Small and Rural Churches
Sent Out Two by Two
Editor's Note: This article is written in first-person narrative by the authors, accurately presenting their experience in their own voice.
In 2013, newly ordained and a mother of two children under four, Kimberlee Auletta was appointed to serve three-quarter time as priest in charge of a church in the South Midwood section of Brooklyn, New York. In 2014, Sarah Kooperkamp, with a newborn and having served as an associate priest, was appointed to serve three-quarter time as priest in charge of a church in Windsor Terrace Brooklyn. Over the next two years, the two spoke two to three times a week about the challenges they faced in their under-resourced, under-staffed, struggling churches with great potential – the challenges of loneliness, building repairs, low budgets, dysfunctional church-family systems that had been left to flourish under prior priests, and disempowered, unhealthy lay leadership. They thought back to their time together at Union Theological Seminary and the collaborative spirit that was fostered there; they talked about their desire for discipleship and transformation in their own lives and in the lives of their parishioners; and they couldn’t see, being so exhausted and overwhelmed, how being solo pastors would let them get beyond the challenges that were crippling them to the joy of spreading and living out the Good News.
And then in Winter 2016, while Sarah was on maternity leave and as Kimberlee left her parish, they were given a gift.
Kimberlee: I knew for my own health, my relationship with my husband, and for my children, I had to finally leave the parish I was at. I knew I didn’t want to be a solo pastor again. More importantly, I wanted to work collaboratively to build a church of disciples. Sarah and I had been talking for over two years about how much more fun, joyful, creative and productive we would be if we could work together. After being alone for three years, I knew whatever I was giving up being the one “in charge” would be worth it in order to work with someone who I deeply respect and felt I could partner with for many years to come.
Sarah: I had thought after being an associate priest that I wanted to be in charge. Or that I wanted some autonomy. And I did like many aspects of being the solo priest-in=charge at Holy Apostles, but I also felt like I wasn’t fully functioning. I knew I could be a better priest and have a more balanced life. I felt like I wasn’t able to plan, to teach, to think big. I wasn’t even praying enough. I realized that my problem hadn't been autonomy; I came to see that what I had really wanted was collaboration. When Kimberlee and I thought about working together the thing I worried most about was my own ego. I was already here at Holy Apostlesand I wondered if I really could share and give up my own sense of “I am helping grow this church” and “I am the priest.”
Bishop Lawrence Provenzano listened to their proposal about being co-Priests-in-Charge, each continuing serving three-quarter time so that they could be the priests, moms, partners, and people they hoped they could be and believed God wished for them. Bishop Provenzano was willing to invest and take a chance on this new shared model of ministry.
Five months in: More fun, more prayer, more time for Jesus
Kimberlee: I get excited almost every day coming to church now, especially Sunday. There is a lot to do but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. I feel that I am working hard but it’s so much more rewarding. We have more time to brainstorm, to plan, to talk about God’s call for our community and to pray. Praying is central to our partnership. Jesus is central to our partnership. While that might seem basic, when I was alone, it was easy to forget that and just get caught up in the busy-ness and the business of church.
Sarah: Since the day I arrived here three years ago, Holy Apostles has been a welcoming, Spirit-filled place, just waiting to welcome people from the neighborhood and beyond. But I had never had the time or energy, dealing with building issues and just week-to -week tasks, to help the congregation turn that welcoming spirit outward. And now I am not alone in a basement office hoping that a parishioner might drop by just so that there would be someone to talk to. I am engaged in constant creative conversations where new ideas develop and new thoughts occur to me – ones that I can follow through on with a partner. I am able through talking and praying to better understand what God is doing in my life, and more ready to share that good news.
Decisions big and small
Sarah: But who is in charge? People wanted to know when we began. God! Jesus! We gave all kinds of great answers. Both of us! And that's really been true. We get to talk a lot and figure it out together. It feels a lot less random than decisions used to feel for me. I still go home thinking of work--but it is less dreading carrying the weight and more a feeling of wanting to continue the discussion. The hard stuff is still hard but I don't feel overwhelmed by it or alone in it anymore.
Kimberlee: When I was alone, decisions were much more difficult to make – or I made them in a vacuum. Folks, especially our clergy colleagues, had a hard time understanding that Sarah and I were going to make decisions together, that one of us didn’t have the final say but that we were going to work through and model what partnership really is. It’s not always easy and we don’t always agree, but I always trust that we make space for each other and for God to be heard in our process.
Ultimately, Sarah and Kimberlee hope they are modeling the type of shared ministry for their parishioners they believe Jesus calls us all to.
Kimberlee Auletta and Sarah Kooperkamp are co-Priests-in-charge at Church of the Holy Apostles in Brooklyn, NY.
- Equal Partners by Donald Romanik, Vestry Papers, July 2013
- From Challenge to Opportunity by Susan Elliott, Vestry Papers, May 2016
- Shared Leadership by Beckett Stokes, Vestry Papers, July 2014
- By-laws & Shared Ministry, Part 1: Unburdening the Vestry by Greg Syler, ECF Vital Practices Blog
- By-laws & Shared Ministry, Part 2: The Difference Between Vestry and Congregation by by Greg Syler, ECF Vital Practices Blog
- Bylaws & Shared Ministry, Part 3: Entrusting and Empowering Parish Staff by Greg Syler, ECF Vital Practices Blog