St. Matthew’s interim rector finds a joyous parish

It might be fair to say that when she was young, others could see the Rev. Alon White’s vocation before she did. But embrace it she did, and today White is the interim rector at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on New Canaan Road.

In this position, which she began on Dec. 1, she will offer pastoral support as the congregation maps out who they are and the direction they want to take with a new permanent pastor.

It is a job for which there is a shortage of Episcopal priests, but White says she loves it.

She loves it for two reasons. First, she finds the differences and similarities among parishes fascinating. She enjoys moving into a new community and helping the congregation move forward.

Secondly, she gets to be a “priest,” which she is, of course, but in this position she can focus on the spiritual needs of a parish without worrying about things “like the roof and long-term financial stability.”

As is the process, White was suggested for the position by the bishop, and when she was interviewing with the parish team, she was asked how she saw her role as an interim.

“I said I go in and I tighten and I loosen,” White told The Bulletin last week. “I help make some structures work better and then shift some structures that may have been locked in place, that maybe they’ve outlived their usefulness. They are usually small tweaks but they have an impact on the life of the parish.”

Often during this interim period, a parish may make some changes. The congregation may ask, Who are they now, how do they want to change and who do they envision the leader to help them will be?

“The advantage of having an interim is they may have some of the gifts that the previous priest had and some different gifts, and it gives them a chance to say, ‘We really like the way this person does this, we really miss that we don’t have that anymore.’ And so then they can begin to articulate what they think is important in their priest,” White said.

Because the previous pastor’s departure was an amicable one — the Rev. Mary Grace Williams had been here for 15 years and was well loved — the parish at St. Matthew’s is excited “to go on a new adventure,” White said.

The process of finding a permanent pastor will take about a year, she said, and will get underway in January when a consultant will come to work with a parish transition team. There may be parish questionnaires or parish meetings. With the consultant, the team will put together a narrative profile of what the congregation seeks in a new leader. Once it gets the approval of vestry, the bishop and the consultant, it will go online nationally. Interested clergy may then contact the parish.

The priesthood

Next month, White will celebrate her silver anniversary as a priest.

Religion was not part of her upbringing as White grew up in California, so when she visited Europe during a semester off from college, and had some experiences in church sanctuaries, she did not know what to make of them.

Trying to make sense of it, when she came back to college she began visiting churches and enjoyed the Presbyterian church.

Living in San Francisco, when she finished college she started going to Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral “and I had more of that experience of not being able to articulate what was going on — being really moved, and struck and pulled, but not understanding.”

The Episcopal church teaches that anyone who is baptized may receive Communion, and there was one Sunday, she said, when she really wanted to partake in the sacrament.

“The usher, who ushered every week at that service, came up to me and said, ‘Don’t you want to receive Communion?’” She had been going to church for months and he had never spoken to her.

“I said, ‘Yes, but I haven’t been baptized,’ and he said, ‘It’s all right, it’s God’s table and anybody is welcome.”

She received Communion and right after the service signed up for the inquirer’s class, which is the class that helps adults learn what it is to be Christian in the Episcopal church and is how they enter the church. Then in her early 20s, she was baptized at the following Easter vigil.

She immediately became an acolyte and then became a secretary at the church. “Very few months after working there people began saying, ‘You’re going to be a priest,’ and I said, ‘No, not going to be a priest.’”

A cancer scare, which turned out to be unfounded, made her see “that everybody has a call from God. It’s not necessarily a religious position, but we all have work we are uniquely gifted, interested and trained for. And it may be something for which we get paid or it may not, but we all have a vocation.” And she decided it was something she had to figure out.

At the same time, she had begun studying for a master’s degree in business administration, and one of her classes was business ethics, “which in the 70s was how to figure out what you can get away with. And I was so shocked that I just stopped.”

Instead, she went off to a Jesuit university and got a degree in marriage and family counseling, avoiding making a decision about the priesthood.

After graduation she moved East and began working at a college where students approached her with spiritual questions. “And at the church I was going to people started to say, ‘You’re going to be a priest, aren’t you?’ And I was, ‘No, not.’”

But things just weren’t clicking in her life, and one day she drove to the beach, stopped the car, and said, “Fine, God, what do you want me to do?” Saying she was not hearing voices, it was still, “Be a priest.”

She wrestled with it for months, and made a “deal with God” to become an academic chaplain. She entered the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan and eventually became a chaplain there. She was there during 9/11 and she spent considerable time at ground zero working at the on-site morgue.

While in Manhattan she took a stand-up comedy class at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop. “My schtick was Rev. Bambi who was just very ditzy,” she said. She did that for quite some time, but after 9/11 she felt people needed to have a different image of clergy. She recalled how she would walk along the city streets in clergy clothes and people would come up to her and touch her for reassurance.

Although she was very gratified to work at ground zero, she was also happy to leave Manhattan. She began working as an interim pastor when the bishop asked her to fill in at a church in Westchester, and she found she really enjoyed the work. Since then, she has worked at parishes in New York and Connecticut, coming most recently from Riverside.

Of St. Matthew’s she said that this congregation feels “lighter” than others where she has served, and by that she does not mean lightweight, she means less gravitas. “Joy seems to bubble up more easily here,” she said. In other places she’s had to “train” the congregation that it is OK to laugh in church, but that is not an issue here.

Also, “every church describes themselves as warm and friendly places, and they are with each other,” she said. “I’m not sure how successful they are with others who are not familiar with the place.” But here, as the priest, she has certainly experienced that.

“The hospitality they showed in preparing the rectory was really amazing,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful and easy and happy and joyful entry.”

White also said she was happy to see there is a strong clergy group in town. “It’s been years since I’ve been in a setting like that,” she said. “It’s something I really value.

“When you’re having an interfaith conversation, the idea isn’t to persuade someone to believe something that they don’t, but to be a safe place where you can learn about each other,” she said. “And you can find those ways you can work together for the repair of the world, which is a very Jewish notion. … And I think that the world we’re in now, it’s really important. People are in isolated areas and they think about people different from them as ‘other’ and we need places where we can be together and different. … and find areas of commonality.”