At the 20th anniversary of his diaconal ordination, the Reverend Eric Long looks back over his time with three different communities of faith.
Wednesday, June 26 wasn’t just a normal Wednesday for me. It was a day of reflection, and truthfully awe in the winding ways my life has taken. That is because that day marked the 20th anniversary of my ordination as a transitional deacon in The Episcopal Church (Episcopal priests are first ordained deacons and then generally six months to a year later, priests. My ordination to the priesthood happened on January 15, 2000).
To get to that place, my life had already taken any number of crazy turns, which should have told me to hold on for all that was to come. But who can comprehend how God will guide one’s life once the Spirit grabs ahold of you? To get to that date 20 years ago, I answered a powerful call to ministry my senior year of college. I gave up a pilot slot in the U.S. Air Force (and fulfilled my service obligation instead as a chaplain in the Navy), moved to the frozen tundra of Kansas City for seminary, left the denomination of my childhood, became an Episcopalian, attended an additional year of seminary at Sewanee to become “Anglicanized” and then moved back to Kansas City for whatever the bishop would have me do.
What the bishop decided to have me do is something I’m fairly sure no bishop should ask a “baby priest” (as we sometimes call them) to do: start a brand-new church from scratch.
A mix of exuberance, trust in God and naivete gave me the guts to say yes. St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri is the continuing community that was born out of that “yes.” That time in ministry was magical, as I had to learn literally every aspect of the life of a church, from putting together an altar guild to buying the linens for them to use, from transforming a funeral home into a church (yes, that’s where we worshiped initially!) to making sure the kids at Sunday School didn’t go through the wrong doors. We were doing church without a safety net, and it built confidence and trust in me that has travelled far beyond my seven years doing that ministry.
I left there for St. Christopher’s, Pensacola, Florida, which, at the time, was a 50-year-old congregation which had lost a couple generations of younger people and was on a path to extinction if something didn’t change. The great thing about them is they wanted to change, and were willing to make room for new people and families with kids – they just needed some guidance on how to get there. My wife Shelley, a teacher, took over the children’s ministry and what came forth was all but a miracle.
This church was transformed into the church you wanted to visit if you had young children or youth. That became possible by way of a church full of surrogate grandparents, with tons of activities for all people. This church looked into the abyss and knew that God had other plans for them. St. Christopher’s remains a thriving, vibrant church, most certainly not on a road to extinction.
St. John’s is the third congregation I have led. At first, it was the most challenging for me simply because I had always built things and St. John’s appeared to have it all. Initially, it took a second to figure out that I wasn’t just supposed to maintain this church but to guide it into a new future as well. Over my five years here, we have rebuilt the children and youth programs with new, renovated ministry spaces for these groups, put together educational, social and worship opportunities for every age demographic within the church, shifted our focus away from mere program busyness toward a preference for going deeper and doing it together.
Most importantly, during a tumultuous time in our society, we have built a community that offers the all too rare opportunity for people to be together, despite ideological differences, and worship and minister as one. Next up is tackling a decades-old problem few even know about, which is making sure that our church campus, which is faithfully used not just for us but generously shared with our neighbors throughout the valley, has the resources to continue to be maintained into perpetuity.
Twenty years ago, as I entered that funeral home to set up church for the first time, if you would have told me I’d be living in Roanoke, Va. ministering to a historic downtown church with so many gifts for ministry, I don’t think I would have believed you. I wonder where the next 20 years will take us.
Published in the August 2019 issue of The Record.