The Fragility of Skin
Post Author: The Rev. Danáe Ashley
I step out onto the roof balcony off my church office and shield my eyes from the sunlight. On a clear day, I can see Mt. Rainier. Looking out over the landscape, I am so full of emotion that my skin feels tight and tender. I have emerged from my molting season into a new place, a new way of being. I am living into the questions I have been asking about the church, my place in it, and myself. I tentatively make my way down a path that few have traveled before me—a fragile place, full of freshness.
This is a path of intentionality toward a way of life. Early Christians called following Jesus “The Way” because it was a manner of living that was different than what came before. This idea resonates with me because after much thought, prayer, and self-reflection, I sought a part-time position in the church. I was not forced into this choice through life circumstance—no one was dying or needed to be taken care of—except for myself. I had previously been the rector (senior pastor) of a small church in the suburbs of a large city. It was soul-crushing work. (You can read about it in my previous Fidelia’s Sisters article The Molting Season.) When my husband and I decided to pursue our dream of moving to the West Coast, I was offered a choice whether to do the same dance with finding a full-time position in the competitive market of the church or to reflect on the values of my life and design something that was risky—both for me and for the culture of church. I chose the latter.
I am an Episcopal priest and therefore work in a particular church polity. My husband got a job as a church musician in the Seattle area, so as I began to craft the ministry description I would send to the bishop of that diocese, I asked my then-bishop for advice. I needed my vision to be communicated in language that a bishop who neither knew me nor my history would be able to understand and translate into his world. With that help, I wrote out specifically what I was looking for and what gifts and skills I would bring to a part-time position. I envisioned a job as an Associate Priest on staff, 15-25 hours a week, and two (yes, only two) Sundays a month. I already had experience with doing three out of four Sundays when I was in a three-quarter-time position, but such an idea was radical in that diocese and I was blessed with my bishop’ support in pursuing it. I had heard that a few dioceses had adopted this new standard for part-time ministry, but I knew that this was not the case for the majority. I also knew that even if a diocese accepted this as a positive development, individual congregations could view it in a very different light.
I sent my letter via email to the bishop of the new diocese after my then-bishop had talked to him about me. It was important for me to have that personal introduction from my bishop. God is in relationships and I knew that my vision would happen through the work of the Holy Spirit in relationship with people who could catch the fire of my idea and be open to making it work. The new bishop had to buy into a new way of doing church, or it would not happen. Thankfully, he was receptive and the doors opened from there. Initially, he passed it on to his transitional ministry officer who informed me that there were not any part-time openings at that time. Then, an hour later, she emailed me again saying, “as the Holy Spirit would have it, I just had a rector call and ask me for an experienced part-time priest.” Bingo. This was what I was looking for, but I wondered if the rector would be open to the specific way I was asking to do part-time. She was, and so was the Vestry (church board). After a couple of Skype interviews, meeting once in-person after I moved, and taking a month to settle in, here I was on the balcony of my new church office, taking in my new landscape, feeling my new skin.
The most fragile parts of this skin I am in are the monetary issues (part-time work means part-time pay) and not having insurance paid for by the church. My husband and I knew that these would be challenges, but agreed that we would work them out. He works half-time at his church so that he is free to take freelance work as a professional musician. I will finish my degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in December and wanted the freedom of part-time work to allow me to put more energy in that direction. My hope is to build up a manageable, flexible private practice once my schooling is finished. My stress level while simultaneously being a three-quarter-time rector, going to school, and doing an internship exhausted me emotionally and physically. I suffered two miscarriages. Working part-time allows me breathing space to have the energy to one day, hopefully, welcome a child.
Part-time work as a minister in a church is not for everyone, but it is certainly for me. I have found that being an experienced priest on staff is a gift—I’m not wondering what it would be like to have “my own church” because I’ve already done it. Instead, I have the time and space to really listen to what ministry God is calling me, in this place, right here and right now. I also feel like I can give better pieces of myself to the work that is emerging. In the future, I would love to work in a congregation that would be open to having two part-time priests, each working two Sundays and a couple days a week, instead of one full-time rector. There is value in being able to work in my areas of strength and, with the time restraint being a natural boundary, being able to let other things go on which I may have spent energy uselessly if I were full-time.
The reality is that the way we used to “do church” is shifting. Some parishes are still doing fine in the old model, but many are struggling. Ministers and congregations are grieving this shift and wondering what it means to be a church if the church they are in is no longer what they know. My position is one that can ease the transition—it is somewhat familiar, but different enough to create a learning curve for us all. It opens the door to fresh expressions of God’s presence in our world.
Behold! I am a new creation in Christ—and my fragile skin is proof.
Image by: The Rev. Danáe Ashley
Used with permission
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