How I Became a Priest

I often get asked how I came to be an ordained Episcopal priest. Sometimes I think it’s the fascination of meeting a man of the cloth, which is not something that happens everyday. Or maybe they wonder who it is that decides to be a priest (if such a thing were really my decision). Perhaps it’s just that they want to hear someone else’s journey to make connections with their own story of finding their vocation.

Whatever the reason, here it is, the story of how I became a priest.

Way back in Mrs. Sears 2nd grade class at South River Elementary, I wrote a theme. (I can’t help but think of Ralphie when I see that word.)  She must have asked us what we wished to be when we grew up—writing that in careful block print on the chalkboard— because mine is titled “My Wish,” and I don’t think I would have used the word “wish” without a prompt.  I still have that paper in my childhood scrapbook.

“When I grow up, I want to be a priest,” I wrote in big, slightly wiggly letters.  I talked about how I want people to know that God loves them and help them “sigh songs.”  I colored a church building in the space on the top of the page; it’s not my best artistic work, but I got the cross on the church steeple.  I also remember dressing up like a Roman Catholic priest the summer before that, wearing my white terry cloth robe and giving my parents a communion of Ritz crackers and grape juice as they patiently sat on my bed.  God love my parents for that.

Not long after I did that assignment, my parents—and by extension my brothers and sisters and me—turned Protestant.  We joined a charismatic church.

When I’m asked how that happened or why, I can only say that my father had a Damascus Road experience.  He had been out drinking (not uncommon in my young childhood) and came home drunk. As I remember it, in the midst of some shouting, he fell down on his knees and cried out to God.  He couldn’t go it alone any longer, and he experienced almost immediate change.

Some neighbors down the street, friends of my sister, invited us to go to church with them.  We did and in due time, we joined that Assemblies of God church.  That’s the church I grew up in.  I joyfully participated in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and attended their boys program, and when I was older, the Youth Group.  We attended church 3 times a week, and I joined the Bible Quiz team, memorizing and studying specific New Testament books and engaging in fierce competitions with other teens once a month.  I still felt called to be a minister, but in this new denomination which had become home.

I attended a non-denominational Christian college, and I began to question my theological beliefs.  I never left the Church, but mistrusted the emphasis my home church placed on what felt like outward appearances rather than a deep internal faith.  I dutifully attended an Assemblies of God church for much of my college life, and even did an internship at an A/G church with a youth minister.  It was that experience that made me question my faith more than anything else.  One of the tenants of faith is God’s divine physical healing.  I visited a woman who had cancer, and I spent some of my summer visiting with her and praying for her.  She ultimately died.

When I came back for my senior year of college, I wrote about that experience wondering when you could stop praying for a healing and ask instead for a quick death.  I felt that the pat answers often given by those in my denomination when it came to difficult situations didn’t deal with real life.  They would make claims about a lack of faith in that situation (although I don’t know if it was my lack of faith or hers). The essay I wrote became a national winner for a Christian magazine at the time (Campus Life, if you care), and I thought I was on track for a life as a writer and professor.

I attended a Congregational Church my senior year with my older sister.  It was a time of great spiritual awakening for me, recognizing that God could handle deep questions, that faith was more than outward appearances.

Sometime that year I discovered Frederick Buechner’s book Telling Secrets.  He writes in the introduction:

I have called this book Telling Secrets because I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell.  They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we all fear more than anything else.

It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are–even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.

It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going.  It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.

Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell.

When I read those words at the Barnes and Noble at Kenmore Square, I thought I could maybe be both writer and minister.  But that was a long time off.  Melissa and I met at the church I attended with my sister when she came home from college.  We dated for a couple of years and were married by the pastor there.  He knew we planned to live in Central Massachusetts, and suggested a church there, an Episcopal Church.

We scoffed at the idea.  Episcopalians were too liturgical, too liberal, too stiff.  But after trying at least 15 other churches, we attended. Actually, Melissa went alone.  I stayed home and cleaned our apartment that Palm Sunday morning in 1996 too exhausted from church-shopping.  But when she returned, she told me how great the preaching was and while she didn’t know the ins and outs of the liturgy, she felt it might be a good fit for us.

A few weeks later I joined her there, and I knew almost immediately that I had found a church home.  I remembered the structure of the service from my childhood days in the Roman Catholic church, especially having Eucharist each week.  And there was also an emphasis on good preaching and sharing the message of Christ just like from the many Protestant churches I had attended.  It was a marriage made in heaven.  Or, as I’ve learned since, a via media, a middle way.

Within the next year we had become the youth ministers.  The parish went through a transition, and a new priest arrived during our second year.  He was the one who had asked me if I had ever thought about the priesthood.  I told him about my theme for Mrs. Sears about how God had been working in the time that followed.  A year later I began a process of discernment to ordained ministry, and here I am now, ordained 9 years already.

I am grateful for every step of the journey, recognizing the gifts each one gave to me.  Each led me to this point, to this place where I am privileged to share in the spiritual journeys of so many and to share my journey as well.

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Katie McNabb

I really enjoyed this story of your calling!

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