Somewhere in my training for priesthood, a teacher told my class there are three professions that attract people with the biggest egos: acting, journalism, and the clergy. Also being a former journalist, I figure my next stop is either Hollywood or humility training. The professor’s warning jangled in my head at my new church this morning as a broadly smiling member named Lou handed me a shiny coffee cup. “Hey, check out your new mug,” he said. Vaguely remembering hearing a conversation a few weeks before by members planning to restock the supply of St. Paul’s personalized coffee mugs, I looked down, noticing a large Episcopal Church shield covering the side of the mug. “Nice, looks good,” I said. “No, look at the other side,” he said, expectantly. I rolled the cup over in my hand, lines of text coming into view. A welcome, the church name, our Internet site, e-mail address and phone, and, finally, at the bottom in BIG BLUE lettering clear as day, was my name, “Rev. Ashley Cook.”
A couple of nervous reactions dashed through my head. “Oh no, what did you guys do?” I said to him, half-teasing, half-mortified. They had ordered a lot of mugs, he said. A LOT. Soon to finish my studies for priesthood in bi-vocational ministry, I’d only been assigned to the small, rural church in the deep pine forestland of East Texas for four short months. Egotistical is a label and a trait clergy have to guard against, and it probably wouldn’t help in that department if folks thought I’d put my own name on our mugs, I thought.
But then I took a second look – at Lou’s face, not the mug. His warm expression, his nodding approval, his big smile. These were signs of welcome, and I’d almost missed them. These were indications of a congregation ready to share both themselves and their new clergy with the wider community. Ironically, I’d almost let my ego about trying to control other people’s impressions of me overtake the open invitation to build a relationship with my congregation. Lou and his wife Carol, among the most faithful members at St. Paul’s, would shortly be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in the service that morning. The mugs were a symbol, I realized, of a congregation in it for the long-haul, stepping forward in faith to offer their part of a commitment to a long-term pastoral relationship. Swallowing my ego, I gripped the cup tightly, suddenly very conscious of its meaning. “Thank you, so much,” I said to Lou.
People are drawn to the Episcopal Church because of its connectedness. We are the people of One Bread, One Cup, as we say of our Communion practice of kneeling together to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, in the form of wafers and a shared cup. We are the Church expressing the transformational love of God, who draws all people to himself in Jesus Christ. And yet, a symptom of rural church life is that small mission congregations often go unconnected for years, without the guidance and pastoral care of having their own clergy, being fortunate if they have a series of well-meaning but short-term supply priests. Seldom having an opportunity to settle into a focused pastoral relationship, congregations may begin to feel neglected. Out of that neglect can grow a reluctance to evangelize, to build relationships in their community, or to foster a pastoral relationship when a newly assigned incoming clergy finally does arrive on the church doorstop. Bi-vocational clergy support in rural areas remains in short supply, which challenges the Church to re-imagine rural church structuring. It could be that an answer lies in our own connectedness.
To their credit, I received a warm and enthusiastic welcome on my arrival to St. Paul’s in September, from both the congregation and the local ministerial alliance. Still, there were questions asked of me regarding the longevity of my stay, most who asked assuming I was only placed there for training purposes, and that I would leave after graduation in June. Any reluctance to committing a lot of resources and energy to my arrival would certainly have been understandable. While it was yet unclear in their minds whether this would be a long- or short-term relationship, my experience of Episcopalians and their neighbors in East Texas was still that they are loyal and tightly-knit, whole-hearted and generous in their welcome. This innate spirit of strength and hospitality speaks of what may very well be the as-yet untapped full potential in small churches to creatively host and flourish God’s presence in their communities.
This morning as I looked at Lou, smiling at me over a new coffee mug, it was this welcoming gesture that reminded me of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing us all together, to glorify God and to build up this corner of his Kingdom. Putting my worries aside, I thanked for Lord for his mercy, and heartily embraced the congregation’s tangible commitment to sharing ministry at St. Paul’s, evident in the shiny stacks of coffee cups now gracing the Parish Hall.