Following an Open (and Unexpected) Path
It was a long walk down College Hill to St. James’ Episcopal Church in Clinton, but it was hardly the longest walk I would take in search of an Episcopal congregation; making my way south of the Mason-Dixon took a lot longer.
Most of my readers will not be considering careers in ordained ministry (Hamilton’s network of doctors, lawyers, and financiers is far more robust than its network of priests!). Therefore, I offer this reflection not as a pastor or as a nonprofit executive, but as someone whose career path has been a windy one that led to unexpected places.
I have wanted to be a priest in the Episcopal Church from as far back as I can remember. At Hamilton, I understood the priesthood as ministry similar to what I saw at St. James’. I expected to be the spiritual leader of a group of faithful people who had committed themselves to walking the road of life together. I expected to serve a congregation in the countryside, to lead worship on Sundays, to preach sermons, teach classes, and visit people in their homes. It would have been a good life.
In my junior year at Hamilton, I received a letter from my bishop letting me know that I was not going to be headed for seminary right after college. I was crushed. The bishop said “not yet,” but all I could hear was “no.” My dream, it seemed, had died. After a few years in a Manhattan cubicle, my Hamilton diploma hanging on the wall, and my graduation cane propped-up in the corner, I did find my way to seminary and onto ordained ministry.
Today, I find myself “walkin’ in Memphis,” the lead preacher and teacher for about 400 people every Sunday, and also the de facto executive director of a $1.8 million nonprofit organization, the manager of twenty employees, and a permanent trustee of a remarkable independent school that serves more than 800 girls, from age 2 to those in the 12th grade. I have always wanted to be a priest, but I never imagined what my priesthood would entail.
There is an old saying in theology: nothing is wasted. God takes every experience we have, every skill we acquire, and finds a way of putting it to work. The life I planned was good, but the life I live is a better fit for me. The challenge of rethinking my understanding of ministry has pushed me to work more creatively, to cultivate strengths that would otherwise have been hidden, and to know that the frontier of my capacity is pushing outward almost every day. I suspect that my freshman year neighbor in my Root dorm would say the same; he planned to be a cardiologist and is now a clinical psychiatrist.
I did not study religion at Hamilton. I figured that there would be time for theology in seminary, and there was. As an undergraduate, I followed my interests: government and economics, with a little geology thrown in for flavor. Seminary taught me what I need to know on Sunday; Hamilton taught me what I need to know on Monday (Professor Betsy Jensen showed me how to read a balance sheet). Professor Ted Eismeier insisted that I learn how to write clearly and concisely. Professor Cindy Domack trained me to be a keen observer of the world around me, and Professor Frank Anechiarico taught me how to analyze my observations.
I imagine a Hamilton senior or junior reading this blog in the hope of finding direction, wondering if she has chosen the right classes, hoping that he will find a job after graduation. For you, I offer words attributed to Dame Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well. All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.” You have learned more than you realize, and your knowledge will be used in ways that you cannot even imagine. What have I learned in my career? The road of life is long, and it takes unexpected turns. Regardless of your field, the key to success is being willing to follow the path of life as God opens it up before you, rather than insisting on the route you planned in advance.
Sandy Webb ’05 is a rector at the Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis, Tenn. At Hamilton he majored in economics and government.