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Aug. 3—Reflections on Graduating the NJ School for Ministry

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While Bishop Stokes is on vacation this week, guest contributor Steve Welch, Canon for Communications, fills in with “Bishop’s Corner.”

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer p. 236

NJ School for Ministry students sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in its February “Gathering Weekend” in Feb. 2020.

Next Saturday, eight friends and I—siblings in Christ—will become the first group to complete the three-year NJ School for Ministry.

Three years ago, when the school first convened, we weren’t friends. Most of us had never met. Our time in the School for Ministry has changed us all. It has certainly changed me.

The diocese launched the school under the direction of the Rev. Genevieve Bishop in August of 2019, part of Bishop Stokes’ vision for preparing people for ministry as lay people, deacons, or priests. The school is part of the bishop’s goal of creating “entry points for growing ministry,” he has said. It is similar to schools created in many dioceses to provide a non-traditional path to ordained ministry without the requirement of attending a three-year, residential seminary, but also without sacrificing theological, spiritual, or academic education that seminary provides.

The school was featured last year in an Episcopal News Service article on such alternative paths to ordination, with the article saying:

Increasingly, dioceses are turning to local programs and Anglican partners to train leaders who feel called to ordained ministry and for whom ordination might not otherwise be an option, whether that’s due to time or financial constraints or family commitments.

Bishop Stokes ordains Gerry Welch and five other graduates of the School for Deacons/School for Ministry to the vocational diaconate in Aug. 2021

In 2020, the school merged with the diocese’s School for Deacons, bringing in the existing class to spend their last year of training for the vocational diaconate in courses with the rest of us. That class of deacons—including my wife, the Rev. Gerry Welch—quickly became a beloved part of our school community, and we were all joyful to be part of their ordination service last year. In the year since, they have all established vibrant, giving ministries across the diocese. It was perhaps the proudest moment of my life, watching Gerry be ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons in Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I wept with joy.

As we have so many journeys, Gerry and I have taken this long journey together, usually with her in the lead. Deacon Gerry, some call her, or Nurse Gerry (she’s an OB nurse at a women’s clinic), but to me she’s just Gerry, the woman who has put up with me (off and on) for the past 42 years and who has consented to being my wife for the past (nearly) 27.

It was Gerry who really introduced me to the Episcopal Church, back around 1994 when we rekindled the romance of our late teens. We had both been raised Roman Catholic, and since “graduating” from my confirmation class at the age of 12, I had lived the next almost 20 years with God not being a strong presence in my life. Gerry helped changed that for me.

I was just beginning to explore my feelings about God, wasn’t sure whether I believed. Gerry’s courageous faith helped me see. We joined a charismatic Episcopal church in Austin, Texas—St. Christopher’s—and for the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by a community of love and faith, and by a God I knew loved me and cared for me. I, the cynical agnostic, found myself going on church retreats, becoming active in the life of the church and its community. I discussed my religious worldview with a retired bishop, the Rt. Rev. “Ben” Benitez, and discovered a senior cleric with a true love for God, but who also valued intellect and thought. The Episcopal Church was home.

Gerry and I on the Wildwood boardwalk in 1980 at at her ordination in 2021

When we struggled to conceive our first daughter, and then Gerry was confined to bedrest for the last three months of pregnancy, it was our St. Christopher’s family who took care of us, praying with and for us, feeding us, even cleaning our home. When our daughter was born, we named her “Hope” and the first place I needed to go was St. Christopher’s where I held up a photo of our perfect child and cried with people who loved me.

That was where and when God first tapped me on the shoulder, putting in my heart that perhaps I might be called to ordained ministry, to the priesthood.

It was an audacious notion, the idea that God might want something like that from you. And even though I was in my mid-30s, I don’t think I was mature enough for it yet. And the practical concerns daunted me. I had at this point two young daughters to care for. I was just beginning the highest earning years of my career in publishing. How could I quit my job, leave my home, and enter a three-year residential seminary program? I was not ready to put that level of trust in God, to give up control and to have faith that if I were to do God’s will, God would take care of my family.

In my sermon this past week, I put the feeling this way:

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).”

Idolatry, there’s a word for you. Putting something in the place rightly reserved for God. We can make idols of anything, anything. Sometimes it’s money. For some people it can even be the Bible, or the institution of the church, making those things more important than God himself.

For me, it was control and security. Growing up surrounded by alcoholics and drug addicts, those are two things you never have. They were two things I desperately wanted. They became the things I valued above everything. The church was never something I could give much trust to. And God? God didn’t interest me that much. God expected me to put my life in his hands, do what he wanted me to do rather than what I wanted. No, thank you.

So, I put aside the notion of a call to the priesthood.

But God never sets us aside.

We moved back to New Jersey, to be closer to family and to the place we had grown up, even to the place Gerry and I met, down the shore, when she was 16 and I was 17.

We joined several Episcopal churches, eventually finding our family at St. Barnabas in Monmouth Junction. We truly became “church people,” active in the full life of the church. Sometimes, I admit, I needed Gerry to drag me out of bed on a Sunday morning to get to service. Sometimes, though, it was me dragging her.

As a community supports us in our faith, Gerry and I supported each other, continue to support each other. One year, as a team, Gerry and I were awarded “The St. Barnabas Award,” for service to the church. We’ve always been a team, but she’s usually been the captain.

Years passed, and that little call from God I had pushed into the back of my head would sometimes ask for attention. But it was never the time. It was never the practical thing. I still couldn’t find that level of trust.

