Call and Community

Marcia Chanta Bhan was among 68 seminarians and their spouses and partners who attended the Success After Seminary (SAS) program offered by the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) and the Church Pension Group (CPG) last September in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A postulant for ordination from the Diocese of Massachusetts, she is completing a Diploma in Anglican Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary after a long journey from the Baptist church of her childhood and through evangelical congregations to find her home in the Episcopal Church.

An extended period of discernment

In many ways, Chanta has been moving toward her vocation for quite a long time, studying religion and working in spiritual, educational and healthcare fields. She began her studies at VTS with an MTS in World Religions from Harvard along with her MDiv from Harvard Divinity School. And she had 14 years of chaplaincy and counseling under her belt. “I was offered a position in hospice after finishing my MDiv” she says. “I wasn’t actively thinking about ordained ministry at the time, but saw it as God’s invitation to grow and develop pastoral skills.”

Two years after beginning her work with hospice, Chanta traveled to Pakistan, where her parents are from, to attend a wedding. She met an English priest there, a woman, whom she learned had been sent to Pakistan to provide sacramental care to women. In that gender-segregated society, where Christians are less than two percent of the population, male priests are not permitted to visit women in prisons and hospitals.

The priest assumed she was ordained because of her work as a hospice chaplain, and suggested that Chanta could take up her position there, when the priest returned to England. “I said, ‘Well, I would love to be able to do that but I am not ordained and I am not in the Anglican Communion,’” Chanta remembers. And the priest said she was going to pray that God changes that.

It marked a turning point for Chanta, who began to feel on her return to the U.S. that providing sacramental services to women and children in gender-segregated countries might offer “an amazing opportunity to serve in another country.”

Her current mainline denomination had begun to feel like the wrong fit for her because of its lack of focus on global issues, and she started attending Episcopal churches in the Boston area where she lives. She also began discussing discernment with the late Bishop Tom Shaw and the Right Reverend Barbara Harris, who met with her over a year. In her search for a church home, she attended high, broad and low Episcopal churches. “They expanded my awareness of the places where I could fit in, says Chanta. “I realized that I was not being called to a place that fits me, but to the place where God calls me.”

ECF and CPG team up to help equip students leaving seminary for challenges ahead

Funded by the Lilly Endowment’s National Initiative to Address the Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders, SAS is designed to provide students leaving seminary with information and resources that will help them address financial, administrative and practical issues — both personal and institutional — that they will confront as they begin their ministries.

“Looking back at the notes and resources from SAS,” says Chanta, “I am realizing how rich this was. We don’t like to talk about finance, and I’m so glad that people are putting this before us. Retirement accounts, elements that go into negotiating compensation when you receive a call, ways to manage seminary debt – and there are the resources we were given, like the Vestry Resource Guide. There’s not enough at seminary that covers this kind of material so SAS is a good complement to the seminary experience.”

SAS is a new partnership for ECF and CPG. “The Lilly grant has made it possible to expand from a simple dinner format to a longer conference that helps create relationships and brings seminarians up to speed about what ECF and CPG do,” says Adriane Bilious, ECF’s Director for Leadership. “It offers a better way to meet face-to-face, share stories and network. One of the things that is new is that spouses or partners are included in the invitation and have an opportunity to meet in separate breakout groups and get some help with the role they will have.”

The conference brings students from different seminaries and dioceses into a broader clergy community. “We were encouraged to have a cohort, to be collaborative and to support one another wherever we find ourselves working,” says Chanta. “We can all envision how easy it can be to compete, but it’s not a race to the finish line. CPG also showed us how the Episcopal Church is trying to be supportive of clergy and their families. They see compensation and pension as justice issues.”

Participants were encouraged to take care of themselves and their lives apart from their work in ministry. “Being faithful, attending to our prayer lives and our family lives was some of what I heard,” says Chanta. “There was also some concern about the trajectory and demographics of the Church, but that is something we hear in seminary a lot. There was talk, too, about financial health and other kinds of health – and about things like empowering lay leaders to contribute their skills and abilities to be the church, as well.”

In the past, most seminarians saw a straight line for their ministries – serve as an assistant in a parish, become a rector and who knows, maybe bishop some day. Adriane says that more and more she hears people looking creatively about the possibilities after they leave seminary. “We talk a lot about the stats, and they’re not getting pessimistic,” she says. “They’re seeing new possibilities to serve as ordained people.”

And while Chanta still regards the importance of women in gender-segregated countries seeing and receiving sacramental care from women, she says, “I’m seeing more opportunities now as I look around in the U.S., and I think that I’m very open to whatever comes next. I have never been in a situation where I’ve said this is exactly what I’m going to do. Every part of my journey has been about being open.”

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She was Director of Communications at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” now in its 24th year and published by Forward Movement.