Lifting up a New Priest in Navajoland

Seeing my student debt reduced is encouraging and validating as a new priest. This often-neglected community has a committed priest who is willing to walk with them for years instead of the short-term.

- The Rev. Michael Sells, 2018 MEF grant recipient.

During our Success After Seminary events, held in collaboration with the Church Pension Group, it became apparent that the seminary debt of our seminarians was a potential negative impact on the financial well-being of the participants as they moved into parish ministry. In response to an articulated need, the Episcopal Church Foundation developed another approach to its Lilly National Initiative Ministerial Excellence Fund (MEF) grants with the remaining $34,500 in our budget. In 2018, ECF awarded seven matching grants. The Reverend Michael Sells was one such recipient. As he writes,

I accepted the call to the [San Juan Mission All Saints] because I saw amazing things happening in the area mission like soap making, bee keeping, sustainable farming, and empowering the local congregation. Moreover, I felt a deep call to serve this mission that previously served my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and the surrounding communities for over a hundred years. By reducing my student debt, I feel able to return to this sacred place after seminary and connect more deeply to my Navajo heritage. I think it’s rare for a Navajo college graduate with a bachelor’s degree to work as a mission vicar. However, when I volunteered at the Community Legal Services and worked at the Navajo Nation, I thoroughly enjoyed my work. I figured I would combine my two passions as priest in this area mission.

Empowerment and investment rather than fly-by charity

In our Navajo tradition, young people are adopted as grandchildren by community elders. The elders here have waited a long time for one of their “grandchildren” to serve as their priest. Through the MEF grant, I can now fulfill this dream and transmit hope to my community. As for myself, it was financially risky for me to change my career but my call to ordained ministry was a constant in my heart. It took a leap of faith to remember that God will provide. Having a “grandson” serve the community is now more empowering to us as people see an Indigenous person serving this community. For over one hundred years, missionary work has been done for the people rather than investing in the community to enable them to make decisions for themselves. The church is moving toward empowering the poor, orphans, and widows through innovative mission work rather than the often-frequent model of providing charity when it benefits the giver and moving on.

Reality of accepting a call to an oft-neglected Mission

Realistically, this mission cannot afford to pay a priest’s typical salary, despite the need for pastoral care in the community due to the mission’s long-standing place in the community. Because All Saints’ cannot provide a liveable wage, the turn-over rate among leaders over the years has deeply affected the congregation’s outlook and stunted their growth. The impact of this turn-over is great since this church often provides a last resort for people suffering with chronic unemployment or alcoholism in the community. The All Saints mission is a place where individuals seek meaning during periods of turmoil and confusion as they often return to the church for burials and alms. Over the years, a high turn-over rate of priests has caused a decline in membership. Often, former members will stop by the office to ask about a former priest who served the congregation, showing the important place this Mission holds in the community. Hopefully a little stability will provide a foundation for a future self-sustaining congregation. It is disappointing to see a priest who the community has grown attached to leave the congregation because of a lack of funding, rather than a lack of interest. Most people who come to the mission are unemployed, work part-time, retired, or receive social security income. As a new priest, I did not expect the realities of my new vocation to be so challenging. I want the congregation to see that generosity is possible even with a mission vicar’s salary. I now feel I can put my whole heart into my vocation without worrying about my own financial security. Our community now has great stability.

Renewed energy and looking to the future

This grant has renewed my energy with my call and vocation to the priesthood. I have been able to serve with less anxiety about my own decision to follow my call with a little more financial security. I have more freedom to follow my call at this mission where I currently serve. As a new priest there are doubts about whether I made the right decision. Your confidence in me has fueled my confidence in my call. This optimism allows me to be fully present with the congregation. I do not have to strategize about my next career move to pay the bills. I can serve faithfully without reservations. I can listen to the congregation and work toward it becoming self-sustaining. I will continue to pray that this congregation will have quality pastoral care without me taking an additional job to pay off my student loans. With the additional financial flexibility, there is more room to take risks and experiment with different outreach programs rather than focusing efforts primarily on pledging individuals. I feel I have greater freedom to serve the poor, orphans, and widows in our community. Furthermore, I can continue to serve the All Saints congregation which is unable to provide me with a median salary. Seeing my student debt reduced is encouraging and validating as a new priest.

Now our often-neglected community has a committed priest who is willing to walk with them for many years to come. I can now see the possibility of following my vocation and a call to serve vulnerable community members with hope and optimism. This grant allows me to continue to serve the church with optimism knowing that there is hope for both of our futures. With the grant I can serve with more optimism rather than despair about both our financial futures.