The Rev. Carolyn Coleman presided over her first service as St. David’s new rector on Sunday, Oct. 16. Her arrival was a bit of a homecoming for the Nashville native who cut her spiritual teeth in the pews of Woodmont Baptist Church before heading to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to earn a degree in religious studies.
Since spending most of her adult years in Ohio, Massachusetts, California, and Maine (where she was ordained as an Episcopal canon pastor in 2007), she returned to Tennessee in 2010, subsequently leading the congregation at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Murfreesboro a year later. She completed her duties there on Oct. 2. Carolyn lives in Sylvan Heights with her family.
After accepting the call lead our parish, she took some time from her busy schedule to share her thoughts on St. David’s, her religious experiences, the new role as rector, and her personal life, which includes an ongoing battle with cancer.
Q: Has coming back to Nashville after 30 years been somewhat serendipitous for you, or has it been difficult? You traveled quite extensively since high school. Did you have a sense that you would eventually find your way back?
A: It’s a little bit of all of that. I had been uprooted in 6th grade, and it was very heart wrenching for me. I had a wonderful childhood here. And so, my whole life I had asked myself, ‘How can I get back to Tennessee?’ I really missed the mountains.
In 2007, I was ordained in Maine, had my second child in 2008, and my contract was up in 2010, so it was then I started looking for a position. When my then-husband accepted a job at Vanderbilt we moved here and I was really excited to be back.
It was hard to leave Maine because I had grown to love it — mainly because it was a lot like the Tennessee of my childhood… with an ocean. Even the winters were good. I loved the snow. I remember once cross-country skiing my way to Walgreen’s. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d ever get back to Nashville. As a matter of fact, in my closing sermon at the cathedral (in Portland, Maine) I said I feel like I’m one of those turtles going back to the beach of their birth.
Q: St. David’s has been blessed to some degree during our year-and-a-half search for a permanent rector in that our congregation largely has stayed together at a time when many churches are seeing a drop in membership. In your years at Holy Cross, you helped mend and grow a parish that had been decimated over the issue of gay clergy. Can you share some of that experience?
A: First of all, let me just saying that since interviewing for the position here I have heard on several occasions (from clergy) that St. David’s is the healthiest congregation in the Diocese. By congregational health, you all operate well together. You work together to fulfill your mission and are able to avoid the ‘in-fighting’ and the distractions. And it’s a beautiful thing. That was one of the things that were attractive about St. David’s to me.
Holy Cross’ history is marred by the split over the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. It was an event – on Jan. 1st, (2008), the Vicar got up and said ‘we are moving to our new church today. Grab everything you can carry, except for the hymnals and the BCPs (Book of Common Prayer).’ They physically took the Stations of the Cross off the walls, the chalice, and patens… So, seven people, one of whom was on the Mission Council (vestry), didn’t know this was coming and remained seated. They were blind-sided.
The trauma – psychologically in addition to spiritually – that was done will always be part of that church’s DNA. But that ‘seven’ grew, deciding the Vicar’s action was not the Episcopal way, and it is not Jesus’ way – Jesus welcomed everyone. So as a result, Holy Cross now has radical right-wing Tea Partiers sitting next to Libertarian lesbians that own guns sitting next to Emory-trained feminist paralegals sitting next to single-mothers. It is the gamut. I can probably count on two hands the number of cradle Episcopalians, and it wouldn’t be two full hands.
Even as the church welcomes everyone, the Bishop brought me in for a specific reason. His words to me were, “They are a mile wide in welcoming everyone, but an inch thick in terms of understanding their spiritual health.” They were so wounded and they felt good to be there, but that’s not all there is. I was brought in to bring a little administrative structure as well as grow them down rather than out.
Q: The ‘mile-wide, inch-thick’ concept is interesting. Where are we in that thinking?
A: Well, there are no Bibles in the pews; we hear it orally in church. It’s as if there’s no need to read it when we hear it all the time. But the Bible requires study.
The Episcopal Church is getting better about Bible study, getting much better about understanding where we get the ideas in the BCP that we do. We’re getting better at EFM (Education for Ministry), and we’re just getting better at talking about it.
Q: Is that something you plan to emphasize at St. David’s?
A: That’s one of the gifts I bring from the Baptist church (laughs). I can’t quote scripture; I’m not one of those, but the Bible is such a beautiful thing. There are amazing stories in it, and yes, I love to teach so if y’all are wanting to do things like that, I really want to do things like that. I think we should be doing things like that.
Q: How important is it to draw the link between scripture and what is happening currently in the world?
A: Very. Though I think it’s less important to find the scriptural parallel in those events. I think what’s more important is to see the broad stroke of what the Bible says about violence, about what answer you find on ‘the cross,’ about loving your neighbor.
So, how can we love our neighbor? If ‘love your neighbor’ is the answer to terrorism, how do we do that? Do we show up at an interfaith dialogue, do we take in a refugee family from Syria? How we can actually do that is, honestly, what I am most interested in. I love seeing the Bible in action, and seeing people literally put their money where their mouth is.
