October 20, 2022

Gathering of Leaders' Bi-Vocational Gathering

My seminary was a huge brick building circa 1960 or so. It was originally a seminary for Jesuit priests, and now houses a retirement community and nursing home for Catholic clergy, and functions as a large retreat center for many different groups.

One weekend a month for three years I would ride along as my friend Jan drove down the long, tree-lined drive. We’d park and lug a weekend’s worth of luggage inside, and before we were even in the doors our community would begin to form via shouted greetings in the parking lot and warm hugs in the lobby.

The Academy for Vocational Leadership is an Iona Collaborative school and is made up of many bi-vocational students and staff. On these long weekends we learned Church History, Systematic Theology, the Bible and literally dozens and dozens of practical courses, everything from music in small churches to Asset-Based Community Development.

Training in this program I knew, of course, that it was an odd way to approach formation. I knew this because I am the only person my diocese has ever put forward as a priestly candidate with this formation. I knew this because my own brother is a seminary-trained priest. What I didn’t know was how many of us there are--these weekend seminary people, these people who have existing and deep commitments in their lives that prevent them from pursuing a call to ordained ministry if moving out of state is a requirement. We are no less committed and no less called.

I met many of these people at the Gathering of Leaders first ever Bi-Vocational Gathering, held mid-September at the Oblate Renewal Center in San Antonio. I left the cold, wet autumn of Michigan to touch down on a 96 degree night, and the next morning was so moved to watch these leaders arrive, plucked from their lives for just a few days, for a time of rest and renewal.

Through many presentations, practical and spiritual, through shared worship and meals we came to learn that not one of us has only two vocations, and so multi-vocational became our new banner. There were cattle rancher/organist/priest folks mixed with authors and professors who are also clergy, moms and dads, grandparents. There was a veterinarian, a social worker, and many more.

On the second night of the gathering, some new friends and I went downtown San Antonio to seek out a light show art installation at the San Pedro Cathedral. We walked the wrong way along the River Walk, too busy talking to figure out that our sense of direction was muddled. We stopped in at a fabulous Tiki Bar for a fruity beverage around a shared table in the dark, on the banks of the San Antonio river, reportedly so shallow that you can stand up in the middle.

We found San Pedro just as the previous show was wrapping up and claimed a table with chairs chained to the middle of it. After the show we stood on the sidewalk, waiting for our Uber to take us back to the Oblate Renewal Center and amid the shadow and light of downtown laughed and learned and connected; all of us different, and yet holding two things in common - our call to serve God as ordained people, and as women.

The Gathering of Leaders seeks to literally gather the leaders of the church, lay and ordained, as we together imagine and work for the future of The Episcopal Church. And I hope I’m not the only one who left our retreat feeling so much effervescent hope, not only for where we’ve been but for where we’re going and who we can be. I hope I’m not the only person who learned that the wider church has a place for me, despite my nontraditional training, and I hope I’m not the only person who learned that I am most definitely not alone.

At this, my first gathering, I realized that one of the many things all of us had forgotten we’d lost over the last two years is the ability to be together in ways that are so uplifting. Seeing people in person, hearing their voices in real time and in the same room is a gift to each person and a gift to the church. As we worked, laughed and rested together we created a circle of ministers who share a common language and a common call, who share the same work and many of the same challenges.

I’m so grateful for these people and the new friendships forged, and I’m grateful for a diocese that took a chance on me, seeing the leader I was called to be almost before I saw it myself. And I’m so thankful for programs like the Iona Collaborative, on the frontline of visioning what the Church needs and where it can go, sowing seeds of hope for the ushering in of the realm of God.