship even if I had wanted to. I went around town introducing myself to people, feeling very much like a Fuller Brush salesman. (This gave me a whole new respect for folks who make a living doing cold calls). I took out an ad in the newspaper announcing the Bible study, and I put up a poster in the Post Office. They kept taking it down and I kept putting it back up. Each of these attempts made contact with someone and so the first night of the Bible Study there were 12 in attendance. Someone said to me later, “Hey that number 12 worked the first time.”
As the little flock grew I added a class called “Anglican 101” to introduce Anglican life and worship. After a few months I had gathered an altar and a World War II Mass kit and was able to offer our first experience of worship. We almost lost one member when she saw me in vestments for the first time. She had grown up in a deeply anti Roman Catholic atmosphere. Those prejudices came roaring back when she saw me. She looked as though she had just seen the anti-Christ.
Once we outgrew the chapel we began to meet on Sunday afternoons in a Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It was there in the fall of 1997 that we had our formal launch. At the next Annual Convention the Diocese accepted us as a Mission.
The quiet and contemplative life that I expected as a child still was nowhere to be found. Planting a church is like starting a new business. When you are not working 60-80 hours per week, you are thinking, and often worrying, and always strategizing about your next move. It did help my prayer life however; that is if you can call yelling “Help!” to God about every 15 minutes a prayer life.
When an old Wal-Mart became vacant we moved into it. We did so both to have more room and to finally be able to offer Sunday morning worship and Christian Education. I learned a valuable lesson from that move. The outside of the building needs to match what is going on inside or you will be sending out wrong signals. Folks told me later that they knew about our presence in the old Wal-Mart but they did not visit then because they assumed that because we were in a strip mall it meant that we were not a traditional Anglican parish. To them a storefront meant drums and guitars and not smells and bells.In 2001 we built our church on 18 acres and in January of 2002 we walked the aisle of the Cathedral in Nashville to be accepted as a Parish in the Diocese. Then all hell broke loose.