In 2018, Gerry answered the call and entered the School for Deacons. Before the School for Ministry, those seeking ordination to the diaconate in the diocese had to wait sometimes three or more years for the next class to start, before they could even begin the three years of education required before ordination. She had decided two years earlier that this was what God expected of her.

As in most things, I’m slower than my wife. I was working in New York City, running book publishing for a large, worldwide scientific organization.

I hated that job. It felt so meaningless, so empty.

I started looking around for a mission-focused job, something to use my skills, talent, and experience to benefit something or someone meaningful.

And I figured I could make a little less money. Not too much. I still had to take care of the practical matters, the worldly things. The kids were in college, and we had the mortgage to pay.

The thing is, I couldn’t find anything. Everything either wanted different experience than I had, or paid so little I didn’t see how I could swing it. And nothing that I was passionate about.

So I kept working at the job I hated. And I kept looking.

And when the former Canon for Communications for the diocese left, I figured one way to help was to volunteer my time while they found someone who could take on the role, probably somebody young and inexperienced, for whom the relatively low salary would be attractive.

So I did that, reached out to the diocese to volunteer my time, and I was eagerly accepted.

Three days later, the job I hated—the job I was desperately trying to get out of—was eliminated.

And I panicked.

I’ve had a total of two panic attacks in my life, and they were both related to my career. I was having one now. Here I was in my mid-50s, two kids in college, and more bills than I could really keep up with on the two incomes my wife and I brought home. And now we had one. I freaked out. Hyperventilated. Close to tears. All the safety, all the security, all the financial stability I’d built up for decades was gone.

And then I finally—finally—did what I should have been doing all along. I asked God what he wanted me to do.

I’ve never heard God’s voice, but I have heard God form words in my mind, if you see the difference. I didn’t get the words this time, either, but I got two very clear things from God: the sense that I had nothing to worry about, and the sense that I was being really dense if I couldn’t tell what he wanted me to do.

But I wasn’t being dense. I was being stubborn. I was trying to hold on to control when God was very clearly telling me that I was not in control. God was. With that realization, a feeling of such peace and calm descended upon me. This was right. This was the path.

I was a little afraid to talk to Gerry. How could I tell her that God wanted me to take a job that paid half what I used to make? That’s nuts, right?

But she told me, “of course you need to do this! We’ll figure it out.” I have never known a more faithful person than my wife. If God told her to lift a mountain, she’d say, “Steve, God said we need to lift that mountain.” And then we’d do it, somehow. Together.

As the months in my new job passed, God continued to work in me. And then, as I kneeled in prayer in the front pew of St. John’s Cathedral in Denver (at the 2019 Episcopal Communicators Conference), the Spirit descended on me in power. The message that came to me was clear:

“What are you waiting for?”

Even before leaving Denver, I emailed my rector, Canon Valerie Balling, “I need to talk to you when I get back.”

We talked about my call, and she agreed, God was calling me to the priesthood. She also told me about the new NJ School for Ministry and recommended I check it out.

Bishop Stokes (far left) and potential students in the School for Ministry listen to an orientation session led by the Rev. Genevieve Bishop (right) in 2019.

I didn’t know it, but at the orientation session, I was meeting people who would become family, siblings in Christ seeking to serve his church and his people.

We’ve grown together, academically, spiritually. We all have our individual paths. Some are committed lay leaders. Others are called to be vocational deacons. Some others, like me, hear a call to the priesthood. We’re walking the path together though. Our community has grown over time, as new students enter the school at the start of any of the three school terms each year.

We’ve met nearly every Saturday for 5-1/2 hours of classes on Zoom (starting a year before that became a thing for most people). Zoom lets us come together wherever we are.

But still, we’ve also come together in person (whenever the pandemic allowed) several times a year for “Gathering Weekends,” in which our focus was to build community and to grow in faith together.

It’s not been easy. Each of the graduating students has taken 24 10-week courses in the areas of scripture, theology, church history, and practice of ministry, as well as many seminars, and other formation experiences, taught by faculty from prestigious seminaries as well as our own clergy and lay leaders here in the diocese.

Each of us leads Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer services online, services that are open to everyone. (If you’d like info on joining, please email me.) Some of us have already completed one of two internships in a church setting required prior to ordination.

Many of us have taken a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), 400 hours of training and active pastoral care in a health care setting. For me, this was one of the most transformative times of my life, caring for the spiritual health of hospital patients and workers at the height of the pandemic, when even family couldn’t come visit. I saw death and life and felt God working in both, and everywhere in between. It was also one of the most tiring times of my life, 15 hours a week of CPE on top of around 60–70 hours of work for the diocese, 5 hours of class (plus homework), plus being a dad and a husband and a homeowner, and just finding time to sit quietly with my God. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

School for Ministry students attend a rally against gun violence during their “Gathering Weekend” June 11, 2022

It’s required hard work, flexibility (my friend and classmate Tiff Campbell’s motto of Semper Gumby—always flexible—has been essential), and a faith and trust in God that I did not used to be capable of.

Next week, the first nine students to complete all three years of the NJ School for Ministry will be done. For some, the next steps are uncertain, as we continue to walk in the discernment process. Some will be lay leaders, others deacons, some others priests. For all of us, though, we leave the school different than we came to it. More committed, more knowledgeable, more loving, more devoted, aware of the gifts of the Spirit given to us and dedicated to using them for the glory of God. I personally am thankful to Bishop Stokes, to the Rev. Gen Bishop, to our teachers, to my darling wife Deacon Gerry, and most especially to my sibling students in the school, not just the first nine but to everyone who has been part of the school, for walking with me and making me a truer and more faithful servant of the living God.