by the Rev. Fred Devall, Rector, St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Metairie
All clergy are required to engage in some form of continuing education. Over the years I have been to several excellent conferences, leadership programs, and seminars, but none have been as rewarding for me as the Doctor of Ministry Program.
Years ago as a St. Martin’s Episcopal School student, our chaplain was participating in the D. Min. program at Sewanee. That person was the late Rev. Dr. Ralph M. Byrd, Jr. Ralph loved being in that program and spoke of it often while he was in it and for years after. As a result of his liturgical studies, he initiated two rites of passage at the school that are still in use, and in fact, have become traditions- Senior Chapel and the passing of the light from the seniors to the juniors at the Awards Day ceremony.
With that positive impression lurking in the background, I had been eager for many years to participate in a D. Min. program through one of the many seminaries in the U.S. or Canada, but the timing was not right. Between projects of the parish church and family life, it kept being put off, until I was able to begin work in 2017 at The School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee.
After examining many programs of Episcopal seminaries and of other denominations, I found that the Sewanee program best suited me. As an undergraduate alumnus, I was more than happy to be returning to such a beautiful setting, but the main reason I chose Sewanee was the timetable. Sessions begin on the second Monday of June and conclude the last Friday in June. All work must be submitted by September 1. Because our parish church is so influenced by the school calendar, this scheduling has been just right.
The Sewanee program calls for four summers in residence with two classes each term. The fifth summer is reserved for research and writing one’s thesis, with defense coming the following spring followed by graduation in May. If all goes according to the normal schedule, I should graduate in May of 2022.
Being away from my family for three weeks is difficult, but our children are at a stage in life when this is not too burdensome on them or my wife, Lisa. For the parish, summer is by far our least busy time of year. Being gone in the summer is possible because we have very little programming beyond regular Sunday worship, and have the assistance of our Priest-Associate Fr. Jeff Millican.
One thing to know is that a Doctor of Ministry is not the same as a Ph. D. This means a D. Min. will not qualify one to teach at the university level, but it is a degree that is recognized within the church for on-going study. Such programs have a very practical application to one’s setting.
In the first session, I took a class called, “People of the Land: Biblical Visions for Justice and Ecology”. The lessons learned there made their way into sermons, adult education, and most tangibly in a year-long environmental conversation within our parish about the impact our decisions at the church have on the world. Too often we point fingers at corporate polluters without examining our own role in the larger system. We instituted some waste reduction practices, got serious about recycling, and even had a beekeeper come make a presentation.
The second summer I had the privilege of learning from The Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner, a well-known author, speaker, and Professor at Duke University. Her class “Images of God in the Bible” may be the most impactful class or learning I have had in a long time. You can get the sense of our studies in her book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God. She had that special way of encouraging us to look at the world from a slightly different perspective, just enough to allow us to say, “Aha!” For me, this took the form of reexamining our foundational story at St. Martin’s Church- the encounter of Saint Martin with the beggar. Through this class, I established a fundamentally different outlook on the beggar as a homeless person.
Most people are unaware that Old Metairie is not hermetically sealed from urban issues like homelessness. Recognizing that a church that claims to stand in the spirit of Saint Martin, worked with our parish. We began to seek new ways to engage our neighbors, whether they had homes or not. With help from the Diocesan ECW and the generosity of our parishioners, we began a feeding ministry. It is modest; we offer free breakfast the last Sunday of each month. In addition to building up a sense of community within our own parishioners, it has also made us mindful of the myriad of God’s children who walk down Metairie Road every day. Along the way, we have learned a few things about ourselves but also about life on the margins in Jefferson Parish. First, there are no homeless shelters in the second most populace parish in our state. Let that sink in for a minute. Second, the transit system is not built for the convenience of the poor. The Metairie Road bus only runs 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. Monday-Friday, oh, and no holidays. Some of our guests have said they will return to breakfast when it cools off and they are able to walk considerable distances to get to our location. Slowly but surely we are looking at the world just a bit differently, hopefully with the eyes of Jesus.
Last and not least, this summer the Rev. Martin L. Smith, former monk of SSJE and author (The Word is Very Near You) taught “The Pastor and Spiritual Formation: Resources for the Craft of Spiritual Direction.” The basic assumption is that while parish clergy generally do not have the time to offer on-going individual spiritual direction in the classical sense, we can promote the practice through our preaching and teaching. Through conversations with our Sr. Warden, we decided to create a space within our regular Vestry meetings to do some group spiritual direction as a means of enhancing our regular Vestry work beyond best practices. We have just introduced the process and Vestry members are doing some work on their own in anticipation of our group work at the next regular meeting. It already seems like there will be some great group learning in the coming program year.
Between the classes mentioned above and the several preaching classes that have had a weekly impact, I can say this program has been the best of continuing education. Whether you are a cleric considering further study or a parishioner wanting to encourage your priest to participate, I hope you will investigate the various programs and pick the one that works for your ministry setting, for your family, and for you. It calls for a serious commitment over a long period of time, but I can honestly say I am so glad that I have begun this work. It has been life-giving for me and for our parish. God bless you.