Utah's Episcopal clergy grows even as church shrinks

Published June 18, 2010 6:00 am
Ordinations » Faith gains five new deacons, but paid positions can be hard to land.
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Incense, candles and joyful singing filled St. Mark's Cathedral last weekend as the Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish celebrated one of her last official acts as Episcopal bishop of Utah: the ordination of five new deacons, four of them bound for the priesthood next year.

It's almost an embarrassment of riches for the small diocese, and one that Irish, who is retiring in the fall, takes as a sign of the church's health.

"We are poised in the best possible way," Irish says, "to engage those who want to think their way through their faith."

And yet even as an increasing number of Utah Episcopalians feel called to the ordained ministry, the church has fewer paid positions to offer. Two of the four new deacons who hoped to land paying clerical jobs have not found one.

Like mainline Protestant denominations throughout the United States, the Utah Episcopal Church finds its membership shrinking even as the number of seminarians and those seeking to be ministers is growing.

The Utah church had about 6,000 members when Irish became bishop. Today, it has about 5,200 members, a 13 percent drop in a period during which the state's population rose by 37 percent. On any given Sunday, Irish's replacement, the Rev. Scott Hayashi, has noted, about 1,600 are in the pews of Utah's 25 Episcopal congregations.

This unusually large class of new deacons

is just the start, says the Rev. Mary June Nestler, the diocese's canon for ministry formation.

At least seven other Utah Episcopalians are in seminaries out of state. And the in-state program Nestler began three years ago, the Utah Ministry Program, has another nine students who eventually will seek ordination.

According to Irish, an additional 18 were signed up for Saturday's Day of Discovery at the diocese, a gathering of those considering the ministry.

Like many entering the ordained ministry in recent years, the five new Utah deacons are middle-aged.

"Everyone went into it with the hope that it might be their whole life," Nestler says. "We had to be clear with them ... that that might not be possible. We said, 'Don't quit your day job.' "

Although paid positions are hard to come by, rural areas often need clergy and the diocese needs fill-ins for sick or vacationing priests, she says. "We have plenty of work for clergy to do."

De borah Jeans Hughes-Habel

Deborah Jean Hughes-Habel, 58, says the slim job market has been a bit of a shock.

A registered nurse, she quit her job to earn a master's degree in divinity at Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Now she expects to do unpaid work for a parish and find a part-time, flexible nursing job. She expects to be ordained a priest next year.

"I don't feel at all discouraged by it," Hughes-Habel says. "I can serve the church in many ways."

Hughes-Habel, a native of the Midwest and a practicing Roman Catholic for much of her life, became an Episcopalian in 1991 after a divorce.

She can point to the exact moment she first felt a call to the priesthood: A patient at LDS Hospital sought her out for a blessing, of sorts, and she felt the Holy Spirit moving powerfully.

"With that experience, I knew there was something out there in the church and I was called to be part of it as Christ's representative."

Susan Krueger Fischer

Susan Krueger Fischer, 61, does not argue with friends who say she will bring a particular gift to those she ministers to as a deacon and, later, a priest.

"I have lived in the wilderness," she says. "I can step out into those dark times."

Though baptized a Presbyterian when young, Fischer says she spent 40 years wandering. She felt connected to God, but was not rooted in a particular faith community. In recent years, she also endured breast cancer.

A registered nurse, she entered the chaplaincy training program at St. Mark's Hospital in 1996 and, through that, became enthralled with Episcopal liturgy and worship, and joined the church.

Fischer completed the two-year Utah Ministry Program and then spent the past year at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, earning a certificate in theological studies.

She will work as a deacon at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Clearfield, an unpaid position. Though she had hoped for a full-time ministerial job, she is open to whatever God has in store.

"It's about trust and it's about faith and it's about surrender and letting go and letting God do the work that God has already started."

Janice Kotuby

Janice Kotuby, 50, is a lifelong Episcopalian who cannot remember the first time she felt called to the ministry.

"I spent a long time ... trying to tell God no."

At first, Kotuby thought she might be a permanent deacon, retaining her job as a soil scientist at Utah State University while working for her Logan parish in her spare time. Ultimately, she realized she had to answer the call to the priesthood.

Kotuby, who already had a doctorate, earned a master's degree in divinity at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif.

She will leave her USU position of 20 years at month's and become curate at St. James Episcopal Church in Midvale, a paid position. She expects to be ordained a priest next year.

Blane Frederik van Pletzen-Rands

Blane Frederik van Pletzen-Rands, 50, says his path to the Episcopal priesthood began in an unusual place: the LDS priesthood.

Reared an Anglican in South Africa, he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a 17-year-old. He served a Mormon mission in Manchester, England, and later taught seminary in Davis County and rhetoric at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

He was in his late 30s when he began "looking for theological attachment to my colonial roots" and returned to Anglican communion via the Episcopal Church.

"God has called me home," he says.

Pletzen-Rands earned a master's degree in divinity at the General Theological Seminary in New York and is a novice in the church's Brotherhood of St. Gregory.

Though ordained a deacon in Utah, he will become a priest in Buffalo, N.Y., next year.

He started a new job this week as canon for children, youths and pastoral care at St. Paul's Cathedral in Buffalo.

Stephen Sturgeon

Stephen Sturgeon, 42, is the only one of the group who intends to remain a deacon.

"As a deacon ... you bring the concerns of the world to the attention of the church and you bring the message of hope in the church to the world," says Sturgeon, who has a doctorate in American history and works as a special-collections librarian at USU.

Sturgeon's spiritual journey still amazes him. Though raised somewhat of a secular Christian, he essentially was an atheist when he arrived in the Beehive State in 1999.

"There is something about moving to Utah that makes you very aware of your religious identity or lack thereof," he says with a laugh.

He and his wife began visiting churches and found a home at St. John's Episcopal Church in Logan. He was baptized in 2001, and within a few years, the former pastor invited him to consider becoming a deacon.

"It was external validation of something I had squelched," Sturgeon says.

He went through the two-year Utah Ministry Program offered by the diocese and will serve as an unpaid deacon at St. John's.

"I take where I am today as solid evidence of God having a very profound sense of humor and irony," Sturgeon says. "There is no other explanation."


Utah Ministry Program

Utah's Episcopal Diocese began this program three years ago to train those called to ministry but unable to quit their jobs or move their families to attend an out-of-state seminary.

The two-year class provides the depth of a master's of divinity degree program, but not the breadth, explains the Rev. Mary June Nestler, who was hired by the diocese to create the program. Nestler is the former dean and president of the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont in California.

Program participants gather for three days each month and are taught by teachers with graduate theological training. The program does not offer degrees.

The current class has 16 members, nine of whom hope eventually to be ordained. It has attracted students from eastern Oregon and Idaho. It also is open to those of other faiths.

About the deacons and priests

The Episcopal Church has two types of ordained clergy: deacons and priests.

Deacons preach the gospel and help priests provide pastoral care. They also focus on community outreach. Priests preach, teach and are the sacramental leaders. Only a priest can consecrate the Eucharist, absolve members of sin or give a sacramental blessing.

A man or woman called to the priesthood first is ordained a transitional deacon. After six months or a year, he or she is ordained to the priesthood.

Those called to the diaconate but not the priesthood are ordained permanent deacons. In Utah, they generally have day jobs and serve in unpaid, part-time parish posts.



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