Q: You have studied and researched diversity issues, and have worked with diverse groups and congregations. St. David’s efforts at diversity have come in a few, small steps. Is diversification part of the Episcopal Church’s future?
A: In a ‘big picture’ way the Episcopal Church is becoming less ‘blueblood’ and more ‘on the ground,’ and I think it’s only a good thing. Young adults are looking for what the Episcopal Church has in terms of spiritual experiences — what it has to offer in terms of a place of quiet, and a place of predictability. Our liturgy offers that.
A lot of Episcopal churches have the problem of ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ And because of our predominantly white, educated, upper-middle class population there are some cultures and tastes that are often oft putting to people from other traditions. For example, if you have someone who grew up in the African-American Episcopal Zionist church come visit here, our very beautiful, very clean classical-style music here is not going to feel like home to that person who grew up bopping and hopping to gospel tunes in church. So there are ways where you can extend ‘welcome’ in other parts of the liturgy.
The Episcopal Church has four or five official hymnals but we only use one at St. David’s. While that is not a problem, it could translate into one for people who are welcomed here but might not feel at home. That sense of ‘I’m not at home’ gets in the way of spiritual growth and a wanting to get involved.
Q: You have described yourself as an introvert who is much better in one-on-one situations than in large groups, but you now have been called to a place where you have to stand up in front of a congregation every Sunday. Doesn’t that scare you?
A: That’s the great thing about preaching — nobody’s going to interrupt you (laughs). Some day I want to experience preaching in an African-American church where the congregation talks back to the preacher because I think there’s something really invigorating about that.
As far being scared, there’s a difference between being expected to be the life of the party and getting up in front of people and talking from the Lectern. I love the latter. I’m a little bit of a ham and really love the Sunday service and leading that. Some of my very favorite, fun, and meaningful moments are when everybody in church is on the same page with God on a Sunday morning. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Q: But as an introvert didn’t you have to venture out of your comfort zone to be able to deliver sermons?
A: Yes, definitely. But there’s a big difference between, say, a large crowd at the Renaissance Festival versus a big crowd at Easter. I really strive under structure, and I think that parties, for example, have no structure. I don’t do well there.
I was at a conference once and the hosts said ‘all the extroverts on this side of the room; introverts on that side of the room. Everyone then take out a piece of paper and write down all the things you like about parties.’ All the extroverts wrote ‘the food,’ ‘I love meeting new people,’ ‘dancing,’ ‘the music’ – that sort of thing. And on the introvert side, it was ‘the kitchen,’ ‘the bathroom,’ ‘the bookshelf.’ And I wrote down ‘saying goodbye’ (laughs).
Q: What can you share with St. David’s about your family life?
A: Well, I have two daughters – Iris, who’ll be 8 by the time we arrive, and Ava, who is very much an extrovert by the way, who’s 13. Ava plays cello; Iris piano. My husband left me in a magnificent crash-and-burn midlife crisis in 2013, and without getting into the details of that, let’s just say it was a pretty painful experience from which I am still recovering.
But, you know what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right? At the end of the day, the experience helps me help people.
Q: Your battle with cancer has taken a lot of your time and energy. How much of that are you planning to share with the congregation?
A: I have been, and plan to continue to be, transparent. I theoretically do not have cancer anymore, but I have not been declared cancer-free. Originally, I had three tumors removed. They were determined at the time to be what’s called ‘low-grade, slow-growth.’ However, when the final pathology report came back, the diagnosis was the exact opposite.
I had what I called ‘kudzu of the boob.’ And what I had was highly bizarre looking; it was a high grade of cancer, extremely fast growing. Because of that, my oncologist recommended that I go through chemotherapy in the event that one of the cells escaped. In five years, if they find a lesion somewhere, I want to know that I will have done everything that I could have done.
As for sharing, I’m not going to stand at the pulpit (and discuss it). This is something I will share if people ask me, likely in conversations like this. I know this is a weird thing to have a new rector come in just after chemotherapy. While I would love to come into St. David’s hopping and skipping, the truth is after weeks of chemo I’ll probably be limping a little bit.
Q: Was it frustrating to have two different reports like that?
A: Not really. I was relieved that I had the truth. But let me tell you: all this experience is a big pain in the neck. I had big plans this year. I was going to start running again; run a half-marathon. I did go out West on vacation with my daughters as planned after telling my oncologist, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’m going.’ He just said, ‘OK, I guess we’ll make it work’ (laughs). And I was going to have a big garden this year.
Q: I almost hate to ask, but are you at all concerned that this will affect your ability to lead the parish?
A: No, no, no. Mentally, I am not affected that much by any of it. In fact, this has been an exercise in comedy to be honest. I figured you can cry, wear lots of pink, or you can laugh about it – and that’s what I’ve chosen to do.
Where I sit now, I don’t expect it to hamper me. I tend to be a little bit of a watcher, so I imagine that for a long while I’ll be watching and getting to know people, understanding how relationships work, stuff like that. I am very much looking forward to coming here.
Interview was conducted Sept. 16, 2016 by Vincent Troia